Anna Karenina and Anglicizing Other Cultures

by: Kevin Sparrow

I spent the tail end of 2011 in pre-Bolshevik Russia, reading through Anna Karenina for the first time. Tolstoy’s novel perennially makes Best Novel of All Time lists–including top rank in Time Magazine’s 10 Greatest Books, and based on my predilection toward Russian literature, it was one (long) book I knew I needed to commit to. I have a visually oriented mind, so tend to see characters and situations play out beyond the page. It was almost as though a filter from my mind had transferred itself to celluloid as, in the process of reading the novel, I heard news that an Anna Karenina film was in the works. Then came casting news: Keira Knightley was set to play the title role. As much as I enjoyed Knightley’s work in A Dangerous Method, her Russian accent was not especially consistent, which made the casting an initial head-scratcher. I read up on the additional cast–Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, a Weasley brother–and realized how Anglicized the Russian aristocracy of the novel was becoming.

The recent release of trailer for the film allayed my fears of fake Russian accents–everyone speaks with an English lilt–and given the direction by Joe Wright, this looks like Anna Karenina will follow his thread of visually stunning and emotionally intense movies Atonement and Pride & Prejudice. And there is hope in the screenplay adaptation by Tom Stoppard who has proven witty, literary and complex through stage successes like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and diverse film projects like Brazil and Shakespeare in Love. Still, this only adds to the wealth of U.K. talent being presented here and shifts the narrative in a profound way.

Changing the cultural narrative–up to the point of whitewashing–has occurred numerous times throughout cinema history; we don’t need to look much further than the awful stereotyped mugging Mickey Rooney committed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

But we will. Contemporary films may not as often have their white performers create such obvious stereotypes, but they achieve the same result of marginalization for people of color and non-Anglo people; reference recent pop culture properties that have changed the race of their characters from the source material to be Caucasian or Anglo, specifically in the films The Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender. A narrative that redacts the particular ethnicity or nationality from which it was borne goes through a series of deprivations.

First, it deprives performers of color or those of the origin’s national identity job opportunities, which are already greatly limited in film. Second, it makes people of color or non-Anglo identity invisible, saying their stories are not worthy of being told, certainly not of being told by them, Finally, it values the already overvalued and overprivileged class of society and provides a false sense of universalism by showing an Anglo person in the guise of a person from another ethnic group. This redrafting of identities continues to exoticize the world for Anglo eyes–basically, this can be called cultural imperialism. It is seen as worthy for all people to assimilate toward an Anglo worldview.

At the same time, the film is a period piece that does not reflect modern Russian life, and the source novel contains universal themes of independence, family loyalty and the tension between the two. The problems of and within the aristocracy were not peculiar to Russia, but all of Europe, especially at the time of Tolstoy’s writing. This distinguishes it in some ways from the primary issue of deprivation, which makes the issues of Anglicization a bit murkier. However, it contributes to the perception that there weren’t unique challenges to life under aristocratic Russia than could be found in England, which is not the case given the very different politics of both countries throughout the 20th century. Again, these depictions vaunt Anglo systems of governing to the detriment of other nations’.

While I am excited by the visual splendor and apparent tone of the dramatics the Anna Karenina trailer promises, because the film seems more representative of English culture than Russian, I’m hesitant to endorse seeing the film as I fear it will continue to divest Anna Karenina of its cultural roots.

Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.

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