Tom Stoppard, On Adapting 'Anna' And Defining Love

Nov 17, 2012
Originally published on November 17, 2012 5:48 am

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina weighs in at close to 1,000 pages, whatever the translation. And since it appeared in the 1870s, it has often been acclaimed as one of the finest novels ever written. It's also been adapted for film or television at least a dozen times — including a sweeping and highly theatrical new version directed by Joe Wright.

Keira Knightley plays the unhappily married Anna, with Jude Law as her chilly, correct husband, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky, the dashing cavalry officer whose love for Anna leads to tragedy.

But how do you adapt a huge, sprawling legend of a novel for yet another screen treatment? By enlisting another legend: Tom Stoppard, whose classic, award-winning plays include Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and The Coast of Utopia, and whose previous screenplays include the Oscar-nominated Brazil and the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love.

Stoppard speaks with Scott Simon about his adaptation, working with Joe Wright, and the nature of love.


Interview Highlights

On adapting a story that's so well known

"I think the things that people know about the story are not so enormous. People have quite a simple idea about Anna Karenina. They feel that the novel is entirely about a young married woman who falls in love with a cavalry officer and leaves her husband after much agony, and pays the price for that. In fact, of course, it's a canvas kind of novel, and it has sets of characters. Principally, one should mention the character of Levin, who represents the author much more than anybody in the Karenin household does."

On what he thought of Joe Wright setting much of the film on a stage

"Well, he didn't let me know in a phone call. He came around with a lot of storyboards, and he was very excited and nervous, and I was very alarmed and then very excited myself. He didn't want the script changed in any way. He just wanted to explain how he wished to approach the script. He was fearing that he'd end up making the 97th immaculate costume drama since the year 2000. And I just feel that as long as the characters are not in on the whole concept, it should work. And it does work for me.

"If you have a dinner-party scene, which we do in the movie, the point is that that dinner party, while it's happening, is being performed, acted, in what I'd call 'the normal way.' In other words, that people inhabit that place and they're at a real dinner party. The fact that you've previously established that it's taking place in — I think it's a scene dock backstage at this theater that Joe built to film most of the movie in — the fact that you've established that it's not happening in an actual dining room very, very rapidly gets factored out by the brain. You know, it becomes unimportant. And you accept the scene as though it were a normal kind of storytelling.

"A lot of the time, it actually gives you huge gains, and the movie has a fluid, forward motion, which I see now leaves us much better off as a collective of story tellers. It leaves us much better off than we might have been when one would be following what's on the page."

On why he had a problem believing Vronsky's suicide attempt in the novel

"Vronsky, Anna's lover, at a certain point in the narrative is rejected, and he — he loses his nerve, and he's just demoralized and so on. And he gets his service revolver and attempts to shoot himself in the heart, but misses. I didn't have any problem with the fact that he missed, but a bullet through the body, somewhere near the heart, is something that you don't easily recover from.

"I didn't buy it. And if you think that's terrible, I'll say something even more terrible, which is that the more I read through this book, the more I began to think that Tolstoy lost faith in it too, and didn't really buy it either, because the incident disappears from the narrative.

"I contrived a kind of duel where he attempts to commit suicide by forcing a duel in which he would be shot, which I still quite like. And if we ever remake when I'm above 110, I think we'll try it again."

On what he thinks love is

"Love is — OK, it's 20 things, but it isn't 19. And I think that love reaches for something which is very, very deep in us and is very easily obscured, and is also very easily denied, which is the instinct towards the other person, other than toward the self. In the end, it's the deepest question, really, you know? Are we born self-interested and we have to learn to be good? Or are we born selfless and merely corrupted by competition and institution?"

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" weighs in at close to a thousand pages, whatever the translation. And since it appeared in the 1870s, it's often been acclaimed as just about the finest novel ever written. It's also been adapted for film or television at least a dozen times, including a sweeping and theatrical new version directed by Joe Wright.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) Why are you leaving Moscow?

AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Count Vronsky) What else can I do? I have to be where you are.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) Stop, that's enough. Go back to Kitty.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Count Vronsky) No.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) This is wrong.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Count Vronsky) Makes no difference.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) You have no right.

SIMON: Keira Knightley plays the unhappily married Anna, with Jude Law as her unwitting husband, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky, the dashing cavalry officer whose love for Anna leads to tragedy. Or is it really love? How do you adapt a huge, sprawling legend of a novel for yet another screen treatment? By enlisting another legend. Sir Tom Stoppard, whose classic, Olivier- and Tony-awarding-winning plays include "Arcadia," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," and "The Coast of Utopia," and whose previous screenplays include the Oscar-nominated "Brazil" and the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love." Tom Stoppard joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM STOPPARD: Thank you. Good morning. Nice to be here.

