February 15, 2013

There will be no peace for us: How 'Anna Karenina' compares from book to film

For anyone who loves a good period drama, Anna Karenina is an unavoidable rite of passage. It is the ultimate story all-consuming, bodice-ripping love affair, complete with ballrooms, gowns and marriage proposals.

The central characters of the Leo Tolstoy’s 1873-7 novel (originally published in instalments) could outwit and out-rival any of the other great literary love stories. In comparison to Anna and her Count Vronsky, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy appear devoid of passion; Catherine and Heathcliff sensible and sane; and the fate of Romeo and Juliet seems somewhat incident-free.

Anna and Vronsky have an “oppressive love” that takes over their entire lives. It is a desperate, intense, self-sacrificing, unsettled, self-conscious and uncertain love.

The parallel love story within the novel could not be more opposite. Levin and Kitty are sensitive, tender, genuine and considerate. Where Anna and Vronsky fall, Levin and Kitty rise above, and they provide the novel with a much-needed reality check whenever Anna and Vronksy become too exhaustively dramatic.

What I loved in Tolstoy’s novel was its willingness to take the reader beyond the rooms of the ladies and into the lives of the men – inside the regiments, the private meetings, and the business deals, where the full opulence of Russian Imperial society is in plain view.

The vodka is flowing, the oysters are in abundance, the weather is unforgiving, and the characters are more cunning and daring than any Austen villain would ever dream – or any Bronte for that matter.

Everything in Anna Karenina is lavish, opulent, decadent and dripping with excess. I suppose it was with this in mind that Joe Wright decided to turn the novel into a full-scale, over-stylised theatrical production.

Each scene of the film takes place on a literal stage, with the camera constantly zooming in and out to reveal landscapes and steeplechases, sitting rooms and boudoirs. The film looks as though it could be the fourth instalment in Baz Luhrmann’s Red Carpet Trilogy with its deep red hues, drawn-back curtains and Moulin Rouge style dancers.

Visually, the colour and style of the film was impressive, but I found it difficult to immerse in the story when its characters were either frozen like statues or popping in and out of the frame like marionettes.

Tolstoy’s novel states:

“The role of a man who attached himself to a married woman and devoted his life to involving her in adultery at all costs, had something beautiful and grand about it and could never be ridiculous.”

I’m afraid to say, that’s exactly what Wright did with this film. He made it look ridiculous.

I wanted to be taken over, and to feel just a fraction of Anna and Vronsky’s desperation to be with each other – but it was difficult to take them seriously when everyone and everything was twirling around like a scene from Strictly Ballroom.

Actually, speaking of ballroom, the dancing scene was the only time that I became completely engrossed in this film.  The choreography was incredible. It was entrancing the way the arms of the lovers twirled and entwined, in a beautiful, complicated, swan-like manner.

Keira Knightley was acceptable as Anna, but I feel as if she has done one too many period dramas. Compared with her performance in prior roles such Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, King Arthur and The Duchess, all I could see that was different in Anna Karenina were the unruly curls in her hair.

Aaron Johnston did pull me in as Vronsky – those blonde curls next to a sky blue coat that brought out the same colour in his eyes was all very dapper. And Jude Law was barely recognisable as the snivelling Karenin.

The size of Tolstoy’s epic novel can be intimidating, but all I can say is pick it up and give it a go. The chapters are short and digestible and before you know it, you will be hooked.

There is so much in Anna Karenina that is superfluous – the excessive farming, and the politics, and the intellectualisations – which, thankfully, Wright saved us from. However, there was one essential part of the story that I felt was missing.

Essentially, Tolstoy’s novel is about the meaning of life – and equally, the lack of meaning in life. There are constantly questions of existence and purpose, existence and purpose, as Anna and Levin and Vronsky and even Karenin struggle to understand the meaning of their own existence.

In the film, all that we are offered is Anna’s selfishness and insanity, without even a glimpse of what happens to Vronksy in the end. When the credits rolled, it all seemed rather pointless really.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 3/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 3/5

Total score: 6/10

Book or Big Screen? Book

February 10, 2013

All alone, half eaten by an Alsatian: How ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ compares from book to film

It feels strange to be doing this review process the odd way around… To be reading a book that is based on a film that I love – and have been watching ritualistically for years (alternating with Love Actually) every time I feel a little down and need a pick-me-up.

