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The Language of Film Adaptation: Anna Karenina

“A composite language by virtue of its diverse matters of expression (sequential photography, music, phonetic sound, and noise) the cinema, ‘inherits’ all the art forms associated with these matters of expression” … “the visuals of photography and painting, the movement of dance, the décor of architecture, and the performance of theatre.” - Robert Stam

Negating the notorious myth regarding semiotics and adaptation, the lines above prove that the transposition of a literary work to a visual medium is not parasitic. James Monaco suggested that in adaptations the shot is the word, the scene is its sentence, and the sequence its paragraphs. The latest adaptation of the novel “Anna Karenina”, written by Leo Tolstoy, was directed by Joe Wright in 2012. This film is a bold, Avant-Garde interpretation of the novel and is shot in a decaying theatre. The setting is historically set in the high society of St. Petersburg of Imperial Russia of 1874, who metaphorically and literally, lived their lives on a stage.

Deductions can be made after looking at the denotative (explicit or direct meaning) and connotative meanings (secondary meanings) that a scene of the film presents. In his movie, Wright depicted a connotative meaning when the hammer of a man covered in coal falls dramatically on the track, signifying his sudden death (00:19:27). For this shot, Wright used particular lighting, angle, color, background, duration, and time. This scene also foreshadows Anna’s future which will end in misery and death. A film is dependent mainly on two categories that connotation has, which are paradigmatic (shot compared to other shots) and syntagmatic (shots compared with shots that precede or follow it), along with the film’s language of Neology (the use of new words). Further understanding of cinematic signs is done in C.S Pierce’s, “Signs and Meaning in the Cinema”, which substantiate the Icon, Index, and Symbols used in the film. The Icon has a physical resemblance to the signified, thing being represented. As shown in the movie with Anna’s crying or the camera focusing on her depressed and exhausted face as she rests her head on a pillow with her hair spread out (01:24:12). The Index shows evidence of what is being represented, like Anna’s shame whenever she faces criticism, negativity, and judgments by society (01:44:57). The Symbol has no resemblance between the signifier or signified as the connection between them is culturally learned. For instance, Anna and Vronsky’s entire ill-fated relationship is framed by their interactions on trains which (00:33:40) also shows Russia’s connection with Western Europe and fashionable society.

A film is a slave of how it’s being presented and directed. If the scene of their waltz (00:29:49) was not shown with such focus, background music, expressions, angles, and lighting, the message would not have been so strong. In the film when they were sharing moments of sensual passion, the word that Anna said was “Murderer” for Vronsky, symbolizing the gruesome death of her image, life, and virtue (00:50:57). But this was also an expression of their extreme love, turning the word “Murderer” into a Trope, which can be defined as a turn of phrase or a change of sense. It serves as a connecting element between denotation and connotation.

The direction of the framed image or scene, according to Rudolf Arnheim, is based on balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color movement tension, and expression. These aspects are played well enough in Anna Karenina, as the progression between scenes is just the camera rotating and props emerging, for example, snow, toy train, garden, horse race platform, setting, etc. Aspects like proximity, proportion, balance, and information are all dependent on the idea of planes. Different cultural conventions are also placed on the interpretation of different colors. This notion is very cleverly used in the color of the dresses Anna wears. Her first actual contact with Vronsky happened when she was wearing a black gown which represents connotations of death, danger, darkness, and hate. The day she was mentally exhausted and was directed to end her life, she wore a red gown that indicated passion, anger, heat, and aggression. Her character is never shown in vibrant colors but was restricted to white (purity or virginity?), red, and black.

To highlight sentiments and actions the director also uses the technique of Multiple images (split screen) or superimpositions (double exposures). The images and thoughts that disturb Anna’s mind just before her suicide (01:57:59) are of Vronsky getting intimate with Sorokina’s daughter. This scene uses the double exposure code and is interpreted as accentuating Anna’s agony. The lighting on her face varies from scene to scene and shot to shot, as in her shame, agony, pain, love, and death her face is illuminated with different angles of lighting, depending upon her condition in the story. This dramatic effect emphasizes design over verisimilitude. Overhead light dominates the subject, from below it makes it lugubrious, highlighting calls attention to details, etc. The character of Anna Karenina is played by Keira Knightley, who has an astonishing record in doing period films. To intensify the effect of drama the focus while shooting is mainly on her facial expressions which portray her emotions. This technique falls under the category of shallow focus in which one person/object is emphasized as opposed to a deep focus where the foreground, middle ground, and background are simultaneously presented. A soft focus is associated with romantic moods whereas a sharp focus is with verisimilitude. Another filming technique is called the “tracking shot” which physically moves the camera through the scene for an extended amount of time. They are often following a traveling subject, although can also be used to simply show off the scene like the outstanding waltz scene between Anna and Vronsky. They seem to be so mesmerized by each other forgetting the conduct of society which is shown in a single long shot.However, people share different opinions about tracking shots as they make the presence of the cameraman come to attention.

The process of engaging the audience is done by the soundtrack (synchronous or asynchronous) as it helps deliver information; increases the production value; evokes emotional responses; emphasizes what is on the screen and indicates mood. A still image comes to life with the help of sounds which give an illusion of the passing of time. Last but not the least, the rhythmic value of editing is best portrayed in “accelerated montage” which depicts the change in pace and time-accelerating speed by a multiplicity of shots of ever-decreasing lengths. The scene where Vronsky takes part in a horse race (01:03:29) and ends up losing and hurting himself. The tension between Anna and the race is portrayed by a number of shots occurring at a fast speed to intensify the perception and attention of the audience. However, the film does not necessarily comply with our plane, geography, and depth perception. It is so because the majority of the backgrounds used in the film are illusional or painted like in the horse race platform or backstage. Although, these ideas are seen to be abandoned in the second half of the film where it switches back to the normal mode of settings like actual fields of the countryside or flower fields. Just like that, such components and techniques are ways to understand the language of a film. Rightly stated by Linda Hutcheon in “On the Art of Adaptation” that in film or stage adaptations, the viewer has to move from the imagination to the realm of direct perception, with its infinite detail and broad focus.


1. Hutcheon, Linda. “On the Art of Adaptation.” Daedalus, vol. 133, no. 2, 2004, pp. 108–111. JSTOR,

2. Attebery, Brian. “Introduction: Adapting to Adaptations.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 24, no. 3 (89), 2013, pp. 394–398


About the Writer

Vasundhara Parashar is a creative writer who is currently pursuing her Masters's Degree in English at Delhi University. She values the language creativity and expression that literature holds. She likes social work and has collaborated with 'Green Pencil Foundation; and 'Childo Education Research and Development Foundation'.

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