Tom Stoppard: 'Anna Karenina comes to grief because she has fallen in love for the first time'

Tom Stoppard says his original approach to writing the screenplay for Joe Wright's new film adaptation of Anna Karenina was for a fast, modern movie about being in lust. Then wiser counsels – including his own – prevailed

The latest film adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina began in what Tom Stoppard calls "a normal kind of way", though it did not exactly have a normal outcome. Sitting in his penthouse flat in west London with his back to a stunning view of the Thames, he lights the first of the six cigarettes that will measure out this conversation.

"Somebody rang my agent, Anthony Jones," he says, before adding: "It was to ask if I was up for adapting Anna Karenina for Joe Wright. It was Joe's choice of movie."

This is an ideal moment to talk to one of Britain's leading contemporary playwrights. Stoppard is in that limbo that writers experience when the work is done and dusted, before the public has really caught up and cast its vote. Indeed, this late summer season is blessed with not one, but two, Stoppard screen adaptations. His version of Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, which we'll come to, is winning golden opinions on BBC2.

Speaking of his Anna Karenina, which stars Keira Knightley in the title role, Stoppard says that Wright's commission came at a good time. He'd finished the script of Parade's End, and had no stage play in mind. Writing a screenplay, he says, is like writing left-handed: "It doesn't feel like a continuation of my writing life. It's an interruption, but a welcome one, especially if I haven't got a play on."

Perhaps only a dramatist of Stoppard's stature and experience could welcome the invitation to turn Tolstoy's masterpiece into cinema. It's a daunting prospect: the novel is more than 800 pages in the excellent Penguin Classics translation, by the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And still more demanding, the story of the beautiful married woman who falls hopelessly in love with the dashing cavalry officer but eventually throws herself under a train in despair has become as familiar to audiences as Hamlet or The Odyssey.

And that's before you've begun to take on board the novel's cinematic history. By the most casual inventory, there have been at least 12 screen versions, ranging from the Greta Garbo classic (1935), to the Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson version of 1948, an American silent movie, entitled Love, which somehow contrived a happy ending, and even an Egyptian version Nahr al-Hob (River of Love) made in 1960.

So where did he start? "I actually watched several Anna Kareninas," he says. "At screenplay school, I'm sure they tell you not to watch the previous attempts. But I found it irresistible. Also, I'd never seen a Garbo film. Ever. I was fascinated by that. So I saw Garbo and I saw Vivien Leigh. And there was a BBC version, that was the best for me, because it was six hours."

He also reread the novel, of course, for the first time in 30 or 40 years. "I felt quite …" he hesitates, "I don't know what the word is, but I felt I was under greater surveillance by Tolstoy compared to Ford Madox Ford. It's a wonderful novel with some great set-pieces, like Vronsky's steeplechase. The big question, for me, on getting to know the book again, was what to do with the second story, the Levin story."

There's the additional problem that the Levin chapters of the novel contain many long discussions about local government, and estate management. "It's as though," Stoppard jokes, "Tolstoy took the big essay at the end of War and Peace and said to himself, 'I'd better spread this through the whole story next time.'"

But Levin (modelled on Tolstoy himself) is important. The parallel, shy relationship between Levin and Kitty (superbly played by Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander) is used by Tolstoy to counterpoint Anna's affair. "For a while," Stoppard continues, "I thought we should ignore everything and just go hell for leather, and into, and through, and out of, this relentless love affair. I was going to make it like a very fast modern movie, which was all about being in lust." In the end, he says, "wiser counsels prevailed, including my own". He delivered a script of about 130 pages – in movie terms, a film of about two-and-a-half hours.

The idea of the film, at this point, was, he says, "to deal seriously with the subject of love" as it applies to several pairs of characters, Anna and Vronsky (Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson), Anna and her husband (played by Jude Law), Levin and Kitty. The word "love" was intended to chime through the script to indicate various kinds of loving, from adulterous infatuation to marital contentment.

So far, so normal. But here's the thing: when Wright's film opens, the audience finds itself pitched not into imperial Russia but into a stunning visual metaphor, a dilapidated 19th-century Russian theatre. The stalls, boxes, scene docks, dressing rooms and backstage theatrical clutter become the setting for all the Moscow and St Petersburg parts of the novel, a stark, and highly stylised, contrast with the more conventional and naturalistic scenes set on Levin's estate (actually, Salisbury Plain).

So what happened?

After the preview, and in anticipation of this interview, I had imagined, at this point, Stoppard would confide that, as a man of the theatre, he had conceived the idea of framing his adaptation with a cinematic proscenium arch. But this, it turns out, is not the case. He seems still to be coming to terms with Wright's directorial coup.

"No, I didn't have this idea at any point," he insists. "The script was done and Joe went off to location scout in Russia." But, for various reasons, this recce was unsatisfactory, and Wright continued to look for locations in England, without much luck.

"He called me up, and said, 'Can I see you urgently?' He came round with a big file and exhibited his idea – essentially that the Moscow and St Petersburg scenes should take place in a 19th-century theatre – on my kitchen table."

Was this to do with budget problems? Stoppard shakes his head. "Joe needed a concept to get excited about doing the novel as a movie. I think he talked to Keira about it – Pride and Prejudice had worked out really well for them – and this was what he came up with."

Another cigarette. A pause. "It was a bit of a shock," he continues, "but the shock was ameliorated by Joe's wanting no changes in the script. He shot my script," Stoppard concludes, with satisfaction.

