Joe Wright tackles Tolstoy in new 'Anna Karenina'

Getty Images File PhotoClassic lit reboot: Keira Knightley and Joe Wright attend a screening of the new film version of “Anna Karenina.”

After making his metaphysical action movie “Hanna,” English director Joe Wright was faced with the question of where to go next. The answer seemed to drop right in front of him: “Anna Karenina.”

Leo Tolstoy's late 19th century novel had been filmed many times before, the most famous version being the 1935 Greta Garbo movie.

But Wright, in San Francisco promoting the film, said the Garbo movie was truncated in a way that compromises the lead character: “So many female roles are about being passive and nice, and gentle, and supportive, and all those roles that men desperately want women to be, but actually that's not how women are.”

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The new version allows for a more complex Anna.

Wright says he wouldn't have considered making the movie without the participation of legendary playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

“I agreed to do it if Tom would do it because I was… scared,” he says.

After a draft of the screenplay was completed, Wright had a breakthrough idea. Rather than a faithful adaptation, he would set his story in a theater, not just on a stage, but also behind the scenes.

Wright says the inspiration came from childhood memories of his parents' puppet theater.

“I always found that what was most exciting about the puppet theater was the behind the scenes, and the under the stage and the lighting rig and all those areas that audiences didn't normally get to go to,” he says.

He also says he attended a taping of “Saturday Night Live” and was fascinated by the efficiency of the quick costume and set changes. He decided to bring some of that energy to his “Anna Karenina.”

Then there was the challenge of finding his Anna.

Last year, Wright reunited with actress Keira Knightley, who starred in his “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” for a Chanel commercial.

He says, “I thought, 'She's really grown up. There's something different about her.' She went through a bit of a dark time, as we all do, and has emerged stronger and yet more vulnerable at the same time.”

Knightley seemed to understand the character’s emotions and behavior – her sexuality, and how she mistakes lust for love.

“All of these things Keira has a kind of honesty about,” Wright says. “And I find that inspiring, and deeply humbling.”

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