Sunday, 3 January 2016

Not always accurate, but rich and engaging nonetheless: The BBC adaptation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The cast of 2016's BBC1 production of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Photograph: Mitch Jenkins/BBC

The first episode of Andrew Davies' reworking of Tolstoy's War and Peace has just aired on BBC One, as one of six one-hour episodes. My verdict? I enjoyed it, much more than I expected.

The novel's famous opening scene, a soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna, gets the series off to a promising start. Gillian Anderson makes a great Anna Pavlovna, and Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov must be my favourite casting success thus far.

Andrei Bolkonsky comes across as cold, even sneering, as he wanders (struts, even) around a few parties before leaving his pregnant wife, Lise, at the Rostovs before heading off for war. The Rostov family scenes, however, are just as warm and welcoming as expected.

Count Rostov brings much life and soul to the adaptation (especially through his dancing), and rightly so. Natasha Rostova does not look thirteen years old by any stretch of the imagination, nor do the other children at the Rostov name day party look their respective literary ages. Although, as the scene comes with kisses between cousins, perhaps this is the BBC playing safe.

One of the most contentious aspects of the reworking is all of the sex in it, and while the flash of nudity in Anatole's party (you know, the one with the bear tied to the policeman) is pretty excusable, the storyline of incest between Hélène Kuragin and her equally malicious brother, Anatole, is bound to get people talking. But, as Davies admits, that's the idea really (he felt obliged to add what Tolstoy 'forgot'). In the novel, here's where Pierre hints at the rumour of something going on between the siblings:

she’s stupid. I used to say that myself – she is stupid. [...] This can’t be love. No, there’s something disgusting about the way she has aroused me – it’s forbidden fruit. Somebody told me that her brother, Anatole, was in love with her, and she with him, and there was a bit of a scandal, and that’s why Anatole was sent away. Hippolyte’s another brother… And her father is Prince Vasily… It’s not good. (220)

The Kuragin siblings cuddling in bed seems to take things a little too far, but much more is probably yet to come from Davies.

The episode closes with Pierre, newly rich and now titled Count Bezukhov, sitting in shock as all around him celebrate the news - unbeknown to him - that he is engaged to the cold and scheming Hélène Kuragin. In the novel, Pierre has almost no say in the matter of his engagement, but Davies takes this further and accelerates the scene–to a laughable and ridiculous level. As Pierre deliberates, requests time to think, and notices his instinct telling him that Hélène is bad news, Vassily loudly congratulates the couple on their engagement, and Hélène joyfully kisses Pierre.

The story isn't always entirely faithful to the original, but I'm so glad that the BBC are bringing new readers to War and Peace and fuelling interest in Tolstoy. After episode one, I'm happy that it's filmed well, acted well, and with a great cast. One final note: St Petersburg in winter is simply beautiful.

If the BBC reworking has fuelled your interest in Leo Tolstoy, why not...

Read my tips on getting started reading Tolstoy's War and Peace 
Take a look at the reasons why I love War and Peace (and why I hope you will too)
Find out how reading War and Peace can help us to find direction in life
See how Pierre Bezukhov thinks that being knocked off course is "only the start of something new and good", or get some lessons on failure from him
Glance at Leo Tolstoy's favourite books from each stage of his life


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