Indeed he did. Wright's version is a directorial tour de force propelled by Dario Marianelli's headlong score. Every frame is stamped with an overwrought aesthetic sensibility that transforms what might have been a naturalistic costume drama into the mannered pirouette of a theatrical ensemble swept along in a classic Russian romance.

This Anna Karenina is probably not the film Stoppard envisaged, and he concedes to "various worries" about the decision to place the drama in a single location – basically, a Shepperton sound stage. However, he adds that: "My fundamental sense is that I'm much more interested by what Joe has done – and I'm not as worried as I might have been if I had been the screenwriter of the 47th immaculate costume drama [from the BBC], another classic, well-dressed, romantic drama."

For that kind of satisfaction, the Stoppard fan must turn to Parade's End, a labour of love to which Stoppard has devoted several years. He confesses now that "it feels too long since my last stage play [Rock'n'Roll, which premiered at the Royal Court in 2006]. Parade's End is the reason, but I don't mind. I had delusions of proprietorship with those characters." Compared to Anna Karenina, he says, "Parade's End felt much more like my own work," adding that, "I invented much more".

That's true enough. But Stoppard's late fascination with the secret anatomy of love, a turning away from the argumentative verbal fireworks of plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jumpers, is braided into every line of Anna Karenina. He says he wanted to examine what happens to a married woman, Anna, who discovers sex for the first time, a theme possibly of greater relevance today than might generally be admitted.

In quest of this, he gives Anna some wonderfully resonant lines. After her first experience of love-making with Vronsky, she murmurs, "You have murdered my happiness", a subtle and complicated sentiment that shortly becomes: "So this is love … This!"

Stoppard believes that "what Tolstoy is on about is that carnal love is not a good idea". The script also takes him back into territory – infidelity – that he explored on stage in The Real Thing. Today, he is at pains to draw a clear distinction between St Petersburg in the 1870s and London in the 1980s. "Russian society was not exactly a hotbed of chastity," he says, relishing the oxymoron. "Anna comes to grief because she has fallen in love for the first time."

I wonder, en passant, if the Czech part of Tom Stoppard (born Tomas Straussler in 1937) responds to Tolstoy, the Slav, but this won't fly. He shakes his head. "I don't think falling in love in Slovakia is much different from falling in love in Tunbridge Wells," he replies.

Speaking of romance, more generally, he admits that, as he grows older, "it's not of less interest. If anything, I think, it becomes more important. My own progress has been from thinking that it was unimportant, that it was the play of minds that kept a play crackling."

He has come to see that the heart is quite as dependable an engine of drama as the head. "In Rock'n'Roll, I was basically doing the Prague spring, the politics of 1968, but I came to understand that – for the audience – the play works as a love story. Now I tend to look for ways to introduce what you call 'romance' into what is ostensibly the 'real' topic, the politics, the ideas, or whatever."

With a closing laugh, Stoppard stubs out his last cigarette. "Actually, if the 'real' topic is my only topic, I may be in trouble." Does he have any explanation for this transition from the cerebral and argumentative play of ideas (Travesties; Arcadia) to something warmer and fuzzier? A sheepish look, after which we say goodbye. "The truth of the matter," he replies, "is that I used to be much more – as it were – shy. Now I don't care!"


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Anna Karenina: Joe Wright's coup de théâtre on Tolstoy's doomed heroine

Jason Solomons reports from the set of Anna Karenina, and director Joe Wright's iconoclastic theatrical setting for his new movie

Jason Solomons

01, Sep, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
How Joe Wright's vision of Anna Karenina was brought to life

Daunting challenges had to be met to get the costumes, sets and camera angles right

Killian Fox

01, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Why Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina transcends the ages

Five writers give their personal takes on the appeal that makes Anna Karenina a literary masterpiece

01, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Domhnall Gleeson: 'Having Levin in the mix is a really good move'

Domhnall Gleeson talks to Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy about his role as Levin, the young landowner who finds love with Kitty, in Anna Karenina

Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

01, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Anna Karenina – review
Set in a fantasy theatre world, Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright's bold adaptation – starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law – sacrifices the novel's poignancy for creative flair, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

05, Sep, 2012 @11:43 AM

Article image
Keira Knightley: 'I was trying to keep hold of a real, raw Anna Karenina'

Keira Knightley tells Jason Solomons that the key to playing Tolstoy's tragic heroine in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina was endless research

Jason Solomons

01, Sep, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
Should we condemn Anna Karenina a little more?
David Cox: Tom Stoppard's modern take on Tolstoy's masterpiece dwells on the censure Anna receives from society for her adultery. Has our own society become too feebly non-judgmental?

David Cox

10, Sep, 2012 @10:39 AM

Article image
Anna Karenina – review
By setting much of Tolstoy's masterpiece inside a theatre, Joe Wright both dazzles and distances the viewer, finds Philip French

Philip French

08, Sep, 2012 @11:08 PM

Article image
Anna Karenina wins Oscar for costume design

Anna Karenina has won the best costume design Oscar at this year's Academy Awards

Andrew Pulver

25, Feb, 2013 @2:18 AM

Article image
Keira Knightley confirmed for Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

Star will act alongside Jude Law and Aaron Johnson in Atonement director's adaptation of a Tolstoy classic

Andrew Pulver

09, Sep, 2011 @1:56 PM