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The Making of Anna Karenina

Interviews with the screenwriter and the star

Allan Cubitt, screenwriter | Helen McCrory, starring as Anna

Allan Cubitt Allan Cubitt is known to fans of Masterpiece Theatre for his spellbinding Helen Mirren dramas Prime Suspect and Painted Lady, and also for The Countess Alice, a deeply romantic tale about a family secret buried in an East German graveyard. Now he combines gripping narrative with unbridled romance in a new, strikingly modern adaptation of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Though written in the 1870s, Anna Karenina didn't need much modernizing, says Cubitt. "Tolstoy's understanding of human nature and the human condition is incredibly profound, and it seems very modern when you read it today." This timelessness accounts for the book's reputation as perhaps the greatest novel of all time. Cubitt is finding it hard to leave literary Russia behind: He is now at work on a play about a historic meeting of Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Maxim Gorky at a Black Sea resort in 1901. He recently talked about the honor and challenge of committing Anna Karenina to film.

Anna Karenina is often called the greatest novel ever written. Do you share that assessment?

Yes, I think it might well be. The only reason I hesitate is that I haven't read it in the original Russian. Inevitably, you're so dependent on translations under these circumstances, and the translations are not the novel. But even in translation, [Tolstoy] is clearly an absolute master.

I've read several different translations, and I've just started a new one. I suppose it's my way of trying to get closer to the original. Tolstoy is indisputably great. One of the things that needed to happen for me to be able to write the screenplay was I had to get up off my knees from worshipping this man's genius.

What approach did you take?

I wanted to do something that had the capacity to speak directly to a modern audience about their lives, their love affairs, or their difficult marriages, and not to make a piece that is enjoyable simply because it shows how people used to live. That said, I wasn't necessarily modernizing the story, because Tolstoy already made it very modern.

His ability to render character through mannerism and gesture, and his ability to convey the intensity of relationships, makes him seem very modern to me. It's amazing how profound his grasp of psychology was, given that he was pre-Freudian.

What happens to Anna psychologically that plunges her into her disastrous affair with Vronsky?

From the moment that she loses herself with Vronsky at the ball, she is awakened to her passion. Her relationship with her husband, Karenin, had probably been almost sexless for the decade since the birth of their son. But she doesn't have any sense that she is unhappy or dissatisfied until Vronsky walks into her life. In that moment, she realizes what she has been missing, though she still does her utmost to resist. The way Tolstoy presents it, their relationship is doomed from the start -- hence the man who falls under the train and is crushed to death at the point that they meet. In the book, Anna says it's an evil omen, but I don't tip off the audience to that extent.

What is going on in Vronsky's soul?

He is a man who has clearly never had a proper love prior to meeting Anna. He is very wedded to his military life, to his friends, to his mother. Then he falls in love for the first time. I think the way in which they fall in love -- and one of the reasons why we go for perhaps a more carnal version of Anna and Vronsky in the film -- is that their love is primarily carnal. Interestingly, almost every time there's a major argument between Anna and Vronsky, Tolstoy describes him kissing her, holding her, wiping away her tears. He takes them to the point where, in a more modern novel, they would probably make love each time.

But Tolstoy couldn't go there....

No, not with the censorship at that time. But all the indications are there. Knowing how powerful Tolstoy's sexuality was, from diaries and biographical material, it seems to me that sex was very much what he was writing about.

Were you influenced by previous adaptations of the novel?

None of them worked for my money, and that was largely because they had failed to play out the Kitty-Levin relationship, which is so crucial to the novel. The temptation is to focus on Anna and Vronsky, but the strength of the novel is in how it explores these other relationships as well: Kitty and Levin, Dolly and Oblonsky, Anna and Karenin. Of course, Levin is crucial, apart from anything else, because he has so much of Tolstoy's own personality and outlook, so it seemed crazy not to have him at the center of it.

Some of the characters in the film, Oblonsky in particular, seem very different from the way they're portrayed in the book. Was this deliberate?

For the most part, yes. The thing I wanted to avoid with Oblonsky was making him too much of a buffoon. Oblonsky in the book is perhaps not as strong a character as I tried to make him in the screenplay. There's a crucial scene where he goes to Karenin to ask him, finally, to give his sister a divorce. In the book, he's also asking Karenin to sponsor him in some scheme to get another job. That is brilliantly complex in the pattern of the novel, but dramatically it would make Oblonsky a lot less sympathetic than I wanted him to be in the film. I suppose I've dignified my Oblonsky a bit, but he's still the man who goes duck shooting and eats wonderful food and loves being in the countryside but says that he can't really live there, because what do you do all day?

Are there aspects of Anna Karenina that Tolstoy doesn't quite pull off?

The only thing that is under-motivated for me is Vronsky's suicide attempt. Tolstoy doesn't make it very clear why Vronsky does it. Vronsky is obviously humiliated that Karenin doesn't challenge him to a duel, which would be the normal thing for a wronged husband. Karenin rationalizes it in his own mind by convincing himself that he's too important to Russia to go around challenging people to duels. Anna's interpretation is that Karenin is a coward, which is probably true. For Vronsky's part, he would be much happier if Karenin took a shot at him. He would then fire his own pistol in the air, and that would expunge the humiliation, and he would feel very much better. It's almost in that spirit that he shoots himself in the book, because Tolstoy says he feels better afterwards. What's odd is that it's hardly mentioned again, either as something that's a physical problem for Vronsky or indeed an emotional problem for him and Anna.

How did you deal with it?

I tried to strengthen Vronsky's sense of rejection prior to attempting suicide. There's that marvelous moment after Anna has delivered Vronsky's child, when she seems to be asking Karenin to forgive Vronsky. At that point, she seems to be reconciled with Karenin. Karenin then goes to Vronsky and says: "Listen, I'm going to stay with her. It's what she wants. It's what I want." Then I added that little moment when Vronsky comes away and sees his child being breastfed by the wet nurse. It always worried me that if Vronsky has a new baby, what's he doing shooting himself? I tried to make it clear that he doesn't feel the baby is his. Legally it belongs to Karenin.

Anna Karenina seems a very unusual book for its time, and also for Tolstoy.

Very unusual. Tolstoy called it his first novel. He didn't consider War and Peace to be a novel at all. The story is that he was working on a big historical epic about Peter the Great and he picked up a volume of Pushkin stories. One of them began: "The guests were arriving at the country house." Tolstoy thought how wonderful it was to plunge straight into the action. Around the same time, there was an Anna-like figure -- the mistress of a local landowner -- who killed herself by throwing herself under a train. Tolstoy attended the inquest and was affected deeply. He gave up his Peter the Great book and started on a story about contemporary life, inspired by the storytelling style of Pushkin and the inexplicable tragedy of this woman.

Allan Cubitt, screenwriter | Helen McCrory, starring as Anna

Essays + Interviews:
The Roots of the Story | The Making of Anna Karenina
Tolstoy's War with Love | The Woman Question

Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A Tolstoy Timeline
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