Archive for the ‘Film adaptations’ Category

Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) and Emily (Laura Fraser) in later confrontation (2004 BBC/WBGH, scripted Andrew Davies)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Seven Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
April 11 to May 23
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody


Description of Course

In this course we will read one of Trollope’s most powerful long novels, He Knew He Was Right, a candid and contemporary analysis of sex and marriage, as well as of custody and women’s rights. The novel includes seven couples, with themes that explore sexual anxiety, possession, business transactions, and insanity. It contains tragedy, farce, comedy, and romance, and has been brilliantly adapted in a BBC miniseries scripted by Andrew Davies. We’ll also read Trollope’s short story “Journey to Panama,” about a woman sailing to marry a man she doesn’t know, a common practice in the era, and the relationship she forms on board with a single male tourist traveler.

Required Texts:

Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
—————-, “Journey to Panama,” online at Adelaide University. Also available in Anthony Trollope, Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherlan. NY: Oxford UP, 1994 (this is the best edition); or Anthony Trollope: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Julian Thompson NY: Carroll & Graf, 1992 (this is the complete and best buy); or Anthony Trollope, Lotta Schmidt and other Stories. Facsimile of original edition online at Adelaide.

Arabella French (Fenella Woolgar) and Rev Gibson (David Tennant), one of the many scenes based on original illustrations (2004 HKHWR)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

April 11th: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; the state of the law and customs surrounding marriage, child custody, sexual relationships in the mid-19th century. Colonialist marriages abroad. Read ahead for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 1-15

April 18th: 2nd week: read for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 16-31

April 25th: 3rd week: HKHWR, Chapters 32-48: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 2nd: 4th week: HKHWR, Chapters 49-65

May 9th: 5th week: HKHWR, Chapters 66-81

May 16th: 6th week: HKHWR, Chapters 82-97: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 23rd: 7th week: HKWR, Chapters 98-99, “Journey to Panama” Modernity of novel?

A romantic 19th century illustration of emigration

Suggested supplementary reading & film:

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993.
Herbert, Christopher. He Knew He Was Right, and the Duplicities of Victorian Marriage,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 25 (1981):449-69.
He Knew He Was Right. Dir. Tom Vaughn. Script: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Oliver Dimsdale, Laura Fraser, Bill Nighy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Christina Cole, Ron Cook, Anna Massey. BBC Wales/WBGH, 2004. 4 Part Adaptation
Jones, Wendy. “Feminism, fiction and contract theory: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right,” Criticism 36 (2004):41ff.
Kohn, Denise. “‘The Journey to Panama’: One of Trollope’s Best ‘Tarts’ – or, Why You Should Read ‘The Journey to Panama’ to Develop Your Taste for Trollope,” Studies in Short Fiction, 30:1 (Winter 1993):15-22
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989.
Moody, Ellen. “Epistolary & Masculinity in Andrew Davies’ Trollope Adaptations,” Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, edd. James Leggott & Julie Anne Taddeo. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Wagner, Tamara, ed. Victorian Settler Narratives. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.

Emily and Col Osborne (Bill Nighy) as imagined? by Louis (2004 HKHWR)


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Dear friends,

It’s not quite been like a UHaul, but it has taken a couple of weeks since I needed instruction and help and the actual transition was done by a remarkably generous digital expert at groups.io. I have been busy this last few days moving three lists from the continually deteriorating Yahoo groups social platform, to groups.io. In the last three years and accelerating when Verizon bought Yahoo, all the software on the social platform of yahoo groups has been debased and then increasingly ignored so that outages, glitches and endless individual problems go unfixed. Sometimes the whole group site vanishes for a time. And not even a boilerplate message explaining what has happened and if anything is being done. There is nowhere to ask a question or for a live individual to help. As the demise of net neutrality sinks in and brings changes based on commercial considerations of the largest profit, at any time Verizon could leave the yahoo groups vanished.

So rather than wait when it will be too late to retrieve archives, like others with communities at Yahoo who care about one another and their shared experiences, we’ve moved to groups.io. This is a new social platform run by Mark Fletcher, who invented the original ONElist, morphed it into egroups, sold it to Yahoo, come back to rescue this specific kind of experience. Among the astonishing attractions of groups.io is you can have its basic services for free, and they transferred the archives, all postings, all photos, all files (essays and whatever). A group’s identity is centered in its memory, which means its history. This the new site preserves.

Email groups are not obsolete. They still offer a kind of closed community interaction, which allows for longer messages, and encourages replies and relationships among the people posting much more frequent and much stronger than is found on blogs, face-book and other large anonymously-directed venues.

So very satisfied by what has happened, as I gather are many other Yahoo groups who moved there (I don’t have firm statistics for how many), this evening I thought I’d tell all the readers of this blog who are interested in Trollope and (a liberally defined) Nineteenth Century (1815-1914); Long Eighteenth Century studies, which I now expanded from just the terrain of the Enlightenment itself to historical fiction, romance and film (1660-1815); and women writers, artists of all kinds in all countries, all ages, and women’s issues; that the three lists I moderate have moved to this new version of the original site and have slightly new titles.

for Trollope and His Contemporaries, which now has the nifty abbreviation (I didn’t think of it) Trollope&Peers


New Banner: George Hicks, At the Post Office

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Mascot or Gravatar:

Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding playing his violoncello (1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

for WomenWriters:


New Banner: a collage of several paintings by Maud Lewis

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Anonymous depiction of Christine de Pizan writing

for 18thCWorlds

Antonio Canaletto, Northumberland House


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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark, singing as she brings a basket of food to the coal mine owned and run by her husband

The first two have retained the same goal as they’ve had.

Trollope and His Contemporaries — a group of people who behave as friends and read and discuss Anthony Trollope, any 19th texts by other authors and 20th century one relevant to Trollope, by authors as supremely good as he is as a writer People are invited to discuss other books they are reading at the same time, and any movies or art seen and music heard …

Women Writers — a community of women readers. We discuss issues of interest to women as well as their art, writing, music, crafts and lives. We are much more a literary than political list, but it is assumed you are a feminist and progressive in outlook … Men are welcome but we stay with art by or (in the case of film) made with women in mind. We do sometimes have group readings and discussions

I’ve changed the last to encourage people reading historical fiction, romance and watching historical films (and adaptations) to join us and hope to start group reading and discussion of contemporary favorites. The older version only went for texts written in the 18th century (Boswell & Johnson, Fanny Burney, novels, poetry, educational treatises):

18th Century Worlds — for people who are interested in all things in the long 18th century (1660-1830): politics, history, literature, arts, music, society and culture. I also welcome readers and viewers of historical fiction and romance and films set in the 18th century … Books written in the 19th through 21st centuries about or set in the 18th century, or time-traveling tales are part of our terrain.

Sylvia Plath


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Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)

Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).

Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition


Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:

Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.

Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).

Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:

This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.

Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.

Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)


The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)

Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience

Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.

Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.

Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.

One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.

Scofield in pain but controlling himself

Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.

There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.


One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.

From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these


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Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina (from the first half of 1948 film, at home — an unfamiliar shot)

Gretta Garbo as Anna Karenina (reminiscing in front of Kitty, a fine moment from 1935 film)

Friends and readers,

Each time one watches a great movie, like each time one reads a great book, one learns more about the film, art, and to some extent the life it reflects. In these two Anne Karenina films, the visuals tell a different story from the script: in visuals, the 1935 AK is far more romantic and highly erotic, but in the dialogue it’s the conventional point of view; the 1948 AK is from its words disquieting, disturbing, but its visuals present prosaic conventional or picturesque images.

Out of eighteen film adaptations, I watched five, attempted a sixth, and read good essays on yet three more. None of my choices were Russian. The finest, in my view is the longest, not written about anywhere, the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina, scripted by Donald Wilson (who wrote the 1967 BBC Forsyte Saga), featuring Nicola Paget, Eric Porter, Stuart Wilson. It should be treated like the BBC 1972 War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pullman, featuring Anthony Hopkins. I’ve written about the 2012 Joe Wright-Tom Stoppard Anna, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew Macfayden.

For tonight I’ll cover the first (for English speakers) two famous Anna Karenina films (1935, 1948); on another night I’ll tell about two more (1985, made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky, 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, notably greatly acted by Sophie Marceau, Phyllida Law, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, James Fox, Fiona Shaw and in some ways the most interesting of all the AK movies I’ve seen). A third night, I’ll describe the three I wasn’t able to reach by watching but read about; and at last, a fourth and fifth blog, the culmination, we’ll do the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina masterpiece.

I assume my reader knows the story; if not, go back to my blog on the novel by Tolstoy for links (as read aloud by Davina Porter).


The 1948 film opens on the train, cold, snowy and a terrible accident quickly ensues (Anna thinks it an omen, the pragmatic Stepan says no)

I’ll go backwards because I watched the 1948 British Anna first. I was so curious to see Leigh and Richardson. This AK was scripted by no less than Jean Anouilh and Julien Duvivier (who also directed), with a little help from Guy Morgan (whoever he is), with Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson as Karenin, and a very weak (unconvincing as someone who’d I’d find irresistible) Kieron Moore.

