Here is the first piece of classic literature (not counting the 47 Ronin which is a classic but doesn't show up on most high school reading lists), Anna Karenina is from 1948 and features Vivien Leigh as Anna.
Leigh is the main attraction here. This film came nearly a decade after Gone With the Wind and she still has that undeniable "it" factor about her. This is perfect for the character since Anna is supposed to be so beguiling that she instantly captures the attention of her lover Count Vronsky.
The other main reason to watch this movie is Ralph Richardson, one of the best actors of the '40s as Karenin. Richardson was amazing in The Heiress made just a year later and he brings the same intensity to the role here. It's not an easy part to play. Karenin is technically the antagonist but the story is a lot more complicated than that. Richardson gives the character the needed humanity.
The movie was directed by Julien Duviver who also made the classic French movie Pepe le Moko. The movie has fine cinematography and editing. The beautiful production design is probably attributable to the film's producer Alexander Korda. Korda is a fascinating figure. He's seems very modern now in the way he crafted big budget pictures that either entertained and/or garnered critical praise.
Korda's films always fit their material, Four Feathers was sweeping and romantic, Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book were magical, and this version of Anna Karenina is taut and very intimate. Tolstoy's novel is an epic but it's an epic about ordinary people. It opens with one of the most famous lines in history "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Anna is not some romanticized heroine and Karenin is not some beastly villain. This story is the exact opposite of Titanic. Karenin truly loves Anna in his own way and at several points tries to find a way to make her happy. He only turns on her after he's been, in his opinion, used. And Anna very realistically becomes more paranoid and unstable after she finds herself adrift. In the end she is utterly alone with no prospects left for love or happiness.
This contrasts greatly with the recent adaptation starring Keira Knightley which had a very flamboyant and stylized presentation. I haven't seen it so I can't comment fully. But watching this version makes me wonder how it would work. The essence of the story is realism.
The directing is tight and very classical as is the story. It's an excellent template for those looking to adapt novels. Tolstoy's original is very long and this film clocks in at under two hours.