Let's face it: We don't all have the time or patience to read Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," a sprawling 800 page novel about adultery, Russian society and the joys of farming. That's what the movie version is for!
"Anna Karenina" has been adapted for the big screen multiple times over the last century, but now director Joe Wright's latest spin on Tolstoy's novel is hitting theaters with Keira Knightley in the lead role. Because it really isn't possible to cram over 800 pages into an 130 minute movie, some cuts and changes naturally had to be made.
So in case you didn't minor in Russian literature, here's a handy guide to the major differences between Tolstoy's novel and Wright's film.
Be warned! 140-year-old spoilers follow!
1. Anna and Levin
Despite being the title character, Anna is one of two protagonists in the book. You might be surprised to learn that a good chunk of "Anna Karenina" isn't even about Anna. Half of the book follows the trials of the farmer Konstantin Levin (played by Domhnall Gleeson in the film). Levin's slow courtship of Kitty serves as an important contrast to Anna's torrid romance with Count Vronsky, but his role is expanded in the novel. We follow his life working on his farm, his experiences in Russian politics, his relationships with his brothers, his wedding to Kitty and the dramatic birth of their first child.
Anna has the more interesting and scandalous plot though, so naturally she gets more screen time. Levin is often considered a stand-in for Tolstoy himself, as many of the details about the character also match the author. Anna and Levin are only connected through their mutual acquaintances and they meet only once in the book. In the film, they briefly pass by each other but otherwise never meet again.
2. Location, Location, Location
Much of the film takes place inside an old, dilapidated theater. Tolstoy's novel took a realistic approach by featuring characters act according to societal norms and discussing real-life events. The film's shift to the theater setting allows for a highly stylized interpretation of the book's events that plays up the drama. The change helps to realize the novel's ideas about characters having to perform their assigned roles in public and what happens when they fail to do so. Also, the film's few scenes set outdoors suggest the freedom that a life living off the land provides that one living in the city does not.
3. Kitty's Transformation
Kitty takes Vronsky's rejection a lot harder in the book. Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is understandably hurt after being rejected by Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but in the book she becomes so devastated that her family takes her to a health spa in Germany in order to recuperate. There she meets a young woman named Varenka who inspires Kitty to become a more charitable person. The spa trip gives us more insight into Kitty's character, but it takes a lot of the focus away from Anna, so it's understandable why it was nixed.
4. Love and Marriage
Anna and Karenin show a bit more affection in the film. Just a bit. In the book, Karenin first appears only after Anna has met Vronsky. When Anna sees her husband again, she is repulsed by him, and from that point on she has no interest in him at all. The film implies that their relationship is a little more complex by suggesting that some feelings of love still exist between them. Jude Law's sympathetic performance as Karenin ensures that we don't think of him as a villain preventing Anna's happiness. Only after Anna and Vronsky's romance intensifies does Anna push Karenin away.
5. Mama's Boy
Anna loves her son, but is indifferent toward her daughter. In the film, Anna gives birth to Vronsky's daughter Anya, but the child mostly disappears after that. One of the story's major conflicts is the sacrifice Anna makes by giving up her son to be with her lover. While the film does illustrate Anna's love for her son, it leaves out Anna's feeling that she does not love her second child as much as her first. Anna already comes across as selfish in the film, so adding that she doesn't love her kid might have made her seem even less sympathetic.
6. Skipping the Serious Stuff
Tolstoy's characters are very informed about societal issues. Throughout the novel, various characters have lengthy discussions about education reform, proper farming, city vs. rural life, the rights of workers, elections, religion and a myriad of other topics. While it does offer a greater insight into the societal values of late 19th century Russia, capturing all of it on film would have slowed things down considerably and taken away from the steamy love affair.
7. All About Anna
After Anna's fateful leap in front of the train, the book stomps along on for another 50 pages. "Anna Karenina" features one of the most memorable, tragic endings in literature, but the final section of the book mostly disregards Anna to focus on Levin's family life and his existential crisis of faith. The film captures a bit of Levin's self-realizations, but it doesn't place nearly as much emphasis on him as on Anna's death. Anna's suicidal leap is just more climactic and exciting than Levin's personal revelation while farming.
Bonus: The film offers a mini "Downton Abbey" reunion! Not really a difference from the novel, but "Downton Abbey" fans will be pleased to see Michelle Dockery and Thomas Howes together in the film as acquaintances of Anna and Vronsky.