With British actors, a French company, I was naively surprised to find it resembled the 1956 US War and Peace, scripted King Vidor, featuring Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, John Mills. The same kind of sentimentality and superficiality of acting or keeping emotions decorous. I noted that the women’s voices were all this same soft oozy breathless sound Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and Billie Holiday and so many others affected. Including the Kitty. Only the older women allowed to have real voices. I was so absorbed and bonded with Leigh in Streetcar and a couple of her other films (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone also by Tennessee Williams) that when she was at first presented as this coy sweet thing was grating. Vronsky and his friends were all these Don Ameche matinee idol stuffed male dolls.

The first meeting is at the train (as in the book and several of the AK films)

That said, Duvivier-Anouilh’s work has merit. Richardson as Karenin is its core: hard as steel and mean (not softened as in the BBC 1977-78 Eric Porter conception). This man wanted a divorce fiercely, right away. Richardson’s conception of the character and acting reminded me of him playing Dr Slope in the 1949 chilling version of Henry James’s Washington Square by William Wyler where Olivia de Haviland is Catherine. So the rigid male controlling his women. Duvivier-Anouilh begin with Hugh Dempster as Stiva and they tried for comedy — which is what Joe Wright does and what is in Tolstoy about the marriage of Stiva and Mary Kerridge as Dolly. Telling about US culture, at the same time as Stiva is socially okay he is adulterous and it’s suggested he and Anna inherited this unfortunate disposition. They included (as the 1997 AK does not, but Wright 2012 does) the race course where Anna first reveals herself. The most effective other male is Michael Gough playing Levin’s brother. The gossipy types spoiling things with their tittle tattle is effective.

A playful Karenin when he comes to pick Anne up at the train station, home from Moscow

In 1948 the film-makers were much more anti-adultery than the 1977-78 BBC, but when in the carriage after the race track where Anna’s intense love for Vronsky was on the table, the whole movie shifts into a mode capable of accommodating bitterly realistic marriage, with a shift in the last quarter of psychologically shattering tragic death. Karenina insists on taking Anna home from the races for having disgraced herself. Leigh is abject (anticipating Nicola Paget in the 1978 BBC version) when she says she won’t ask for a divorce. Leigh also says she deserves to be punished (which no other Anna I’ve seen says). The film-makers try to make the lack of a divorce understandable in Anna’s love for her boy, concern for his welfare with a harpy-housekeeper. Leigh is seen caring for the boy but it doesn’t come off in the same emphatic way when Anna turned suicidal and will approach anywhere the BBC managed.

Richardson and Leigh in the crucial quarreling scene

The flight of the young couple to the suburbs was not successful. They didn’t plan enough (as Jim and I when we were young did not). There is no real critique of society; Levin Niall McGinnis) and Kitty (Sally Anne Howes) are downplayed as ordinary people not thinking much about these things Richardson is seen as an admirable strong man doing politics. Somber, thoughtful, and prosaic too. Originally sensible.

Vronsky’s mother is cold and cruel to Anna, openly snubbing Anna in Anna’s own home but that is put down to her character (not the influence of those around her). In this film Anna self-destructs because she lacks strength from within to live on herself. She’s blamed in effect in several scenes where Vronskry is trying to compromise and increasingly irritated, grated upon, towards the end calling Anna a monster. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. The social types who fit in surround Anna on her mistaken trip to the opera where Vronsky himself is going (Stuart Wilson was not going in 1978) and sits in his mother’s box. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. She visits Dolly who welcomes her and finds she is not thrown out of the family but feels her position and flees.

Anouilh’s script is fine and Dudivier’s directing good; it is also a French film with European expressionist techniques in the use of lighting and performances. Despite it’s being just one movie length, it seems to have much more time for inner psychology than 2012 (comparable in time) Wright/Stoppard. Richardson is this hollow man who wants to obey conventions, not a bad man, he just didn’t understand he wasn’t satisfying his wife.

Oblivious Stiva early in the film

Kitty the innocent maiden at the ball

The depiction of the marriage is very much a depiction of a 1948 or mid-20th century marriage. The dialogue is showing us how a couple can become incompatible — it’s not a costume drama (even though it’s produced by Alexander Korda, who may have been responsible for the unbelievable sets), or film of a classic novel but a kind of semi-women’s film only with extravagant clothes. Leigh is given new kinds of lines about her needs, dissatisfactions, and her attachment to her son made more daily and prosaic. I recognized the actresses playing Dolly and Kitty from other films at the time; Kitty is more like a novel character in her illness over Vronsky but Dolly is a woman whose husband is unfaithful living with it. Levin is marginalized and made comic in the same spirit as Stiva.

Dolly’s unhappiness early in the film

Frederick March look-alike when they first flee, he is in love but brisk, sharp, assertive

The music and picturesque settings are now a problem. The music is soppy, the sudden soft focuses, the feel is of a weepy woman’s film at times to us today. She is filmed in a corridor or at these people’s stairways with this pathetic treatment. Outside picturesque house left over from Gone with the Wind or maybe some film taking place in New Orleans. Maybe this pleased and made the 1948 audience weep.

Anna losing her grip

But then everything then falls away as Anna is left alone and we get a 10 minute sequence of her mind going to pieces haunted in the house (hears footsteps). Leigh takes over and is stunning. This sequence takes a long time. It’s a specialty of Leigh’s. She is trying to follow after Vronsky on the train, and happens on and watches an incompatible couple, gradually losing it on the ground until she steps out, in front of the train. This is done slowly as the train comes at her. the camera on her face. It’s tough and while I didn’t take the down there are very Anouilh desperate lines about life before the train smashes her. A blemish is an inter-title just before this from Tolstoy reasserting how good life is or something like this — surely stuck in by the studio.


1935 — Anna Karenina – Greta Garbo (Anna), Frederick March (Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Karenin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty). An all-star cast. A studio product so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer matters; the director chosen was Clarence Brown with three different writers (the script writer was not respected in earlier films).

Garbo and March

First upfront: where I’m unfair: I don’t care for little triangle mustaches all the men seem to have. Th March look-alike for Vronsky in the 1948 film had this too. To me they look absurd. The males clothes in this one make them look trussed up. I realized the film-makers were once again trying for comedy at the opening with absurd feast, but why the men should all go under the table is beyond me. I preferred the train opening in 1948 but admit the 2012 AK also begins with comedy and Stiva (as does Tolstoy). Kitty is made too innocent: she does yearn for Vronsky but she is hardly allowed near him; she is kept with Levin all the time, and Levin is marginalized, the actor a nobody, Gyles Ischam. Vronsky is thus to be seen as someone who might “pollute” a nice girl’s chastity. Like later Indian films (which eliminate Lucy Steele from Austen’s S&S as too raw material) this shows just how women were kept dolls.

I noticed something no longer with us — film-makers were willing to hire older “ugly” actresses and give them semi-comical parts. Such an actress plays Vronsky’s mother (May Robson, a character actress at the time), so we don’t take her seriously. Who would taken an ugly old woman as a serious presence? On one level, this means jobs for aging semi-fat women; on another, there can be little sympathy such as we find for example in Virginia Woolf (and films made from her books). A third: there is a kind of toleration in showing this reality, except it’s treated derisively. Such a woman type is even in Gaslight (as comic relief — now there’s a powerful film).

Gretta Garbo as Anne Karenina (from just before she meets Karernin in her way home from Moscow, after she has met Vronsky, on train)

All the acting seemed to be artificial including Garbo’s – somehow stiff, detached from their bodies, not coming from some gut area. I felt somehow the tones were off — the falling in love in this film did not convince me. Also there is no felt violence from the men. Some of this is 1935 dramaturgy but it’s hard to make the transition in this film and I have made it in others — when I was reviewing a book about pre-Hays and post-Hays code films I saw a number of 1930s films which were rooted in real emotion and a real sense of body. Was it the awareness they were doing a classic book and so naturally it cannot be quite real? or contemporary? no one believed in it — who had read it of the cast or crew, after all? On the other hand, some of the pictorial moments, the shots were striking (as in the famous one just above)

Rathbone as Karenin also reproaches Anna for her extravagant outfits …

That said, this is a still living effective film.

The crucial or climactic moment was similar to the one in the 1948: there is a fierce quarrel between Karenin and Anna on the way home from the race (where Vronsky is again thrown). Some of the language written by Behrman reappeared in the 1948 script: she is abject, she blames herself, he won’t give her a divorce, but it also takes a different direction: she blames him for caring for appearances. Rathbone is far more menacing: he looms over and accosts Anna in the bedroom: she is too open about her flirtation with Vronsky and Anna tells him she does love Vronsky. This pair argues over appearances: he cares about social appearance (he refuses to admit to jealousy) for the sake of his career; she says she cares nothing for this. It’s interesting to me that this opposition is one that is made explicit in Anouilh/Dudividier’s 1948 AK. It’s not couched that way in the 1978 BBC because in this later liberal era, they were the critiquing society full-stop.

One of Garbo’s many scenes with her boy

I was surprised by Garbo’s presentation. This shows how little I’ve seen I guess. She was not at all a vamp nor over glamorous, but framed in a downright sentimental way: she is clearly filmed as being stunningly beautiful. I had not realized how tall she is. I didn’t recognize March. I did recognize a number of the actors from other films in this company. The most convincing moments were Anna with the son (Freddie Bartholomew). I read afterwards in brief more recent commentary that the mother-wife role was the subtext given Garbo (or the role she longed for) in her films. I would not have guessed that: I thought she was a “vamp.”