SIMON: How do you adapt a story that is not only so enormous but so well-known?

STOPPARD: I think the things that people know about the story are not so enormous. People have quite a simple idea about Anna Karenina. They feel the novel is entirely about a young married woman who falls in love with a cavalry officer and leaves her husband after much agony, and pays the price for that. In fact, of course, it's a canvas kind of novel and it has sets of characters. Principally, one should mention the character of Levin, who represents the author much more than anybody in the Karenina household does.

SIMON: You mention the character of Levin. A lot of previous screenplays over the years have kind of deemphasized the Levin storyline. Why did you choose to go into the Levin story a little more?

STOPPARD: I don't think you're making Anna Karenina if you take him out. You could actually just do a very fast, sexy movie about a woman who collapsized(ph) on somebody and it could be a movie about commonality and lust.

SIMON: It's been done.

STOPPARD: Yes, indeed. I think that the film would lack a dimension, which the book has in spades, if you left Levin out. Tolstoy's take on the character was that love founded on carnality will wilt. It won't sustain itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

DOMHNALL GLEESON: (as Levin) An impure is not love to me. To admire another man's wife is a pleasant thing but sensual desire indulged for its own sake is greed. And the misuse of something sacred was given to us so that we may choose the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness. Otherwise, we might as well be cattle.

ALEXANDRA ROACH: (as Countess Nordston) Ah, an idealist.

SIMON: Your screenplay leaves out one of the lines for which Anna Karenina is best known - the one that begins: all happy families are alike. Each unhappy family unhappy in its own way.

STOPPARD: Well, you're not quite right because, in fact, it's the only line that's well-known from Anna Karenina as far as I'm aware.

(LAUGHTER)

STOPPARD: And it's, you know, it's such a kind of something thing. It's such a clanger really. I mean, it's sort of wonderful but unless you've got a narrator, I don't see how you'd ever get that line into the film.

SIMON: Yeah. Reviews of the film have begun to come out and a lot of attention's been devoted to the fact that Joe Wright, the director, has set much of the movie inside a theater set. Now, I gather from reading the screenplay that wasn't your idea. But what did you think of that when the director let you know.

STOPPARD: Well, he didn't let me know in a phone call. He came around with a lot of storyboards, and he was very excited and nervous and I was very alarmed and then very excited myself. He didn't want the script changed in any way. He just wanted to explain how he wished to approach the script. He was fearing that he'd end up making the 97th immaculate costume drama since the year 2000. And I just feel that as long as the characters are not in on your concept, it should work.

And it does work for me. If you have a dinner party scene, which we do in the movie, the point is that that dinner party, while it's happening, is being performed, acted in what I'd call the normal way. In other words, the people inhabit that place and they're at a real dinner party. The fact that you've previously established that it's taking place in, I think, it's a scene dock backstage at this theater that Joe built to film most of the movie in, the fact that he's established it's not happening in an actual dining room, very, very rapidly gets factored out by the brain. You know, it becomes unimportant and you accept the scene as though it were a normal kind of storytelling.

SIMON: Your screenplay has been published by Vintage Books. And in the foreword you write about the fact that you had a problem believing the suicide attempt of Count Vronsky in the novel.

STOPPARD: Vronsky, Anna's lover, at certain points in the narrative, is rejected. And he loses his nerve and he gets his service revolver and attempts to shoot himself in the heart but misses. I didn't have any problem with the fact that he missed. But a bullet through the body somewhere near the heart is something that you don't easily recover from. I didn't really - it's sort of terrible thing to say - I didn't buy it. And if you think that's terrible, I'll say something even more terrible, which is that the more I read through this book the more I began to think that Tolstoy lost faith in it too and didn't really buy it either. Because the incident disappears from the narrative.

SIMON: You're often considered a playwright of ideas and certainly deal with love and lust in this screenplay. If you can't ask Sir Tom Stoppard, who can you ask? What is love? A feeling, an idea? What is it?

STOPPARD: Love is - OK. It's 20 things but it isn't 19. And the visceral expression of love and the physical and emotional effect it has on each of us when it strikes or embraces - whichever you like - tends to drive out all other considerations. I think that love reaches for something which is very, very deep in us and is very easily obscured and is also very easily denied, which is the instinct towards the other person rather than towards the self. In the end, it's the deepest question really. You know, are we born self-interested, and we have to learn to be good, or are we born selfless and nearly corrupted by competition and institution?

SIMON: Sir Tom, thanks so much.

STOPPARD: It's been really nice talking to you. Thank you.

SIMON: Tom Stoppard. He's written the screenplay for the new film adaptation of "Anna Karenina."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you can watch scenes from Tom Stoppard's treatment of "Anna Karenina" on our website at npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.