War and Peace: ‘greatest drama of the decade’

In the flesh: Andrew Davies condensed 587,287 words into 380 minutes of television. © BBC

After six lavish episodes, the BBC’s War and Peace is already being called the best TV show of the year — perhaps even the last ten years. But can it ever live up to Tolstoy’s masterpiece?

Andrew Davies is holding a pair of kitchen scissors and an old paperback of War and Peace, the epic novel by Leo Tolstoy. Feeling ‘like a murderer’, he hacks it in two, right down the spine.

The act is partly practical — he can now fit half the book in his coat pocket — and partly symbolic. This is the man tasked with adapting one of the greatest and longest novels ever written. How do you fit 1,200 pages, 600 characters, and 150 years of critical acclaim into just six television episodes for the BBC?

The answer is: you must make cuts. For three years, Davies wrestled the book into its newest form, chopping the philosophical musings, adding sizzling sex scenes, and translating the knotty plot into a fresh, vibrant story.

And what a story. Tolstoy weaves together the fates of three families with love affairs, friendships, betrayals, and brutal battles against the invading French army of Napoleon. His characters are complex. Sometimes they are good, sometimes bad, but they all have hidden depths which can suddenly appear, and compel the reader to change perspective again. What emerges is a full and lively account of human spirit.

The BBC’s adaptation, which had its spectacular finale last week, has been showered with praise. Viewers were left in ‘floods of tears’, while The Daily Mail declared it was ‘one of the most wonderful things ever shown on TV’.

For his part, Davies says he is proud of his work; the kitchen scissors have done their job. ‘Even the reading of a book is different from one person to another,’ he points out. ‘I used to be an English teacher and I used to say to students, “Isn’t this a wonderful book?” This adapting job is a bit like that, but with millions of pounds of special effects.’

Now, he will move on to adapting his next sprawling 19th-century classic: Les Misérables. First to face the chop? The ‘appalling’ singing.

Time and patience

It is a shame, sigh traditionalists, that our penchant for bodice-ripping screen adaptations is the only way we can enjoy classics. They strip out all of the subtleties; War and Peace gets its power from its meditations on history and humanity, not sex scenes and gory battles. Besides, nothing can ever match how stories are told in your own imagination. That is what makes reading so wonderful.

Nonsense, say adaptation fans. TV can bring out new sides to well-loved stories that readers may not have noticed before, and it is exciting to watch beloved characters come to life. More importantly, it is a fantastic way to introduce the book to those who once believed it impenetrable; War and Peace has shot to number five in the UK’s fiction charts. Now fans of the show can enjoy Tolstoy in all his glory.

You Decide

  1. If you could adapt any book for TV, which would you choose?
  2. Do novels lose something important when presented on the screen?

Activities

  1. List your top five favourite books of all time, and explain your choices to the class.
  2. When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, its historical events felt very recent — many of his readers had lived through the Napoleonic wars in their youth. Write the opening chapter of a novel about a political event in your own lifetime.

Some People Say...

“Pure, perfect sorrow is as impossible as pure and perfect joy.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would I want to read War and Peace?
Many people say you should: it is repeatedly called the greatest novel ever written. But don’t just read it because you should; read it because it is filled with wisdom about love, death, fate and history — about how to act in a crisis, and how human characters can evolve through great suffering, yet still remain the same.
It sounds very long.
True, but it’s not the longest novel ever written — Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is twice as long. And the language of War and Peace is remarkably clear, its chapters short and easy to digest. Treat it like a project, which is all the more rewarding for the time you give it. You may even find that you love its length — many who reach they end say that they wish it could go on forever.

Word Watch

Andrew Davies
Allegedly the highest-paid screenwriter around, Davies is famous for the 1995 Pride and Prejudice series that made Colin Firth a household name, as well as for Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Brideshead Revisited.
Leo Tolstoy
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, born in Russia in 1828, is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. War and Peace, published in the 1860s, is his most famous work, but he also wrote, among others, Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French revolutionary and soldier, and the first emperor of France. He invaded Russia in 1812, but the six-month campaign failed. Three years later, he was defeated at Waterloo by the British army and their allies under Wellington.
Millions of pounds
It is estimated that each episode cost around £2m.
Les Misérables
Victor Hugo’s novel was first published in 1862 in France. Like War and Peace, it looks back on recent historical events — in this case the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris — through a wide cast of characters. Its musical adaptation was first shown in 1980.

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