It improves around this same spot: the second movie (1948) is then probably modeled as to structure on the first. Vronsky and Anna go to Venice, they are lonely and miss Russia so return, then they are ostracized, the trip to the opera is insisted on by Anna, the humiliation, with a visit to Levin and Kitty at whose house Dolly and Stiva happen to be, preceding the suicide.

But there is much difference and maybe people today could like the 1935 better. Garbo is not a distraught woman, she does not go into a tizzy of self-berating, she does not fall ill — as Anna does in the book from the childbirth. The childbirth is omitted altogether — maybe the 1935 film makers omitted it because they did not want this weakening scene. Basil Rathbone never for a moment compromises in the way Richardson and Porter do.

Garbo remains strong, her speeches show her justifying at least her outlook for sincerity and real emotional life, but then the book has to be followed so after the couple goes off to gether, we have her suddenly angrily berating Frederick March (who looks astonished) and demanding he act out love for her, declaiming doesn’t love her, and she is desperate.

Garbo as Anna in emotional pain from genuine rejection about 2/3 the way through the film

Vronsky wants out

Another change: of all the Vronskys I’ve watched thus far, March alone explode angrily very early on, says he cannot take this any longer and leaves Anna forthwith. The 1935 film has him get an invitation to rejoin his regiment for war so he has somewhere to leave to. There is no near suicide in any of them but the 1977 Stuart Wilson, but one could believe they would self-destruct, not March in this one. He is your Boghart tough man — he goes off to war purposefully after the suicide (totally unlike the book where Vronsky’s going off to fight is throwing himself away for what is senseless). US militarism glimpsed here.

So when Anna visits Dolly and Stiva this occurs after Vronsky has left her. In this 1935 movie Dolly at the visit is clearly bleak since Stiva after partly scolding Anna (yes) for her affair, is clearly going out to a mistress. (This kind of outright disdainful contempt is not seen in the 1948 or 1978 or 1985 movie.) OTOH, unlike the book and all the other movies, Dolly tells Anna she has made the right choice: we see Dolly’s children are selfish and clamoring. Not companions for Dolly. Anna was right to leave Karenin whatever Vronsky’s behavior now.

But as Dolly tells Anna that Anna is better off, we see how lost and rigid Anna has become

Then the scene at the train is very brief and we do not see her body or anything smashed. All very discreet. As I said, Garbo is not presented as transgressive or shattered. Instead this 1935 movie reverts to Frederick March Vronsky who we began with at the feast (with Stiva there too). He has this fancy painting of Anna and talks remorsefully about having left her and says he will always feel guilty.

Levin and Kitty at the ball

The weakest scenes in 1935 are the weakest in the 1948: the opening of Kitty where in 1935 she is not even allowed to dance with Vronsky is repeated; the Levin-Kitty wedding and superficial scenes of wedded content. Again, the strongest scenes are between Anna and her son. They are much longer than the 1948; the son stands up for her, mocks his father. Very good. And we have the servant (Harry Beresford) who says how good she has treated him so he will let her in (that’s in the 1978 film too).

Where we are invited to imagine she will fling herself

End of film. Taking A Streetcar Named Desire (which also lies behind the 1948 film), we might say Garbo as Anna has turned into Blanche who kills herself to escape all these men.

At the end of the 1935 film there is a list of countries where it’s said this film will not be shown, is forbidden. So the adultery was more shocking in 1935. Maybe this curious punishment of Anna (Vronsky actually leaving her, telling her he’s had it well before she kills herself) is there to satisfy the moral lesson that women who are adulterous must not have any joy.

Brief recapitulation, despite some real strengths in the 1935 film and its surprisingly contemporary revelations and resonances, its strong heroine, over all the 1948 movie seems to work better, have a stronger thrust and shape because the 1948 film-makers felt the material was more acceptable to the audience. They could thus be truer to the book in some crucial scenes where the 1935 didn’t dare. To be noted are how many of the archetypal scenes we think we remember from the book reappear in both these films (as in the 1977-78, 1985, 1997 and 2012)

Above all the train and the cold — this is from near the end of the 1935 film

Anna contemplating the above train, listening to the sounds of the working men’s tools

As it happened yesterday I read a superb essay by Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf: Essays on Biography: “Virginia Woolf’s nose”. Woolf saw a 1920s version of Anna Karenina and commented on it; she wrote aghast at what the film medium did: instead of interior life, the emphasis is on “teeth, pearls, velvet.” Woolf mentions scenes of sensual kissing with Vronsky, absurdly well-appointed gardens (a gardener is seen mowing one) and super-luxurious rooms.

The 1935 film had pearls, velvet, and a garden — so maybe the 1935 film was influenced by, imitated the 1920s AK that Woolf saw. Anticipating my last blog on AK at the movies, I preferred the way the 1978 BBC people did it to all the other because it’s setting and clothes were the most austere. Maybe they had a lower budget so the lack of emphasis on costumes or houses was necessity; in any event it was done somberly and I liked it better for it.

In the book says Woolf “we know Anna almost entirely from her mind.” but in the film (writes Woolf) we “lurch and lumber” through this furniture. Hermione Lee suggests (rightly) the same vulgarization went on in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway as The Hours which presents Woolf’s suicide as at once romantic and self-indulgent (both the worst uncomprehending choices one could make). Woolf is probably unfair; she is not used to the idiom of the visual film, and writes before they developed tools for inwardness.

A later 19th century illustration towards the close of Anna Karenina


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Nicola Paget as Anna Karenina in the snow when she is still falling in love with Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Friends and readers,

Two summers ago our Trollope and his Contemporaries listserv on Yahoo (Trollope19thCstudies@yahoogroups.com) began nearly 6 months r reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace together, and a few of us watched just some of the many movies made. And to remember it, & make some of the conversations available to others, I blogged on all these. We thought it such a success and enjoyed it so that we repeated ourselves over Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,starting this past Indian summer. We took less time, 4 months to be accurate; instead of some 1400 pages, we had a book of over 800. We posted less: perhaps the issues of adultery, erotic enthrallment, marital and sexual conflict, class disdain, are less comfortable subjects to exchange thoughts about than sequences of war and sequences about the society that supports this. Although the list of Anna Karenina movies is longer than than that of War and Peace movies, I watched fewer. None had the reputation the War and Peace movies had.

Yet the experience was comparable. I had listened to the book read aloud once before looking at the book as I went along and years ago tried to read it on my own. This with a group was the first time I really read the book slowly and truly. I finished both books with the same group of people convinced they are great literary masterpieces in the novel tradition, and yet have fundamental inescapable flaws: for War and Peace, Tolstoy wants to write history and persuade the reader experience human experience is providential (controlled by some divine purpose); in Anna Karenina he cannot get himself to enter into the full emotional range of motives or sexual experience of verboten adultery, and sees marital experience far more from the point of view of sexual satisfaction and practical money support than genuine mindful understanding and compatible interests.

Again it was the 1970s BBC version of the book that seemed to me the soundest, giving enough time for complexity: the 1977 AK written by Ken Taylor, directed by Donald Wilson, featuring Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson — Wilson gave us the 1967-68 Forsyte Saga; and Taylor, the 1987 Jewel in the Crown respectively — compared to the 1972 BBC War and Peace, a Jack Pulman product, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood, Frank Middlemass (to name just three). Both books had also prompted comparable recent film adaptations which brought out the disquieting transgressions and marginalized people’s (women mostly) point of view, the 2015 War and Peace scripted Andrew Davies, featuring James Norton, Lily James, Brian Cox (limiting myself to 3), the 2012 Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, scripted by Tom Stoppard (no less),featuring (as usual with Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Matthew Macfayyen). Here is a list of all the AK films I know of for those interested.

The parallels between the character types in both books, and the contrasts of their ultimate fates are striking. Both books open with an astonishingly persuasive portrait of a central male, in W&P Pierre Bezukhok, a self-doubting socially awkward, yet brilliantly aware character of great integrity; in AK, Oblonsky, known as the contrasting Stiva, Anna’s insouciant socially skilfully comical conventional (unless you have to live with him), utterly amoral, a careless adulterer. Some of us loved the opening skating scene in AK between Tolstoy’s troubled man of integrity, Levin and the girl he eventually marries, Kitty (in type close to the W&P Natasha). The opening two chapters on the Scherbatsky family: this group is the equivalent of Natasha and Rostov family. Very early we see Vronsky will be an inadequate lover-companion for Anna’s need once she defies society to go and live apart with him, Karenin, her aging husband, originally deeply well-meaning, will be unable to flex in a modern amoral environment, and punish them all. Stiva’s long-suffering wife, Dolly who is counseled by Anna to stay with him, and consequently endures yet more wretched years until he finally cannot pay her way, is contrasted to Anna who chooses not to stay, and ends in a tragic obsessively self-destroying life and death.

The issues outside the book we talked of again that are textual include the insoluble problem of and access translations provide. It matters which other language you read the book in and which translation. I found for myself the Maude War and Peace captured the rich texture of the original War and Peace in English, yet a mid-century French translation by Elisabeth Guertik was yet better. For Anna Karenina, the simpler P&V was what was wanted to reach that interior life so crucial to AK, and I just didn’t have, didn’t have time for a French translation (much to my regret as this theme is Writ large in great originally French novels, e.g., Madame de Lafayette’s La Princess de Cleves). I found Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel, which I hoped much from, a disappointment, and we dialogued over this (see comments).


