Rethinking Tolstoy: War and Peace by the BBC
In January 2016, the BBC premiered one of its most ambitious and long-awaited literary adaptations: War and Peace. The Russian classic was brought to life by the British broadcaster for the second time, having made a first series in 1972. I watched the six-part production religiously, barely able to wait for the next instalment and even re-watching them with my gran when I went to visit. I’m not the only one that fell in love with the BBC’s version; fans of period drama, literature loveys and those who just like good TV were hooked – and not only in the UK. Adapted by Andrew Davies, a man famous for his ability to bring classic works of literature such as Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Middlemarch to both the small and big screens, the series was bound to be a hit. But not everyone has been so open to Davies’ and director Tom Harper’s take on Tolstoy’s epic work. Although shown on Russia’s First Channel, many media outlets and their television critics have taken up their pens to knock the British reproduction for its sexiness and perhaps liberal interpretations of plotlines. Many, including my own Russian acquaintances, claim it doesn’t hold a candle to Sergei Bondarchuk’s much more faithful 1966 version in Russian. But is War and Peace so sacred that it should be left alone, or is its international adaptation and even modernisation an important step in ensuring the work’s longevity?
Talking about the Russian media reaction to the BBC’s adaptation, one Guardian article says that many in the novel’s homeland reacted with “barely concealed amusement”; the series was sexy to the point of risqué, with even some UK newspapers dubbing it “Phwoar and Peace”. So there were some rather historically inaccurate low-cut dresses, and Tolstoy never included the sex scenes so explicitly, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Whilst the TV adaptation has been accused of being a soap opera due to its nudity and candidness, I think Davies and Harper have actually brought the novel into the twenty-first century. Sex is no longer such a taboo (or at least it isn’t in the UK), and besides, it was damn well happening in the scenes Tolstoy omitted – these are not so much additional scenes as continuations of Tolstoy’s scenarios that serve to remind an audience in 2016 that these characters are real people. After all, Tolstoy is most praised for his ability to depict depth of character and to portray real people of his time; to pretend now, in an age where sex has become much more open and normalised, that they all kept their knickers on would be to undermine the realism of his characters.
“But what about the incest scenes with Hélène and her brother?” I hear all purist literature fanatics scream. Well Davies would argue that that depends on your willingness or ability to read between the lines, between the hints that Tolstoy perhaps gives. Tom Harper himself says he didn’t see this aspect of the Kuragin siblings’ relationship on his first read of the novel, but the second time he dove into the book, it seemed very obvious to him. For many experts on Tolstoy, conservative or not, this interpretation of events is a moot point, but no matter what each person’s verdict is, it reminds me of something my teachers taught me in English lessons in school and have continued to assert throughout out my university literature classes: an author loses ownership of a work the second they publish it, and literature is subject to interpretation by the audience. So if Davies and Harper see something more between Hélène and Anatole through Tolstoy’s subtext, then that is not necessarily incorrect.
Bondarchuk’s 1966 adaptation does not elicit or even hint at such an interpretation of their relationship, nor does it show Hélène and her lover in a rather inelegant position, shaking the silverware off the dinner table. But is this to Bondarchuk’s credit? I cannot deny that I also really enjoyed the Soviet version, but I must admit that I may have struggled to stay with it if I hadn’t first watched the BBC’s and knew the story. It is a film of its time, of course, not only sticking exclusively to Tolstoy’s printed text, but also staying within the limits of mainstream 1960s filmmaking, with stiff closed-lipped kisses being the sexiest it gets. Büro 24/7 contests the opinion that Bondarchuk’s (or even Tolstoy’s) War and Peace is sacred and applauds the BBC for being brave in its modernisation, something Russian’s daren’t do it seems.
