From Page to Pixel

So Hollywood has made a hash of Anna Karenina. That’s a disappointment. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley have teamed up before in films based on significant novels, with mixed success. Viewers liked or didn’t like their Atonement for the same reason they liked or didn’t like the book and its last-minute emotional switcheroo. Before that, they made the really awful Pride and Prejudice—a box-office success that made Austen fans cringe. (The last scene, yuck! Yuck!)

When I heard Knightley would play Anna, I admit to being skeptical. Perhaps it’s the way she’s photographed, but she’s always too “on,” too aware of her external self, her perfect face, never revealing anything inside. Is anything inside? As Anna, “there’s nothing to discover in her face because she’s too much in ours,” said New York magazine critic David Edelstein.

Alas, what gives many novels their power is that internal stuff. Somehow moviemakers have to move the story and the characters with their balled-up and conflicting desires/histories/strengths/flaws from page to pixel. This week, at the last session of my class on Dickens, we watched excerpts from a 1983 video/film adaptation of one of the books we’d read, Dombey & Son. Squeezing a 950-page novel into even 300 minutes (10, 30-minute episodes) inevitably loses a lot, especially a book like Dombey, where the main plot drivers are characters’ internal “heart,” not external events. (That would be A Tale of Two Cities.) Still, it captured much of the essence and was not nearly so awful as 1998’s “modernized” Great Expectations.

It isn’t easy to modernize the classics, though Clueless did just fine in updating Emma. Pip’s determination to “be a gentleman” doesn’t resonate today. Dombey’s wife’s desire for a divorce doesn’t carry the same shock as 160 years ago. Pages of exposition that help readers today understand the characters’ view of the world and why particular issues are fundamental to them are necessarily lost. When they are put before us on screen without all that context, they feel like cardboard cutouts, “a bright red heart without a beat,” as film critic Peter Howell said of the new Anna.

Lack of a heart, a center, isn’t confined to films of the classics; even movies of modern books can be frustratingly opaque. Those are the films where you say to yourself, “What does she see in him?” or “Why is he doing that?” Oddly, what would seem an unlikely novel to make a successful transition to film was Life of Pi. The filmmakers used the long stretches at sea to present uncluttered narration that revealed Pi’s character. The movie works because the people in it and their motivations are understood, viewers can empathize with them, and they find a little piece of Pi’s struggle within their own hearts.