Eric Porter as Karenin when Anne is trying to tell him she loves Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Sex and Marriage

About half-way through Diane Reynolds wrote that she had been reading Joel Fassler’s collection of essays, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process; Mary Gaitskill had written there of how she felt inspired by Anna’s deeply felt impulsive cry after coming near death in childbirth (from a pregnancy by Vronsky), and begging the returned Karenin to forgive her — that she has two selves, and her real self is the presence who pleaded with Karenin to return to him, while the self in love with Vronsky (we know loathes sex with her husband, Karenin) is “another woman in me, I’m afraid of her,” someone she “cannot forget, the one who is not me.” Stoppard picks up the importance of this scene and moment and has Keira Knightley as Anna say

“Oh, my dear [to Karenin] don’t look at me like that. I am not the one you think. I’m afraid of her, She fells in love with another man. I’m the real one. But I’m dying now, then she’ll be dead too. Poor man! [meaning Vronsky?] Let him come in. Alexis! Alexis!”

Now it’s not clear which Alexis as that is both their names. This might startle some readers were they to pay attention. Our modern predilection is to see the coerced self as the married women, not the fleeing one. Once Anna recovers in Wright/Stoppard’s film, she behaves like a hateful tigress to Jude Law as Karenin. In the 1977 BC AK Eric Porter captures the feel of a Karenin who wants to love and to forgive, to bring Anna’s daughter by Vronsky up as his own, but before the onslaught of society’s scorn for him, and her behavior, is puzzled, hurt, cold and finally subject to religious delusions invented by a woman who flatters and soothes him. All the Vronskys in the films I saw were true to the book as they tried to but could not be content with Anna. Tolstoy’s Vronsky needs social prestige, to be active and admired in the world, to be integrated as a landowner and his society will not permit this as long as he lives openly unmarried with Anna.

One reading is that Tolstoy thus indicts society for twisting the characters and/or refusing to understand and act with empathy. Another is Anna is turned into this another dark self as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s explanation for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a doppelganger, a motif for expressing an atavistic self underneath our civilized selves, perhaps an amoral self whose appetites take over at night, or a sick self in reaction to the society that married a young innocent woman off to Karenin who has learned to dislike sexuality with him (this is not that far from Tolstoy in his Kreutzer’s Sonata. Yet Anna’s real self is that of a mother too; she misses her son truly; does not want a divorce if this means permanent separation from him. She does or can not understand that once she has left her husband, she will never have her boy back.

In the novel Anna’s frantic visit to her son once she and Vronsky return to Moscow: early in the morning, at dawn practically, laden with gifts, preceded by two scenes: the first of Seyozha with his Slav tutor, Vassily Lukich, and his especial friend, the hall porter, Kapitonych. He is presented as happy but nervous, proud of his father for winning awards for his gov’t work on behalf of the people of Russia; underneath is stress (he cannot bear the religious woman Lydia, whom he is sent to): he has not learnt the lesson, he cannot learn it, but no one presses him. The father comes, means to show affection, but is so cold and hard because the boy cannot produce the answers. We are told it’s not that he’s stupid or didn’t read the passages, they just mean nothing. He has been told his mother is dead and we are told also he refuses to believe it. Then Anna’s visit: disguised, how she is not let in at first, how the servant disobeys what he knows is wanted, and stands up for this because Anna never was unkind to him ever. In the end the child is confused, he is punished for not knowing his lesson; all the better he thinks, he can stay with his tutor, they build windmills. All he wants to do is forget her. The word love is used of all Anna’s feeling towards her son repeatedly; she says she is worthless (note that) and her husband a good man but when she encounters her husband fleeing his own house, all she feels are spite and hatred.


Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez in Phineas Redux (1974 Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven): there is a closely similar shot of him as Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Frederick March played Vronsky in the 1935 AK with Greta Garbo as Anna (his is the strongest performance)

In reading the book, its story is so familiar and the types Tolstoy’s characters correspond to are superficially and functionally in the story part of commonplace moral lessons or protests so the reader is in danger of understanding what he or she is reading in stereotypical framed ways. It’s reading the details that bring out what makes it alive, thought- and feeling-provoking, original and effective. Vronsky as a character suffers a lot here: he is often underestimated, dismissed as a shallow cad, utterly egoistic; in some of the films he is treated this way too.

For example, after Vronsky and Anna’s first erotic encounter at the train station, Vronsky visits Stiva and when he learns Anna is there, he tries to flee. Yet he wanted to see her again intensely. The narrator says: “he raised his eyes, saw her, and something ashamed and frightened appeared in his expression;” then when Stiva tries “loudly” to usher Vronsky in, we are told his was a “soft, gentle and calm voicing … declining.” Anna blushes and thinks she understands why he came to Stiva’s and and then didn’t come in. But all she says is “he thought it was late.” At the dance it is Kitty’s jealous POV which thinks “Anna was drunk with the wine of rapture she inspired”. It’s not the admiration of the crowd, Kitty thinks, “but the rapture of one man. Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.” Vronsky “wishes to fall down before” Anna, and “in his glance there was only obedience and fear.” His glance seems to say he wants “to save himself:” “There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before” There’s an “irrepressible tremulous light in [Anna’s] eyes and [her] smile burned him as she said it.” Then it’s the narrator and Anna who “feel themselves alone and this crowded ballroom.” Again from Kitty on Vronsky’s face “that expression of lostness and obedience that had so struck her, like the expression of an intelligent dog when it feels guilty”. Kitty finds “something alien and demonic” in Anna. Earlier Kitty had seen that Anna was “serious,” had a “sad expression” on her face; “in her some other higher world of interests, inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.” We should recall that Vronsky grieves in mortification when Anna loves Karenin during the childbirth, and shoots himself in the chest afterwards, does attempt to remain faithful to Anna until her crazed needy vulnerability hazes him ceaselessly for a peace of mind (“repos” in French) not in him to give himself, much less anyone else.

For several other nuanced close readings across the book see the Trollope and his Contemporaries archives.

After the lovers flee, Vronsky is intensely desirous to believe he and Anna will be accepted and to do all he can to promote this. He needs this. He tries his sister-in-law but she says she can’t visit them; the sleazy amoral Betsy comes stays briefly and offers a return visit at a specific time, Anna knows that means that Betsy will set up the evevning so that no one who matters will be there, and says, that is precisely the time she cannot come (this is kept in the 1977 BBC AK), and Betsy sends a note she is sorry she will not see Anna and Vronsky before they leave.

Key incidents in the Vronsky threads:

Before he and Anna consummate their love at the racrtrack. First, where Vronsky goes into the stable to look at his prize horse. It seems to me the mood of the felt detail makes an analogy with Anna, and the way Vronsky rouses, pets, and soothes the horse is analogous to the we are to imagine he rouses, pets and soothes Anna. Emphasis is laid elsewhere on how calm and gentle he can be and still convey physical strength. Calm down, calm down he says to the horse. Tolstoy enters into the consciousness of the horse without having to make thoughts for it: lean head, shining merry eyes, nose widening, flaring. The English jockey tells Vronsky too he must not be upset when he rides – and he does become upset because Karenin (I half remember) shows up and Anna must move to her husband’s place.

It’s a very subtle far more carefully version of what Trollope shows us in Burgo Fitzgerald vis-a-vis Lady Glencora Palliser. Trollope is coarses, not as subtle — Burgo will mistreat the horse, pressure it too much despite his fondness for it – -the fondness is seen as a distance as about what it’s worth (the money).

Most of the time I’m bored by Trollope’s scenes of racing horses, hunting, but not here. Tolstoy has filled the scene of Vronsky with his cronies and then at the races and especially close up to his horse, Frou-frou — what a name. It resonates sexually, trivializng femininity. Tolstoy seems to be able to come close into realities of the presences, man, horse, the interaction of people. I suggest we are to feel that Vronsky has last his “cool” because for the first time in his life he is truly emotionally engaged with someone (Anna) and this spills over into the rest of his life .He cares more if he wins or loses, or he cares differently. A deep relationship between the man and the animal is felt. Then when it lays there all quivering and he must kill it, have murdered this horse. I suggest the horse can stand in for Anna too. She is becoming herself nervous, losing her calm and I would say unjustly and unfairly hates her husband. But before we exculpate Vronsky into a man of sensibility, notice how he kicks the horse. I felt that as a shock. We are to bond with this poor creature driven to race for these selfish aristocrats.

From the talk we can gather that there was an anti-hunting, anti-racing group of people — this is a circus spectacle.

After they have run away, had the child, gone to live together in Italy, found it impossible there and in the country and return to Moscow:

The humiliating incident in the theater — dramatized (like the horse race where Vronsky loses, shoots his horse dead, and Anna exposes her attachment to all). Vronsky’s mother’s exultation. Vronsky’s military mates act to accept Anna and to support him but it’s not enough. He rushes back after her and they have this scene where he agrees they must leave immediately, it’s too painful and then is forced to say how much he loves her. But he is now intensely put off. He cannot stand her beauty. In the 1977 BBC film he is not alienated as yet, not hostile, and doesn’t become so until near the end. The word love is only used by the characters when it’s this frantic clinging emotion of Anna towards the first child which we are told was the result of her not loving its father, her husband; the baby girl she feels little for. Or when you no longer feel it as Vronsky doesn’t or are demanding it because you have lost your identity. But this is an anti-adultery reading. People living apart form society who have left partners can adjust, can feel love, do not crack so quickly and often it’s for other reasons than the adultery or separation (as in Tolstoy’s case).

