Tom Stoppard: “What Tolstoy is on about is that carnal love is not a good idea.”

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Do not, repeat, do not try this at home...

The incomparable patron saint of bloggers, Dave Lull, alerted me to a Guardian interview with one of Britain’s foremost playwrights, Tom Stoppard, who created the screenplay for the latest film version of Anna Karenina, which we wrote about yesterday.

I don’t think Tom Stoppard quite gets it.  “What Tolstoy is on about is that carnal love is not a good idea,” he says, although Tolstoy seemed to have a pretty good idea what it was about in Anna Karenina and War and Peace (before marrying the vivacious Natasha off to the rather inept Pierre, with whom she’s rather happy by the end).  Stoppard seems to miss the point that almost all societies except our own regarded unregulated passion as a kind of madness, and a destructive force in society.  After all, Anna’s young son is left motherless at the end of the novel, and a good many other lives are disfigured.  Tolstoy might have argued that there is no such thing as a personal life, and personal choice.  That’s why he has the Levin chapters.

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”.

Apparently, the proscenium arch, stage device the film uses was not Stoppard’s idea at all, but rather director Joe Wright‘s, which comes rather as a relief.

“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.”

Once again the proscenium arch is hot news.  It sounds a lot like Ingmar Bergman‘s Magic Flute of 1975.  It was hot news way back then, too, and made for a charming production of Mozart.  Since we are speaking of happy marriages … Levin’s, anyway … I include a clip below of the sweet and magical reunion of Papageno and Papagena at the end of the opera. Hard to top that one for marital bliss.  Meanwhile … Jude Law. I’m now convinced he’d be a dynamite Alyosha (moving from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky). I don’t think his Karenin is “pinched and prim” at all (according to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian review), given the total destruction of his life Karenin is facing – see what you think in the clip below, which includes a typically Tolstovian lecture on fidelity and love, although I don’t see why cattle have to be insulted.


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