The many lives of Anna Karenina

Actresses to play Anna include Greta Garbo (with Fredric March).
Actresses to play Anna include Greta Garbo (with Fredric March).

Glamour, adultery, and sex never get old. Neither do love triangles, the sturdiest of all plot devices. That helps to explain why the passionate heroine of Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina” — published in Russia 134 years ago — has seduced so many film directors, composers, choreographers, dancers, actors, even fashion designers. Willful and wealthy, vivacious and aristocratic, Anna combines sex appeal with maternal devotion, against an exotically snowy backdrop of doomed czarist opulence.

Vivien Leigh in Alexander Korda's 1948 version of "Anna Karenina."

Bearded seer Tolstoy could never have guessed that one day Banana Republic would launch an Anna Karenina clothing collection. Or that Oprah Winfrey would select the novel for her television book club.

Even the raging moralist Tolstoy (1828-1910) was won over by Anna’s charms. He considered her behavior — she abandons her son for her lover — sinful, but Tolstoy still made Anna increasingly sympathetic in five succeeding drafts. Tolstoy, of course, had plenty of issues around fidelity and suffered acute guilt over his own adulterous sexual urges. In the end, he made Anna vastly more appealing than the two men who destroy her: a cold bureaucrat husband and an opportunistic cavalry officer. Tolstoy does punish Anna, of course. Badly. But not before making us all fall in love with her, too.


“Anna Karenina” has inspired operas, ballets, musicals, radio plays, and nearly 30 films and television series. The first film adaptation appeared in Russia just four years after Tolstoy’s death. A year later, Fox Film Corporation shot the first American “Anna,” starring Danish actress Betty Nansen. It flopped, along with Nansen’s film career. But in 1927, the Swedish vamp Greta Garbo proved that Anna could make it on the silver screen. Surely it helped that Garbo’s real-life boyfriend John Gilbert took the role of Anna’s lover Vronsky. Together they generated enough “Heat” (that was the film’s original title, later changed to “Love”) to make the story work. Worried that Tolstoy’s ending (spoiler alert: she throws herself under a train) would be a bummer, cautious MGM executives supplied an alternative happy one reuniting the lovers after the hateful husband’s death. Theaters could choose which one to show; most went for happy ever after.

Keith Hamshere/Warner Bros.
Sophie Marceau (with James Fox).
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Garbo reprised the role of Anna for MGM in a 1935 sound film that returned to Tolstoy’s title. This time, Fredric March played Vronsky, although velvet-voiced Basil Rathbone acted him right off the screen as Karenin, Anna’s chilly and aloof spouse. By this time Garbo was already associated with Russian roles, such as the temperamental ballerina Grusinskaya (“I vant to be alone!”) in “Grand Hotel” (1932). For Hollywood casting directors, accents were fairly interchangeable, and Garbo’s Swedish accent sounded plenty Russian — in English, at least. Most of the cast members speak in upper-class British, since Hollywood producers believed that imitating hoity-toity British manners bestowed the aura of Russian aristocratic life.

In adapting Tolstoy’s novel, director Clarence Brown and his screenwriters struggled to overcome the new limitations imposed by the prudish censorship enforced by the Production Code Administration (PCA). Legendary producer David Selznick complained to the PCA, “I don’t know how love scenes can be played, particularly in a story of this kind, without physical contact.” Indeed. The battle with the censors cast a pall over the filming, and marred the underheated finished product. Onscreen together, Garbo and March seem like strangers.

But languid Garbo, her eyelashes fluttering under luxurious fur hats, her lovely hands swathed in muffs, rescues the film. Her impetuous Anna is mystical, fatalistic, moody, and flirtatious. A keening musical score compiled from Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits yanks at the heartstrings.

Nine years after starring as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” Vivien Leigh took a stab at Anna in a high-toned 1948 production adapted by a team of writers that included French playwright Jean Anouilh. Gloomy and talky, this black-and-white version feels confined and cerebral, without the biological and physical force that propels Tolstoy’s novel. Leigh misses the playfulness and sparkle in Anna’s character. And the crucial train scenes use a toy model belonging in a cartoon.


In 1967, USSR’s Mosfilm Studios released a lavishly expensive, epic “Anna Karenina” shot on location in Russia that finally supplied the dynamic authenticity lacking in earlier versions. Veteran Alexander Zarkhi directed, in lush color with close attention to period detail. Enchanting Tatiana Samoilova, famous for her starring role in the classic 1957 war film “The Cranes Are Flying,” glows as Anna, with exotic looks and trembling vulnerability. This version (currently unavailable) would be better known if the 1968 Cannes International Film Festival where it was to be screened had not been canceled due to student riots in France.

The first American “Anna Karenina” shot in Russia was directed by Bernard Rose in 1997, with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean displaying plenty of white flesh in the seduction scene. Helen McCrory starred as Anna in a critically acclaimed drawing-room style series released for television by PBS and Channel Four in Britain in 2001. The less said about some other versions — like a 1985 TV movie featuring Jacqueline Bisset as Anna and Christopher Reeve as Vronsky — the better. Even Anna had better taste than to fall for Superman.

Harlow Robinson can be
reached at harlo@