Another apparent shortcoming identified by many critics of the BBC adaptation is its focus on the love stories and lack of character development. Bondarchuk uses inner monologues – voiced over scenes where the characters look pensive – to depict Tolstoy’s narrative, whereas Davies and Harper have opted for visual representations. Maybe these have been missed by the series’ fiercest critics, as they are not as obvious as a character’s thoughts being said aloud, but, at least for me, Natasha’s (played by Lily James) peasant dance, for example, was an obvious moment of change within her, and the music and movement were enough to express it without words or additional narrative. And if the BBC version was too heavy on the peace aspect of the novel, as some critics have stated, then I challenge you to sit through Bondarchuk’s third part, whose 80 minutes consist mostly of cannon fire and bayonets. If, after that, you still consider Davies’ adaptation too love-heavy, then go read about the new Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, a show that focuses on a mere 70 page love-filled slice of the novel.
Yet another criticism I have heard is that the BBC War and Peace is just not Russian enough, coming across as any other British period drama and failing to depict Russians as distinctly Russian. The court scenes may well find themselves to be rather European, but that was their aim: the court of the time spoke French and fashioned their clothes and interior design on those of the European royals and nobles. As for the scenes set in the rural Estates, I suppose a little bit of the Russianness may have been lost, though critic Boyd Tonkin commends the production team for their attention to detail, from the set decoration to the elaborate jewellery sourced from St Petersburg jeweller Axenhoff. Maybe the Russianness of the characters themselves was also lacking, though it could be said it was best to err on the side of caution, as Russians are wont to be stereotyped in Western media and television. As Russian author Boris Akunin wrote, “This is a sincere and, I would even say, respectful adaptation, and surprisingly, it contains no squat-dancing noblemen wielding balalaikas.”
And surely that is what is most important here? Tolstoy’s work and Russian culture have been portrayed by a British production team with great respect and admiration. Boyd Tonkin applauds the BBC for allowing “ [Tolstoy]’s worldview to slide slowly into sight, like a sledge emerging from a snowstorm.” The fact that this isn’t the first time that the BBC has adapted War and Peace shows that there is a need and a desire to tell the story of one of the most famous pieces of literature in the world. This is not just about getting good viewing figures, but about making a book that is dauntingly long and, for many, inapproachable something that a wide audience can understand and develop an appreciation for. The BBC adaptation had 6 million viewers in the UK, and those numbers grow exponentially when international audiences are taken into consideration. That includes not only people who are fans of Tolstoy’s work or Russophiles, but also people who never even considered reading the book, people who are interested but doubt their ability to get through the novel and even people who don’t know who Tolstoy and what War and Peace are (because they do exist, you know). Tolstoy’s penchant for going off on a tangent has made the book intimidating even for me, a Russian student who took lots of literature courses at university. I’ve started it and put it down numerous times, but this January I plan to re-watch the BBC series and then pick up the book and read it to the end; something I doubted I would ever do has become something I am certain I can do.
War and Peace book sales soared in the UK last February when the series was over, and even if people still don’t read the book, the BBC adaptation made the story accessible and known, which is an impressive feat, considering it ran for a mere six hours in total. It was adapted with a little bit of creative license and with a fair amount of modernisation, as closed doors were opened to reveal the real life going on behind them, but even Vladimir Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson, has given the series his approval: “I welcome any attempt to adapt Tolstoy’s works for the screen that is done with respect for the text and the author. I think the BBC’s work is one of these.” The adaptation is by no means required to guarantee the longevity of Tolstoy’s novel; War and Peace has already maintained its reputation for over a century and will remain one of the central pieces of world literature for many generations to come. But detailed, well thought out and respectful adaptations of this and other works of classic literature are crucial for their true appreciation in a world of online plot summaries and the “so much to do, so little time” principle – whether this world is good or not is a different story. This idea applies on a global scale: the BBC adaptation’s target audience was never Russian, and they aimed first and foremost to share the story with the British public, in whose canon Bondarchuk’s version is not included and is unlikely to ever be now that fifty years have passed since its production. Without the BBC’s daring and bold 2016 adaptation of War and Peace, this gap in the market, if you like, would still be left empty and Tolstoy’s genius would be known but undervalued by many.
Ellie, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Moscow