Part of their misery is they are surrounded by hangers-on, phonies. The carelessly flirting male cousin Levin kicked out is here flirting with Anna — and note she doesn’t mind nor Vronsky. But he’s a mindless limpet. Princess Varvara – Stiva’s aunt — is there because she gets free meals and a place to live. She’s utterly phony another limpet. Then there’s the male counterpart to Betsy who we now know told Anna unless Anna is married she will not see her. These are people who simply hide their amoralities — like Vronsky’s mother. Anna bursts out about Betsy: “Au fond c’est la femme le plus deprave qui existe.” (Ruth Wilson enacts this to a T in the 2012 Wright/Stoppard film.)

Vronsky is trying for respect by building his hospital and going to meetings and begin a responsible landowner in the community. But it’s the social activity they share that somehow they fight over. We see it doesn’t satisfy him and the functionaries in the hospital are not good enough as guests. He wants the relationship legitimized, and his children legitimized. We feel he wants children. Anna must beg Karenin for a divorce: she finally bursts out she can’t stand the humiliation and thinks she would not get one. She also doesn’t want to give up her son. We see she is not able to love her daughter in these circumstances. She can’t indulge in “that inexhaustible intimate conversation” she says she longed for. She does say not an hour goes by but she doesn’t think of this divorce matter, doesn’t reproach herself. She then preys on Vronsky, asking him for what is not in him to give, full validation, companionship which looks nowhere else, and when he does not give it, she accuses him of not loving her, of betrayal and he breaks out in frustrated fury.

Stuart Wilson played the part in the 77 series and also Ferdinand Lopez in the film adaptation of The Pallisers — we are going to be watching that one all spring — whether 24 or 26 episodes, it’ll take us into summer. One can do that with films. Transfer one actor into another film or book: Wilson played a type that included Vronsky, Lopez (a hard mean man in the novel) and a cold predatory cad in The Raj Quartet who lures Sarah to go to bed with him, challenges her and when she’s pregnant her mother insists on an abortion. He was tall dark and handsome, very thin. A critic made fun of this type in Jeremy Irons: tall, thin and tortured is the way women viewers like this hero type. Is it still the fashion somewhere? or are characters made too hard?

In the aftermath to Anna’s suicide Tolstoy avoids Vronsky at first and sets it two months later: we only see him from the outside. Well the last shot of Wilson as Lopez show his face in a frozen horrified look, so dark and brooding are his eyes. I’ve not forgotten that moment in the mini-series: it’s the last shot of that episode. I now transfer the look of Wilson’s face to Vronsky in the novel by Tolstoy. In the film adaptation we never see Vronsky again after he drives off in his carriage. I thought they did that because they ran out of time and didn’t have enough for a 11th episode and hadn’t planned one. The look in his face could also be Anna’s look as the train comes hurtling at her.

I will talk of Eric Porter’s performance as Karenin in the 1977 BBC production and Jude Law in the 2012 film as in both cases these conceptions and actors went beyond even the brilliance of the book.


Robert Swann as Levin and Caroline Langrishe as Kitty ice-skating (early joyous scene, 1977 BBC AK)

Some readers are led to find the Levin story superfluous (not connected to Anna) or not what they are reading for (no matter how dull utterly persuasive) as at the same time this story matter increasingly takes up much of the space of the novel. Levin is Tolstoy the way Pierre was Tolstoy; his ideal, again here when first met (and at the last) the nervous person who doesn’t fit in. When Levin returns to his home after his first attempt in the book to win Kitty, he is so relieved to be in a world he has created for himself. But this takes strength too — you must be satisfied by living in and on yourself, believe in your goals, which differ from others. When Levin first arrives, he thinks he can do it, but even with his housekeeper’s kindness and companionableness, the memories of the outside world are a continual leaking poison. For example he wanted Kitty and couldn’t have her, so he thinks another woman will do as well, but he soon gives that up. After his hard work on his farm, with his peasants, we get a paragraph about how “doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures and an eternal expectation of happiness” elude him and make him have to strive to be at peace.

This is as important in life as eros. It’s how Levin differs from Vronsky in a deep way and why he’s a worthwhile human being. He has original depths, he has real feelings and thoughts; he need not in his behavior mirror society’s norms as he has examined them and found them wanting. I found Tolstoy’s depiction of the naturalness of the animals in this world of nature also such a relief. The calf that seeks its mother and wags its tale. I read this in context as showing (for Levin and me) how animals are superior to human beings with all their phony subtexts. I was startled but won over by how Tolstoy entered the consciousness of a dog.

The deeper truer point about Levin is not that he’s exemplary but struggling against other human beings who just don’t take anything seriously but their own appetites. So he can’t get his workers to work — even if he paid them more – -the way he would. He can’t get things done even if he does some of it because he needs the others to. In my life I’ve never been part of team really but can guess from very early projects in school with others how frustrating this is — why people appreciate those who will work. I’m impressed by how deeply into the sense of the realities of agricultural worlds Tolstoy gets — Hardy tries but does not reach this. The 2013 film adaptation Far from Madding Crowd tried to by showing us the actors/actresses in the fields close up working.

An opposition in the novel is those who feel deeply good humane emotions (Anna, her husband, Dolly, Kitty, Kitty’s father, Levin’s brother) someone with much self-thought (Agafa Mikhailovna) and the cold performative manipulative types (Vronsky, Stiva instinctively, Betsy): not everyone falls into these two types but close enough as a theme. His brother, Nikolai, is the vulnerable idealist whose ideals of equality do not extend to women; whether Tolstoy meant us to see they do not extend to people beneath his class whom he is in intimate contact with rather than women, his behavior shows that too. He’s in fact a frustrated domineer; yet unhappy because he does not know how to live out his communist ideals (the society leaves no room for him as some of us may have experienced it leaves no room for parts of us central to us that don’t fit in)

Anna’s throwing herself under a train.

Vivian Leigh in the final sequence of the 1948 movie

Trains matter in the novel, are focused on — as well as the brilliant movie, The Last Stationby Jay Parini, with a good movie by Michael Hoffman I blogged about years ago.

It’s a long deeply eloquent pictorially realized sequence; the choice of words to capture her intensely depressed state of mind is to me perfect. There are many words about light and darkness. But mostly her mind goes over and over again the recent incidents that have led to Vronsky fleeing, and she backtracks to the whole situation they are in, and she has truthful accurate remarkable insights into how he feels about her, and why she is so tormented. I wrote too much at length in response to Light into Dark so I won’t go into these: we’ve covered them, e.g., he’s tired of her, resentful, angry at the situation; she keeps asking him for what he cannot give her, all his self and a whole reason to live. She is preying on him (she doesn’t put it this way).

Anna does not know what to do with herself. She asks her maid, what should she do? Vronsky will not come back to help her.

She feels her views are clinched when she visits Dolly for advice and comfort. Alas Kitty is there and immediately it’s clear Kitty does not want to see her as a stigmatized “wicked” women. Anna speaks plainly that she sees this so of course Dolly denies it, and Kitty comes out and we see Kitty immediately soften, be attracted to this still beautiful women, drop her jealousy and be kind. But it’s too late

Tolstoy captures the confusion of mind such a state encompasses and (to me most impressive) the kinds of bad thoughts that revolve through the mind. I’ve had psychiatrists ask me when I say I had bad thoughts all night, what kinds are these, could you tell me them and I can’t because it’s too embarrassing — they are like Anna’s and thus probably common as types: seeing everyone in the world as angry or unhappy or looking at you and despising you; interpreting everything as ugly, cruel, miserable, resolving to do things you know you can’t do or fix and you feel absurd and know you will be told this is skewed by someone’s else “rational” mind. One problem in the way Vivien Leigh enacted this one is she over-did, she was over-the-top neurotic and we had no over-voice to listen to her reasoning because it’s a form of reasoning that leads to a desire to escape the world. I now think Nicola Paget’s quiet enactment much closer. But what’s needed is voice-over, and quotation quite literal from the novel – this P&V translation is very good.

I suspect thus far every single movie has been too embarrassed, unwilling really to put this before us. Telling that Andrew Davies at any rare was willing to put before us a slow agonizing secular-like death. I wonder if he has the guts to put this death before us. The point that such a scene needs is suicide makes sense for Anna — as it made sense for Richardson’s Clarissa.

Anna’s suicide is so interior, so much an extended almost stream of conscious that it would be extremely difficult to convey what Anna is feeling. A voice over would have to be done very carefully and directly from Tolstoy in order not to drown the scene in bathos. A series of images flashing or firing through her mind as she heads toward the scene and perhaps slo mo flings herself in front of the train could work. Especially if we have seen them before, if they replayed distorted to be uglier, meaner, more nightmarish we would understand that, though not if it were overdone in any way. This is a place where the genres don’t mesh easily.

It’s a hard scene to film and all the movies struggle with it. In this case I thought the most successful the 1948 film directed by Julian Duvivier, scripted by him and Jean Anouilh with Vivian Leigh as Anna, Ralph Richardson as Karenin. Leigh was superb at enacting the neurotic (the heroine for A Streetcar named Desire, for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone). There is a consciousness so deeply gone into when Tolstoy takes the plunge, we are persuaded we are experiencing life. In Phineas Redux where Wilson in the film as Ferdinand Lopez throws himself under a train, we similarly have a long extended stream of consciousness, about Lopez’s shame (he is killing himself like other males in Trollope who does this because they have lost their place in the world after being publicly humiliated — far worse than Mr Slope); Trollope’s novel gives us an astonishing paragraph of metaphor about being smashed to smithereens. Tolstoy stays longer and more resolutely still the character’s mind, until she realizes she doesn’t want to do but it’s too late to pull back. In Trollope’s Nina Balatka, the heroine is about to jump the Charles Bridge into the river and is pulled back by the arm by a friend (a Jewish Rebecca character), but she was hesitating and slightly moving into the “wait a minute” mode, but there was no train on top of her going at high speed.
All comparable achievements.

