Adapt Or Die
The main cast, headed up by a fantastic Paul Dano, are supreme in this BBC adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. Although the pacing is sometimes very slow, the series has kept up interest with its array of complex characters.
Summarising the plot of a 1000-page-plus doorstop often considered to be a classic could be seen by some as a big ask. Doing it in 20 episodes, as the BBC did in 1972, was probably ambitious enough. Covering it in 6 episodes, cutting out some minor characters and sub-plots entirely, qualifies as out-and-out audacious. Yet that is what the BBC’s stalwart period drama helmer Andrew Davies has done with Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling epic novel War and Peace. Suffice it to say that all of Russian life is here – plucky aristocratic idealists, gloomy cynics, weary soldiers, reckless youths, Byronic heroes and scheming social climbers, all trying to make their way in the early 19th Century world, until the shadow of war descends, led by Napoleon (Matthieu Kassovitz).
Three central characters plunge us into the story, and it is the relationships between them over the course of the series which prove most interesting. Count Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) is an almost unfathomably good man with a seeming inability to see when he’s being taken for a ride, and his friend Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) is a world-weary, unhappily-married man, who jumps at the chance to be a soldier. The impulsive Countess Natasha Rostova (Lily James) comes to have a great impact on them both. Through this trio we come to know a whole cast of other families who represent the usual mix of nice guys and irredeemably dodgy dealers, and populate the series with just enough variety to keep up viewer interest.
The truncated story gives the characters time to develop but often runs along at a glacial pace, which quickly becomes tiresome. Moments of real incident seem few and far between – indeed, you could argue that for a show entitled ‘War and Peace’, there is actually precious little war, quite a bit of peace and an awful lot of sitting around in rooms talking. If it were to be renamed in the parlance of that biggest of cultural phenomenons, Star Wars, it wouldn’t be The Napoleonic Forces Awaken so much as the The Napoleonic Forces Have A Brief Skirmish Before Going Back To Bed For Half The Series. However, it is always possible to tell when the spine-tingling moments are coming, due to an appropriately dramatic piece of piano music that is one of the show’s most memorable aspects.
But it is unmistakably the performances which are the best thing about this adaptation, with Dano in particular on spectacular form as Pierre, the beating heart of the show. Norton brings a brooding intensity to Andrei, whilst Lily James is arrestingly feisty as Natasha. Other cast members like Adrian Edmondson, Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton also acquit themselves well, with the latter pair also currently featuring in another BBC costume drama, Dickensian.
But whilst all the social machinations may get boring, it’s the escalating emotional stakes for our main characters that provide the drama. It’s also often the little moments with more minor characters like Sonya Rostova (Aisling Loftus) and Marya Bolkonsky (Jessie Buckley, below) that prove most affecting. In fact, one of the best scenes of the series features another Dickensian actor, Adrian Rawlins (Harry Potter’s father in the eponymous film series), who pops up in a small but pivotal role in the final episode. And if one thing can be said of this version of War and Peace, it’s that even if it doesn’t match the quality of previous BBC costume dramas (see the superlative versions of Bleak House and Sense and Sensibility), it peaks at the right time. The final two episodes are brilliant, action-packed, emotional pieces of television that unfold in style, and almost make the ponderousness up until that point worthwhile.
But this version of War and Peace feels very much like a case of ‘adapt to the blueprint or die’. We love emotional drama nowadays, and in order to seemingly focus on people over plot, it seems as though much content (which may well have been brilliant in its own right) has had to be mercilessly cut in order to make this into a workable TV series. As a result, however, there are often great troughs in the action when you would expect the series to be going at full tilt to fit everything in. But at least War and Peace has such good characters at its heart that, despite the uneven pacing, you want to keep watching for them anyway, and you will them to succeed. I do also now want to try the book just out of curiosity – so in that respect, this adaptation has triumphed.