THE film statistics bible IMDB.com lists Leo Tolstoy as having 131 production credits to his name. While this figure includes both feature films and TV serials in numerous languages, the volume of adaptations is nonetheless impressive for works commonly held to be, in Henry James’ words, “baggy monsters”.
Unlike Shakespeare, whose mighty total of 668 page-to-screen adaptations make the Bard a predictable leader in the field, it is perhaps surprising that so many have attempted to film Tolstoy. This is not because the author is not a magnificent artist. One doesn’t have to look very hard to encounter the superlatives in his favour – Thomas Mann decreed that “the pure narrative power of his work is unequalled”; Ernest Hemingway thought him “more formidable than any other writer except Shakespeare”; while James Joyce claimed that ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ is “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”.
Yet finding twentieth-century luminaries of this stature speaking out in such effusive terms about the films based on Tolstoy’s work is a trickier proposition. While Clarence Brown’s 1935 Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo is much praised as an MGM vehicle for its enigmatic star – and as critic Roger Ebert puts it, “how could we deny Garbo anything?” – the consensus remains that while it is an often excellent film, at a nippy 96 minutes, it is hardly the Anna Karenina of Tolstoy. The most recent attempt in 1997 sees the execrable pairing of Sophie Marceau as the vain, tiresome protagonist in a lacklustre partnership with Sean Bean as Count Vronsky, and while the film looks gorgeous, any adaptation which causes the viewer to long for that final train to turn up on time is surely a lost cause.
War and Peace fares similarly poorly, with a range of films bearing its name, some good (the 1968 Russian version at least attempts fidelity with a painstaking 373 minute run-time), some not so, but none capturing the spirit of Tolstoy’s classic. These two most frequently adapted works are of course renowned for their sheer scale: both are fabulously detailed and, famously in the case of War and Peace, contain myriad characters. Neither of these two qualities lend themselves readily to the cinema, yet scale is too easy an answer to the problem of filming Tolstoy. Long films can be triumphs – see the 282 minute version of Das Boot for proof – and lengthy books may be adapted successfully for the silver screen, as with Peter Jackson’s popular Lord Of The Rings epics. Although size undoubtedly matters, it is on a more elusive level of style and structure that Tolstoy challenges us.
This may be because, as the argument goes, Tolstoy is the supreme realist. Yet he is also so much more than this; the author has at least as much in common with legendarily hard-to-film authors like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, than with the controlled social realism of a George Eliot or a Charles Dickens. Tolstoy arguably invented the deathbed monologue so beloved of the Modernists – ‘The Death Of Ivan Ilyich’ is almost entirely devoted to this theme – and interludes such as Prince Andrei’s stream of consciousness in War and Peace foreshadow much of what Joyce and his contemporaries would go on to perfect. Tolstoy is both realistic and intensely subjective, thrusting the reader directly into contact with the private lives of characters who convince utterly as real people. Perhaps more than any other writer, he conjures the sensation in the reader ‘I am that person’ or ‘I know that person’. This lies at the heart of the problems inherent in committing him to celluloid: film as a medium is much happier dealing in speculation: ‘I wish I were that person’ or ‘I’m glad I’m not that person’. As Lionel Trilling put it, “there are moments in literature which do not yield the secret of their power to any study of language, […] times when the literary critic can do nothing more than point”. This applies equally for the writer seeking to adapt Tolstoy.
It is for these reasons that one of the most successful attempts at adaptation throws much of the book out of the window. Bernard Rose, although also responsible for the 1997 Anna Karenina, succeeds in transforming the late novella ‘The Death Of Ivan Ilyich’ into Ivans_ XTC (pronounced ‘Ivan’s Ecstasy’), a ghoulish Hollywood fable about the rise and fall of a spiritually starved agent. Whether anyone should attempt a similar feat for the larger novels is open to question, but Rose’s bold effort suggests it may be worth another try.