Film-makers hesitate at the voice-over; maybe they fear audiences will be put off by the emotionalism. It’s said by film critics it’s thought of as feminine, as too intellectual for the average movie-goer, but I love it. I think it makes the Outlander series far better and deeper because it is used so often (and the words taken literally from the book). I’ve been watching Bergman this week; he uses it all the time in his and often Woody Allen (who was much influenced) does it too. It would jar with the sudden train so there’s a media conflict.

Then the fiction switches to Levin until the end of the book …


Tolstoy in his study (1891, Ilya Repin)

Which story was the afterthought? According to A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy began the book when he had experienced a prolonged period of depression, and been told the real life story of the mistress of a man who lived nearby and who had thrown herself under a train when he tired of her. Tolstoy poured his depression into Anna; Levin came as a relief. But together, they create a thickly felt set of realities, specially criss-crossed by Anna’s brother, Stiva, and his relationship to Levin’s wife’s sister, Dolly.


Matthew MacFadyen stars as Oblonsky in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham

Anna and Levin, heroine and hero; Dolly and Stiva, contrasts: another angle

Both Anne and Levin are characters of integrity, sensibility, who cannot quite fit in. Levin is given far more slack; Anna easily ends up outside this realm of safety and acceptance. Much of the later part of the novel is given over to the Levin group partly perhaps because Tolstoy cannot get inside Anna and Vronsky in the same way — he cannot believe that they are living in similar nuanced conditions. Everything must be overshadowed by their adulterous relationship, but in fact that didn’t have to be. Levin is overwhelmed by “frivolous” people and wishes he could escape. He is not presented as alienated as he might be — finally again Tolstoy is wholesome. To them of course this that they are expending their lives on is not frivolous; the trivia of existence – water in jam, picking mushrooms is what matters or how they live.

Stiva comes to visit Levin many times and Levin overjoyed because Stiva will sit and listen to him. He has so much to say in himself he’s no one to say it all to. I feel for him — again like Pierre in W&P, socially naive, but not putting himself out for others, working for himself whose proceeds he puts back into the land. Ironically Stiva is not really pleasant, it’s that he’s indifferent to all but himself. When Levin tries to elicit a response, Stiva’s half-listening because he wants to produce a speech on “political economy” (conservative laissez-faire politics for the sake of impressing others) not the rural experience Levin is describing. Levin exposes his concern for Kitty– for himself and Stiva’s off-hand discreet comment about how interesting “Ossianic women — women of dreams are” is him musing over the women he has affairs with. How cold his heart to others – -this warm man. Tolstoy conveys this and I remember the deep feeling Dolly.

The two plot-designs are drenched in deep sex, one about fucking (Anna, Vronsky, Karenin) and other about a woman’s body producing a child (Levin, Kitty, her family). We do know that these things don’t have to be on everyone’s mind. I thought too Levin’s memory of his brother’s death and his seeming lack of memory of his difference from this older brother worth noting.

Kelly MacDonald as Dolly (2012 Joe Wright AK)

Dolly, Oblonsky’s wife, Kitty’s sister. Dolly goes for a visit to Anna and Vronsky: of course it’s her POV, but she is deeply sympathetic even and has every reason (as her thoughts tell her for 3 hours on the way there) to reprehend everything about the way marriage is practiced in her society and wish she had done what Anna stopped her from doing: while she was still young enough, a couple of pregnancies before, she should have left Stiva she thinks, tried to divorce or separate herself. Then she might have had a chance to find someone who would truly love, care, protect her – – the way Levin is doing for Kitty. She has utterly unspeakable thoughts about motherhood. What does she get for it? a worn body “Nothing but trouble. No work, no nothing. Just bondage.” She resists this thought by saying to herself she can’t live without them now but they suck the life out of her. One of the most interesting moments in the text is silence — Anna reveals to Dolly something that is so shocking Tolstoy gives us ellipses. I surmised it’s some form of contraception physically; they use anal intercourse or some form of ejaculation where she’s not inseminated by him. Dolly is horrified but remembers other couples with just two children.

Why horrified? If she would suggest this to Stiva, he might go along? or would it interfere with his pleasures. The BBC 1977-78 does try to dramatize this hard material including Anna’s choosing not to have a child and Vronsky’s hard resentful response to this to Anna’s face. This is not in the book, for it seems Tolstoy cannot get himself to question endless pregnancies inflicted on women even if he sees how motherhood is such an ambivalent and sometimes destructive experience for women.

We move very slowly through all this experience, many many pages devoted to slowly seeing Vronsky and him finally opening to Dolly and ditto for Anna, and how at the end Dolly wants to escape and quickly. Vronsky is as good a manager as Levin or Karenin and good thing (though we wonder where he gets the money from — the house is an old family house-heirloom) for they are emotionally miserable at the gut level. Lovely envious surroundings do help is the moral here, but are not enough. Basically they are not enough for one another, and neither has some inner goal or vocation to make up for the loss of society. I would like to suggest there are such people since I think Jim and I were all-in-all but I have to admit in the same breathe we were married and lived conventionally enough to him to maintain a full time job in the fed gov’t of some responsibility.


Ralph Richardson as Karenin, one of the politicking scenes (1948 AK)

Politics, religion, art. There’s a lot more here than is ever discussed: Levin, Karenin and Vronsky all go to political meetings, and in all these Tolstoy dramatizes what he sees as the uselessness of what happens from the point of view of doing any good for society as a whole. Karenin is outwitted by a conniving man who deludes Karenin’s people into accepting an exaggerated version of doing good and then that is rejected as unrealistic; Levin cannot interact well at all (his brother can but is only interested in issues abstractly), he cannot even figure out what is going on it’s all so implicit, nuanced, morally reprobate at core; Vronsky is a personal success in the same meeting and ends inviting the vicious man who behind the scenes manipulated factions to win the high powerful place to a dinner Vronsky pays for. Tolstoy more than once blames the victims who are subdued for allowing themselves to be subdued. In one-on-one vignettes: Karenin with the lawyer; Karenin and the religious fanatic lonely woman, Lydia, with the religious charlatan; in group scenes of trying to get people to change their ways to be more productive for themselves and work less hard, Levin fails; Stiva has the greatest political successes in what he tries to do (win money and position for himself). the extraordinary protracted death scene of Levin’s brother where instead of validating a religious point of view (as in Andrei’s death in W&P) it is wholly a biological process.

There are also brilliant chapters on art — the way there are in War and Peace. Vronsky is imitating being a great painter and Tolstoy tries to explain why: he has nothing to communicate deeply through his art, no emotion he cares about. Anna understands art in ways that Vronsky can’t even if she can’t be a writer for in writing she has nothing she wants to do for real — acting for the social benefit of others or for something to do or prestige produces schlock.

Much of this is omitted in all but the 1948 and 1977 films — where the actors playing Karenin are so strong the film-makers kept some of this material. It is important; it is the deep background to Anna’s stranded tragedy as an outcast. It takes chapters after Anna’s suicide where we are with characters who are minor and care nothing for our major presences. When we finally hear from someone who supposedly cares it’s Vronsky’s vicious mother. Anna is a bad vile woman she says; why? because she acted out of the sincerity of her heart — and yes body. When last heard of Vronsky is taking a job to where slavs are suffering very badly. This will get him back into the military. Although his behavior has been enough to allow people never to appoint him again, since this is a job no one wants, he gets it. Will he do any good for these ethnic minorities. We are supposed to remember that Karenin’s important rules and laws to put in place have been defeated.

So the last chapters are about Levin and how he is coping with the idea he has that the world is meaningless — there is no God in this world. This time Tolstoy will not nag us for chapters on end to accept his providential ideas about history but instead presents Levin as wrong, not seeing deeply enough while Kitty his wife so unintellectual does. Levin has learned how difficult it is to reform anyone and loses himself in coping everyday with the selfishness of everyone else and their problems. We are told Dolly and her children are now his province. Levin considers suicide when he starts to think about life and read his philosophy so this matches what happened to Anna, but unlike her he is embedded in his society as a landowner, husband, father, brother-in-law,in doing a little good, so he has little time to think about suicide much less do it. Very like Pierre at the close of W&P proper (not the coda where we hear of his gross political mistakes years later which end him in Siberia for years, the idea Tolstoy had about Pierre as he started W&P).

And so the second long masterpiece ends. Tolstoy did not write a third.


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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) singing, after Christmas dinner (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark)

Friends and readers,

Not such a small but a short note for those engaged by Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and the two sets of film adaptations.

