The Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard film of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina opens in cinemas on Friday, starring Keira Knightley in the lead role, with Jude Law as her husband, Alexei Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her lover, Count Vronsky. Some critics have already wondered whether the trio is heavyweight enough for Tolstoy's classic of doomed romance, and there are fears that, after many attempts, Anna Karenina cannot be successfully filmed. However, Wright has also directed Knightley, with some success, in the literary adaptations Atonement (Ian McEwan) and Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), so perhaps the novel has met its match.
Imdb.com lists 25 other international film and TV adaptations of Anna Karenina, beginning with a German version in 1910. Perhaps the most famous Anna Karenina was Greta Garbo, who played her twice: once opposite her real-life lover John Gilbert in the 1927 silent movie Love – which had an alternative happy ending for the US market – and again in 1935. Anna has also been played by Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, and Sophie Marceau, while Vronsky has been played by Sean Bean (straight after his portrayal of Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover) and Sean Connery (before taking the role of James Bond for the first time).
The famous opening line of the novel is: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (As translated by A and L Maude.)
Vladimir Nabokov called Anna Karenina "one of the greatest love stories in world literature", and admired "the flawless magic of Tolstoy's style". Dostoevsky said that it was "flawless as a work of art", and William Faulkner described it as "the best ever written". Anton Chekhov wrote that "were it not for [Tolstoy], the world of literature would be a flock without a shepherd". However, Tolstoy himself described the book as "a bitter radish", which he struggled to finish writing.
In her biography Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Profile Books, £14.99), Rosamund Bartlett shows Tolstoy to be a mixed bag, personally. While he campaigned for the emancipation of serfs and set up schools to teach them literacy, he also seduced peasant women and sold off their villages to pay his gambling debts. He married Sofia Andreyevna when she was 18 and he was 34. Sofia bore him 13 children, five of whom died in childhood, and acted as his amanuensis and secretary.
Tolstoy and his Russian contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky, who are still commonly celebrated as two of the greatest writers of all time, never met.
Two editions of Anna Karenina have jumped into The Bookseller's Accelerators chart, thanks to the film. The chart, which lists books whose sales have increased during the previous week, has Penguin's edition up 136 per cent at number five, and the Wordsworth edition up 106 per cent, at number nine. Vintage Classics also publishes a handsome edition, in hardback and ebook format. Buy one now, and there's still time to pretend that you read it years ago.
The Blagger would never be cruel enough to spoil the ending, but fans of the novel will be intrigued to learn that some scenes were filmed at the Didcot Rail Museum in Oxfordshire.