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Les Mis and Anna Karenina: See the Movies, But Read the Books!

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]borderstan.com.

moviefanI went to see Les MisĂ©rables at a Cineplex in the Bronx, having purchased tickets ahead as a gift for my sister. She rarely goes out to the movies… never in a theater so crowded as this one was on Christmas day–packed with an expectant and sassy Bronx crowd.

The excitement was high, and although my  sister insisted on voicing aloud, in Bronx style, her objections to the sentimentality of the redemption of Jean Valjean and the relative  (to her ear) of the music, I became totally involved.

Many in the audience were expecting spectacular effects, and we got them. And  we did not balk at the operatic conventions in the film; all the dialogue was sung. There was a bit of titter when the young lovers expressed themselves in rhyming riffs towards the end of the show, but that died down and we dissolved in tears at the final scenes.

The show stoppers of Les Misérables are well-known, and the film delivered them. Ann Hathaway did a fabulous job with her “dreamed a dream” song, which turned on the tear faucets for me. It was as if I were at the La Scala opera house in Milan, latching onto an aria. After a moment or two, the audience joined in to sing along. From Fantine’s demise on out, I was either in tears or close to them.

Opera lovers don’t judge opera by usual standards of verisimilitude or suspense. They know the story already, and they come to savor it. They expect the same old same old, but they love seeing some outstanding player give it new life.

Anna Karenina is like Les Misérables in that its story has also been told time and again. My Netflix queue counts at least seven film versions of each story. A new one seems to come out every twenty or so years. The wronged man learning to forgive over and over again despite being hunted by an obsessive jailer. But so noble in his compassion. The beautiful woman, arriving in St. Petersburg on a foreboding train, and falling so hopelessly in love as to throw her entire life at risk. But so tragic in her despair.

The current movie version doesn’t do justice to Tolstoy’s masterpiece, but neither does it fail to serve the enduring image of the tragic heroine. Kiera Knightley is wonderfully appealing (and dressed) in the title role. And although the insistence of the director Joe Wright and the screen-writer  Tom Stoppard in presenting the story as an ongoing play is distracting, the story remains as involving as ever. Knightley enacts the image of gradual personal destruction in the film, and Jude Law is heart-breaking as the deserted husband. In short, the new film evokes Tolstoy’s astonishing empathy with everyone in his novel.

My highly critical sister has informed me that she is now reading and savoring “the book” — Victor  Hugo’s huge history of Jean Valjean. And as I viewed the new version of Anna, I kept referring back to the book by Tolstoy, which I once taught in college classes. I think of older versions of the two stories on film as well. Somewhere in my childhood, I saw Frederick March as Jean Valjean and Charles Lawton as Javert, and I couldn’t rest until that book was in my hands. And my mother kept telling me that Greta Garbo was an unforgettable Anna. When I finally saw the black and white movie on TV, I had to agree with my mother’s judgment—a rare occurrence for me.

There is something archetypal in each work that invites repetition and eludes criticism. Their essential appeal transcends adaptation. So see the latest versions in the theaters, rent one or another of the old versions to watch at home, but READ THE BOOKs! They are the best versions of all.

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Mary Burgan was the first contributor to Borderstan and writes movie reviews as the Borderstan Movie Fan. She moved to the area in the 1990s to become an association executive after a career as an professor of English Literature. On Sundays you can find her singing in the choir at Saint Augustine Catholic Church on 15th Street NW. Contact her at mary@borderstan.com.

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