I’ve been rereading the novels again, and have confirmed an old memory that while Christmas is in itself not valued for any kind of religious belief, a number of the novels end around Christmas time with the characters gathering together to enact a yearly ritual, and memories, and talk emerges far more for real at moments than other times of year. Some of these endings are melancholy sweet, strained, or near breaking point: Ross Poldark, Demelza and Warleggan (1st, 2nd & 4th Poldark books) respectively. At the close of Demelza:

“They watched the scene on the beach.
‘I shan’t have to finish that frock for Julia now,’ she said. ‘It was that dainty too.’
‘Come,’ he said, ‘you will be catching cold.’
‘No. I am quite warm, Ross. Let me stay a little longer in the sun.

Some are bitter, and then the emphasis is on winter itself, December into January, dark, cold, bleak or wild: The Angry Tide (the 7th) when Elizabeth has just died.

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Some are quiet-reflective, The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (the 9th and 10th books). In The Twisted Sword (the 11th), the deep tragedy of Jeremy’s death continues to the end, only lifted somewhat by the birth of Lady Harriet Warleggan and then Cuby Poldark’s baby, while Demelza keeps the festival.

Deliver us from swords & curs — The Twisted Sword

Lastly, Bella (the 12th) just after Valentine’s death and Ross’s nightmare, the characters all return to Cornwall for Christmas. We pass a bleak Christmas in the second half of the novel Jeremy Poldark, but it is not emphatic, just part of the year made much harder because of desperate conditions during this festival time, and we observe Christmas more emphatically in The Black Moon during the birth of Clowance when the news comes to Nampara that Dwight Enys is still alive.

I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart … Demelza, again the close)

So only four novels do not end in December/January or Christmas: Jeremy Poldark (a christening), The Black Moon (very bitter at the close), The Four Swans (very uncertain, all the women having been forced into bad choices), and The Stranger from the Sea (an uneasy unsettling).

A painting of Cornwall, the shore for fishing, early 20th century impressionism (photographed from a visit to a Cornish museum, summer 2016)

As important, all the novels are carefully keyed to seasonal time-lines, from autumn to winter, winter to spring and summer again; attention is paid to the relationship of what’s happening to daily customs, agricultural and other rhythms, the weather, and Christmas is part of this, and made more of when it coincides with some crisis. I conclude the natural world as central to human existence (and Graham’s love of Cornwall), and holiday rituals meant a good deal to Graham for their creation of a sense of community and humane comradeship, for their enacting memory and for hope of renewal.

Stanhope Forbes, Fisherman’s wife (Cornish painter, 1890s – 1910s)


Even among my nearest and dearest there is no transference — can be no transference — of experience. One can feel empathy for someone suffering, but one cannot feel the suffering. We are all alone —- desperately alone. What are we in this world? A conjunction of subjective impressions making up something that is accepted as reality — Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man

One reason these patterns may not have been noticed is they are not observed in the either the older or newer serial drama. When Christmas does emphasize something special in the story at the moment (new marriage, desperate poverty, worry over the life of an imprisoned friend), then it’s there. But not the seasons and no sense of a sequence of customs to which Christmas belongs for themselves. The interest in Cornwall is decorative; in the older, there is reveling in the place, in the recent they attend to the workaday world.

We don’t have adaptations past The Stranger from the Sea for either series, but looking at the older 1975-76, 1977-78, the only transitional moments from one novel to the next where this kind of coda is observed is in a mid-book, the bare bleak half-starving Christmas from Jeremy Poldark, complete with a family dinner, caroling, Demelza wanting to ask the Brodugans for money).

Bare strained family dinner (1975-76 Poldark, Part 11, Episode 3)

At Nampara, Demelza (Angharad Rees), pouring port, asks Ross (Robin Ellis) why cannot they ask other friends for money (1975-76, Poldark Part 11, Episode 4)

One could cite the mood and bleak outdoors in the final episode of the second (and as it turned out) last season (1978), The Angry Tide, which ended, with Demelza and Ross looking at their children holding hands, and George grieving at the window from which the camera takes us to gaze at wild waves and rocks. Except it is not Christmas nor December as it explicitly is in the novel. A good deal of the original series was filmed on sets, and the focus was strongly on particular personalities in a story. So even just two scenes from the older Poldark show the intense attention paid to interweaving a Christmas piece with the realities of the characters’ dispositions, circumstances at each moment.

Christmas dinner at Trenwith (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

The recent 2015-16, and now 2017: in the first season (2015), the fourth episode near the end corresponds closely to the end of Ross Poldark, Ross and Demelza now Poldark go to Trenwith for a visit and (as it turns out temporary) reconciliation, and details from the book are dramatized, such as Demelza’s singing (above), though not Elizabeth on the harp.

Then again in the second season (2016), scenes corresponding to the observation of Christmas during a hard time in Jeremy Poldark, and the third season (2017), scenes corresponding to The Black Moon and placed just before the rescuing of Dwight Enys where there is a quiet Nampara Christmas and Caroline and Demelza and Verity seek funds at a party.

For all the rest while we might have a funeral at a close of an episode (we do twice, Jim Carter and then Julia), nothing is made of the year’s seasonal patterns nor Christmas. The perpetual coming out on the cliffs is not keyed to any season, any activity but the openings of the episodes at the mines. Scenes are not complexly nuanced in quite the way they were in the older series.


Elizabeth Adele Armstrong Forbes, later 19th century woman painter in Cornwall, a Ring of Roses

What this suggests is how different are the rhythms and internal structures of the episodes of both Poldark film series from that of the novels: the exception in the series is Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the first iteration (1975, 1977), and Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the second (2016, 2017). But also how important season, time, holiday ritual was to Graham and has not been to the any of the film-adapters of his work thus far.

A curtain of mist hung over the Black Cliffs at the further end of Hendrawna Beach, most of it caused by spray hitting the tall rocks and drifting before the breeze. There was a heavy swell which reached far out to sea, and a couple of fishing boats from St Ann’s had gone scudding back to the safety of the very unsafe har­bour. Gulls were riding the swell, lifting high and low as the waves came in; occasionally they took to the air in a flurry of flapping white when a wave unexpectedly spilled its head. No one yet expected rain: that would be tomorrow. The sun was losing its brilliance and hung in the sky like a guinea behind a muslin cloth.
Clowance squinted up at the weather. ‘Have you got a watch?’ ‘No. Not one that goes.’ — Bella

It might be objected, Does any movie? some do, and some film adaptations. One set that comes to mind are the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, especially the 1996 ITV by Andrew Davies (with Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Mark Strong as Mr Knightley, Samantha Morton, Harriet) and the 209 BBC Emma by Sandy Welch (with Romola Garai as Emma, Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates), keep to seasons and emphasize Christmas or the winter holiday, snow. Have a look here.

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach)· further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides) was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and. licked at the foot of the stile) leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow) losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea) with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath) and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea (from The Angry Tide, quoted by Graham at the opening of Poldark’s Cornwall, 1983 version).

This matters because these books are in the peculiar position of fake knowledge. A lot of people think they know them because they’ve seen these film adaptations. Others may read the books after the adaptations and have their understanding framed by the films. What they remember is what the film emphasized. There is a long respectable history of publication for the first four books from 1945 to 1953; and the second trilogy (the novels of the 1970s, Black Moon, Four Swans, Angry Tide) have been in but watched partly as a result of the films and seen through the films. The last five are much less well-known. Many classics are in effect in this position: far far more people saw the film Wuthering Heights in 1939 than had read Emily Bronte’s book in the previous 150 years of publication and availability. But the Brontes have true respectability and people went on to read WH and other Bronte books; they have now gotten to Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the film adaptation was made as a result of Bronte popularity. That’s not the case with Graham’s books. For my part I’d love to know what sales of the books have been like over the past 60 years and have a way of measuring how much that reflects actual readership.


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Claire at Culloden (Caitriona Balfe), third season –a 1950s costume seen through demure 2017 eyes

Dear friends and readers,

I am just now listening to Davina Porter read aloud dramatically (with nuance and appropriate tones) an unabridged text of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber and engaged in rewatching Season 1 of the mini-series (every couple of nights another episode) and Season 3 (on Starz, through Comcast, which while it does not give me access to streaming, plays the weekly episode at least twice daily for some 6 days after a new one airs) and would like to report or record some significant changes from the books to the films, which I cannot find cited anywhere on the Internet or in Gabaldon’s first Outlandish Companion (there have now been two volumes, the first on Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager).

The opening episode (prologue in effect) to Season 2 comes from the third novel, Voyager: scenes in a hospital or recuperation place as Claire makes her transition from a bedraggled, filthy, semi-starved reluctant participant in the 18th century Scottish-Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian regime in England to a 20th century pregnant wife of a history professor. The opening (not a prologue but part of the matter proper) five episodes of the third season comes from the second book, Dragonfly in Amber: Claire and Brianna’s (Sophie Skelton) trip to Inverness twenty years after Claire left with Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) for Boston where he became a tenured published respected professor at Harvard and she a physician; they encounter Roger Wakefield, now also (like Frank Randall once was) a history professor at Oxford; there is no interruption of material from what Jamie is doing concurrently in Scotland in the 18th century (as there is in the mini-series which places this material from the later parts of Voyager into an interweave in the first half of the third season).

Claire, Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin), Brianna Randall reading through records, third season

Dragonfly in Amber then proceeds as the second season did — to France. There is a much longer extended dramatization of Claire’s time as a healer working with Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour) in L’Hopital des Anges, a convent hospital in Paris preceding the catastrophe of the march into England by the Jacobite army under Prince Charles (Andrew Gower) and the Earl of Murray (Julian Wadham), and then its subsequent forced retreat (not enough people joined) to momentary victory at Prestonpans and then disaster at Culloden. And then the second season moves abruptly to American in 1967/68 or so, with Claire’s education as surgeon-physician, and Frank’s death in a car accident just as he is about to leave Claire for Oxford, taking Brianna with him; and the plunge into in medias res Claire and Brianna’s visit to Inverness and discovery that Jamie survived Culloden.