I must admit, I braced myself to be disappointed. I didn’t think that Helen Fielding’s 1996 book, no matter how brilliantly funny, could possibly meet my expectations. Renee Zellwegger’s paunchy, pouty Bridget Jones face was just too firmly engrained in my mind.

So it was with a sigh of relief that I read the first page, and laughed out loud. Already it was clear: here is the story that I love, here are the characters, just in the bound-paper form!

From Bridget’s lamentations about “emotional fuckwits” and “smug marrieds”, to her mother’s insistence that the Japanese are a “very cruel race” – it was all there, and all so familiar.

Sure, the film did take make some small, creative tweaks: Mark Darcy’s reindeer jumper, for example, originated in the book as a “v-neck, diamond-patterned in shades of yellow and blue”; Bridget is not forced to dress like a carpet at Una Alconbury’s Turkey Curry Buffet; and Bridget’s Mum’s foray into television is not on the home-shopping network.

In a larger and more significant sense, Bridget’s relationships are slightly different in the book. For one, she has much more time to be duped by Daniel’s “emotional fuckwittage.”

Tin the book they had a first date debacle, where she walked out and left him high and dry; their much-famed mini-break was achieved after much complaining on Bridget’s behalf; and they spent many boring Sundays watching cricket, and even meeting some of Daniel’s friends, before it all ended when she found the other woman sprawled naked on a sun lounger on the rooftop terrace.

The parallels with Pride and Prejudice are also much more apparent in the book. For starters, Bridget makes this very obvious comparison:

“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.”

The film left out an entire saga about Bridget’s Mum getting caught up in a timeshare apartment swindle, which led Mark Darcy to rush over to Portugal and stage a Lydia and Wickham-style save the day. But in its place, the film introduced Mark’s back-handedly complimentary speech (which is reminiscent of Mr Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth) and the Wickham-like confusion over whose fiancĂ©e/ wife slept with who. (Although Daniel’s betrayal did originate in the book, Bridget only learns of it from Mark on page 236).

Some sections of the book are played out perfectly in the film. The blue soup, for example, was almost word-for-word Fielding. No wonder then that Bridget Jones’s Diary turned into such a hilarious film, with many of its funniest lines just waiting to be lifted from the page.

Fielding brilliantly gave Bridget the habit of leaving out the A’s and I’s – which makes it feel more authentically like you are really reading her diary, which was at times only shoddily half-written as she was running out the door, or when drunk. Watching the film back, it’s obvious now that the filmmakers carefully replicated this feature in Zellwegger’s narration.

In comparison to the book, Zellwegger’s Bridget does come across a little more lovable. She is softer, and perhaps fluffier around the edges than Fielding’s Bridget, who can at times be very bitter and cynical.

On the whole, though, the film is very faithful. And, despite how biased I may seem, I would even go so far to say that any changes in the film only served to enhance the original.

Hear me out!

First of all, how perfect was the decision to cast both Colin Firth and Hugh Grant when BOTH are referred to by name by Bridget in the book?!

Secondly, it is my firm belief that a good adaptation should be respectful of the original, but not be a slave to it. Through the wonders of cinema, the film Bridget Jones’s Diary was able to introduce some new and exciting elements, which took the author’s perceived intentions and gave them a little pizzazz!

These new additions, which I see as improvements to the original, include:

  • Bridget’s drunk, mimed rendition of ‘All by myself’ in her pyjamas.
  • The decision to make Tom the 80’s pop icon who “sang that song”.
  • The montage of Bridget flouncing around the office in her succession of mi-skirts and see-through tops.
  • Reciting poetry with Daniel in the rowboats.
  • The soundtrack – in particular ‘R.E.S.P.E.CT’ when she storms out of the office.
  • Mark’s fight with Daniel, again with the help of the song ‘It’s raining men’.
  • The pants-less kissing of Mark in the snow, and the will-they-wont-they drama right at the end.
  • And last, but not least, Bridget’s “scary stomach holding-in pants”.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 5/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 5/5

Total score: 10/10

Book or Big Screen? Big Screen