Sex, sex and more sex, and very little sense

Channel 4's 'Anna Karenina' has lost the plot
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bearing in mind that the film-makers' intention was to "update" Anna Karenina, Channel 4's marketing department certainly plumped for a curiously retrograde advertising line. Commanded by the publicity to watch Channel 4's series with a view to weighing up whether Anna Karenina is a "tragic heroine" or a "selfish whore", perhaps we would do better to ponder over the possibility that there is more of a grey area between these poles in contemporary Britain than there was in 19th-century St Petersburg.

For, curiously, even moralistic, religious Tolstoy gave her far more benefit of the doubt than this series seems willing to, judging from the first episode.

He was quite certain that her behaviour was entirely wrong, and deserved the most extreme punishment. But at least he took pains to explore her personality and her possible motivations. Anna Karenina would be a pretty negligible book if it was simply a tale of the folly of being "a selfish whore". Nor would it have so much resonance if it were just a story of how an unforgiving society crushed a heroine into tragedy.

Of course, it would be quite a different book as well if the thrust of the story was that Anna Karenina hadn't been getting decent sex from her husband, but was transformed by Vronsky's superior technique.

In Channel 4's version, this is portrayed as the motivating force behind their relationship. Even though we are told, through the agency of a conversation between Vronsky and his mother, that the problem here was not that they were having sex with each other, but that they loved each other, the series determinedly ploughs on with the insertion of arty sex and groping scenes, as if this dubious modern freedom somehow unlocks a hidden subtext that poor old Tolstoy felt compelled to censor.

While the inclusion of these sex scenes causes much heated debate, no one ever seems to ponder the obvious. Even if we could accept that Anna's great love were predicated on great sex alone, what then is Vronsky's motivation of giving up everything for great sex with Anna? It's possible to believe that having had the most ghastly of sex with her husband, Anna might find sex with Vronsky sensationally addictive. It's a little harder to believe that a man who has made love to scores of women, would be likely to share this revelation.

The point of Anna and Vronsky's affair is that it's not about sex. That would have been easy. Discreet sexual affairs were not frowned upon in Russian society, any more than they are in ours. It was the pair's decision to indulge their passion and their love that was frowned upon, and, by emphasising the sexual element, Channel 4 trivialises rather than modernises the emotional content of the story.

Many comparisons have been made between the recent serialisations of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, largely because sex scenes were similarly pasted into a story which had managed for a century without them.

Again, according to the television series, the motivating force for the heroine was that her husband was rubbish in bed. The modern belief, as portrayed in these programmes, is that because marriage can be defined as a primarily sexual relationship, then it follows that when it comes to the crunch that is all it is.

In both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, part of the women's problem in extricating themselves from their marriages is that they have a child. Again, this has been seized upon as some kind of badge of contemporary resonance. This is just nonsense. A woman who abandons her children today may still be regarded as beyond the pale, but that is only because contemporary opinion - even Tony Parsons's - contends that children are best off with their mothers. A modern English Anna would undoubtedly have been able to negotiate care and control of her son, or at least square up to shared access.

In such a climate, there is every possibility that Anna and Vronsky might have lived happily ever after. The boy, though, would - then as now - have found arrangements damaging and painful.

The fact is that there are no "contemporary resonances" in Anna Karenina. Understanding of the story demands something we seem to find more and more difficult in literature and easier and easier in soap opera - and that is suspension of disbelief. It is important to understand the social and moral mores of Tolstoy's Russia in order to understand the forces that overtook Anna Karenina. It is important to dump our contemporary mores here in this quite different world before we enter hers.

In the world in which Anna Karenina lives, there are no sex scenes. It would be rather nice if television could spend a little time wondering what that might be like, instead of remaining intent on its great project - fashioning a medium in which there are plenty of sex scenes and no worlds.

Anna Karenina' is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Tuesdays.