The point is to shift the emphasis: in the second book it’s strongly on Claire, her development of herself as a physician and mother, her return to deeply engaged imagined roots to equal or more time to Jamie. Scots clan politics, and the battlefields. In the third book, Voyager, we are reading a woman’s novel for five long superb chapters – and they are long — as Claire gets up the courage to tell her daughter the truth of her parentage and about Claire’s time in 18th century Scotland both at first in Boston, and then as they travel to deeply felt sites de memoires. The episode in the third season (five, “Freedom and Whiskey”) preceding Claire’s journey back reminded me of older classic women’s films like Now Voyager (starring Bette Davis, based on a Olive Prouty novel) and Stella Dallas (starring Barbara Stanwyck, a King Vidor film about a selfless mother devoting herself to a spoilt daughter who is not at fault as she hasn’t been told) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine, a Max Ophuls film).

Claire pregnant serving Frank (Tobias Menzies), 3rd season

In the concluding features to the DVD for the second season, Ronald Moore, the real creator of this mini-series in the script, in the direction, in the filming, discusses what is changed from book to film. He keeps his discussion on a high level of generality: they cannot film the book because one sentence saying X was riding to Y can take hundreds of dollars and 20 minutes film time. He does tell of how each episode is a unit in itself with its own self-enclosed themes and structure. He conceded a great deal more dramatization of what Jamie was doing in Paris and the battlefields merely told or remembered in the novel occurs in the mini-series. Nonetheless or at the same time the driving inner force of the books is about Claire and through her women’s worlds and that provides framing (however switched), continuity (in say the voice-over) and many sequences in the book within the male action-adventure episodes, for example, to take from all three seasons thus far: the domestic world of Lallybroch, Claire’s quest to find and rescue Jamie working as a dancing gypsy with Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) (Season 1), the French saloniere’s libetine culture, Claire helping Jenny (Laura Donnelly) through childbirth, the coercion of Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day) to marry a much older distasteful man, a rape of her in the streets, and her murderous revenge, her pregnancy by Alexander Randall (younger gentle brother to Jonathan Wolverton), most of all the medical science worlds, Claire’s stillborn child. There is a female gaze, mother-and-daughter and women’s friendship-sisterhood caring narrative at work. The proportion is changed significantly in the mini-series so the woman’s novel is obscured.

All this is suppressed, not only the changes, but any discussion at all of differences between films and books on the Outlander sites on face-book and twitter — this is strange as such discussions occur regularly on the Poldark sites (and many others, Austen sites for example). It’s common on fan sites for people watching the films to talk of the differences in the books and some of the inferences they make. Much worse, I notice ads imposed on these Outlander sites (including the one not controlled by the makers of the films) which model female swoons at the male actors. It repeats over and over. This effectively silences any other approach to the candid sexuality of the women (and here the parallels are the swooning posters over Aidan Turner, only they are not so slickly done, though they use popular promotional material made for just this purpose). This is no surprise as every face-book or other site on the Net I have found (with one significant exception) seems to have been set up and is controlled by the film-makers or Gabaldon herself. But it makes for a great loss of understanding.

I do not deny the presence of a counter-force of the patriarchal macho-male culture across the culture in the books: for example, though Claire is having two lovers, two husbands, she is coerced into this, has not two selves but one (for Jamie as the “love of her life”); when serious politics or grim difficulties are to be endured she is told she must go back through the stones (in a scene between Jamie and Claire by the stones oddly reminiscent of the famous Casablanca where Rick teaches Ilsa she must retreat while he stays to endure the risk and serious business, with his deeper companion, the French officer played by Claude Rains – the equivalent figure is Murtagh). No doppelganger here. This is not a stealth woman’s film much like Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel the source) or The Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory) where a not-so-muted protest is made against the treatment of women in the terms of gorgeous costume drama.

Claire mannishly dressed in the 3rd season

As to what commentary my blogs have elicited and I have read in “official recaps” (there is one in the New York Times on-line), I have been startled to discover that the depiction of Claire’s relationship to her daughter, Brianna is seen by all of them as “dysfunctional” and “Claire’s fault.” It seems they “side” with Brianna that the mother lived in “a world of her own” (that is a charge the daughter made) and was somehow inattentive (?) and certainly gave Frank, her husband, a “bad deal.” I can see how her living with Frank can be seen that way: it must be he who paid for her physician’s education; all one can say is he choose this, she did all she could to be a good lover with him but she couldn’t forget the other man. To her daughter too she is all self-sacrifice: with Frank she lives except for the job an utterly 1950s housewife life — no one objects to her job as that’s not socially acceptable any more. To her daughter she is utterly abject; she gives every hour she could — Frank accuses her of “never being there,” reminding me of the implied accusations in The Divine Order: by going to vote, by getting a job our heroine must neglect her function as a mother, and (obedient) wife and sexual lover. And she apologizes to her daughter profusely again and again. To me the portrait was dripping with sentiment. I felt Claire would learn to dislike such a daughter, or just never behave that way. So it was false. In Dragonfly in Amber we see Frank being nasty, resentful, marital bickering; this is removed in the film so he looks put upon and not himself equally supporting against this as is marriage.

Claire had apologized to no one up to the time her daughter grew up and complained. “Self-absorption” is another no-no women face. I suspect I’d be seen as living in a world of my own. How dare you? who do you think you are?

Now I discover that the interpretation of all five of the first episodes of the third season have Claire as villain. I can’t quite see why she is a villain, but so they all assert. Only now in the sixth that she has crossed the stones and become Jamie’s wife in 18th century terms is she heroine again. Her villainy with her daughter and coming son-in-law is strange to me. What is it they resent? Frank has a mistress by this time — who reviles Claire for not “letting Frank go,” and making him have a miserable life when she could have given him great happiness.

The moralizing justification for watching this show meanwhile is its feminism, and the one academic paper I’ve heard emphasized its use of female narrator and over-voice. The speaker also claimed the mini-series satisfies the female gaze — though the NYTimes woman reminds us Claire is continually threatened by rape and there is much male violence, and Jamie takes Claire’s place as victim — I’d add from a sadistic homosexual (however this is denied) perspective thus damning homosexual men. Claire’s POV was dominant in the first season but (once again) Ronald Moore has admitted he has added (the way Davies did for Colin Firth as Darcy) much matching material to make Jamie’s point of view equal and one of the episodes this season was purely him in a fantasy of acceptance in a great country house where he provides the heir and the central woman-mother of this boy conveniently dies. But among these ordinary or common women readers, there are protests against this over-voice — a film studies book I have argues that over-voice is so rarely used because it’s seen as feminine.

As to the first Episodes six through eight of season three (her return, her defense of herself, her resuming her “career” as a physician), we could subtitle the sequence Claire Has Grown Up. A different kind of conflict emerges between Jamie and Claire: she is 20 years older, she is a physician, she is used to controlling her time, place and having a job. After she is (per usual) nearly raped and murdered at the close of episode 6 and opening of 7, she insists on trying to save the man’s life. She is told by Jamie were the body to be discovered no one would believe her story; living in brothel, she’d be at fault; she’d be put in prison or hung. So misogyny made plain. But against his advice she persists. To get the compounds she wants, she has to agree to see another patient — someone buying compounds who she frames as a patient. Going there she discovers they are crooks; the woman mentally deranged and used by her brother to make money — put on laudanum day and night. She can do nothing for her. Come back and she has ideas of moving out of the brothel, get a place of their own you see, from which she could set up her own business as a healer. Or from the printer’s shop. He looks bemused. Then Ian’s son is there and she meets (a moving scene) Ian (Steven Cree), her crippled brother-in-law for the first time in 20 years. She has to account for her absence and lies that she thought Jamie dead and lived in Boston, but lately finding out he was living (Promptly?) returned. Ian does not quite swallow this. Then she sees Jamie lie about Ian’s son and say he doesn’t know where the boy is; in fact he’s at the printing bedding a a very willing girl servant (yes — male wet dreams satisfied here). Claire is appalled: Ian is worried sick, and as a parent Ian should be told. She forgets that Jamie has a son and he begins to speak back about his lack of connection to Brianna and his jealousy of how he felt imagining her relationship with Frank.

She is wanting her own identity, has her own ideas. The new sidekick, Mr Willoughby (Gary Young, an Asian actor) has become her assistant; he refers to her as “honorable wife.” In fact her outfit, which is complained about as so “nurse-like” is right; the film-makers are trying to assert her as a separate identity — probably from the books. Then the thunderbolt in the last minutes of Episode 8 (“First Wife”). The young Ian and a servant girl from a tavern are having sex in the printing shop and come across a spy intent oon exposing Jamie’s seditious activities or smuggling and in the melee the print office is burnt down, with Jamie losing his business — after heroically saving the boy (reminding me of a scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton). (What happened to the girl? she doesn’t count?), years of effort and a legitimate profession gone. Now what?; what turn of history have they now? turning to pirates is admitting a lack of suitable organic material, a poverty of invention …

A promotional shot

That films are a key force in our cultural worlds is onereason I study and write about them.


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