Overlooking Leo: When you can’t be arsed reading 1,225 pages

“Greatest period drama in the last decade?”

 The overwhelmingly positive reviews of the BBC’s re-imagining of War and Peace have left me somewhat confused. To me, it seemed less an adaptation of the leviathan novel and more a pilfering of its names and the silhouettes of its characters.

 I accept that my views here may be controversial – I didn’t dare express them before my Nan as she, with a sense of beauty so poignant it infused her face with something approaching sadness, recounted the dance scene between Prince Andrei and Natasha. Everyone else seems to have similarly loved Andrew Davies’ re-writing – even if their feelings weren’t based on a cross-generational eye for James Norton and a love of Downton Abbey.

 Unfortunately, for a series to come close to capturing the novel’s telescopic fluidity of perspective – psychological expanses and astute social commentary in the minutia of life; working the most intimate of relationships, interior battles of selfhood and delicate acts of society diplomacy against the fatalistic confusions of war – it would have to run for more than a mere six episodes.

Compromises must be made. I accept this.

 The novel contains such an abundance of characters (approaching six hundred) that readers are often overwhelmed. Aggressive streamlining allows audiences – seeking entertainment rather than a memory test – to better pin their viewing emotions to a small cast of pretty faces. Not having to run out and buy a sheet of A1 in order to produce a character map certainly aids viewing convenience. Therefore, the inclusion of characters such as Anna Pavlovna is odd. Invested with a full humanity by Tolstoy, here they’re trinket peripherals reduced to a few words. Employing a single line as though it were able to take the place of visualised character development and insight was a technique used throughout.

The scope, depth and realism of each character is lost. Pierre’s fickle and blundering changeability renders him feckless rather than giving him a delicately tuned philosophical mind struggling with timeless, existence-haunting questions. Natasha seems to undergo a complete transformation of her affections in a single line. Asking me to believe that is almost as absurd as asking me to be sad about the death of a woman in childbirth when I’ve only met her for a couple of minutes. The hasty fly-by of the novel crushes it and all of its personalities. They should have laid off this pretence of range, named it “The Rostov Girl”, and allowed Davies to go full tilt in his use of Natasha as the axis around which other characters play.

It didn’t surprise me to find out that neither Davies nor the lead cast had read War and Peace before embarking upon their production – no wonder it was drained of complexity in its suffocating six hour runtime. Perhaps this also explains how it managed to so comprehensively evade geographical awareness. You can comfortably spend most of the series within upper class English familiarity, just with the extravagance dialled up. The most significant jolt to this was the Russian folk songs of the cabin scene, but that didn’t disturb the sales-friendly Downton feel for long.

My Nan doesn’t like Tolstoy; she prefers holiday flick-through romance novels. She loves this adaptation. A mere 7.2 million viewers may disagree with me, but at least I actually read the book.


Sarah Berry


Image courtesy of the BBC. 

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