Between January and February 2016, the BBC aired a new adaptation of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s epic tome, War & Peace. Split into six episodes of around an hour, it was scripted by period drama veteran Andrew Davies (of 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries fame) and picked up 25% of the TV audience share in its first hour.
Television critics raved about it, but it received a more mixed reaction among Tolstoy experts and social media users. Much was made of the decision to take an incestuous relationship, one that I understand from other accounts was simply implied in the novel, and fully fledge it into something direct on screen. Others witnessed the initial gossipy society scenes and assumed Russian literature had been turned into seedy drama (it hadn’t). Despite this, as the series continued, a loyal smaller audience continued to be captivated as this War and Peace increased in scale and strength.
Have you seen it? Or would you consider watching it again? Here are my top 5 reasons why you should put aside some time to get lost in this particular version of 19th century Russia…
Paul Dano as Pierre
American actor Paul Dano has been forging an excellent impression in movies over the last few years, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood to smaller indies like Swiss Army Man. He harnesses his boyish face with an earnestness that can transform effortlessly into charm, rage or agony. Interestingly, he had done very little in television before taking on the role of Pierre in War & Peace, and blended into the mostly British cast to fantastic effect. His Pierre is bumbling, a bit frustrating but importantly, carries the passionate heart of the series throughout. He really was a standout and television was lucky to have him instead of the silver screen for that brief time.
For a showcase of why he’s so great, just check out this scene between Pierre and Andrei (James Norton). Here, Pierre is trying to cope with his deep feelings for Natasha (Lily James) as well as his affection for his friend, as Andrei fusses over his next steps. It kills me every time.
The rich writing
Andrew Davies, still working hard at the age of 80, knows how to adapt a novel. He’s written the scripts for plenty of period dramas, including adaptations of the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Even so, War and Peace was a particular challenge that many before him have largely failed at adapting. The novel itself is 1400 pages long, and features long sections that divert from the huge cast of characters to reflect on philosophy and religion.
It’s worth noting that the writer of this post has not read the book in its entirety, so my assessment of the series as an adaptation can only be limited. However, Davies himself states that this miniseries was the one he was proudest of, and he seems to balance that muddy philosophical break by keeping it carefully centred around Pierre’s inner struggle. In just six episodes, he weaves an epic tale that doesn’t leave any of the characters feeling two-dimensional, and that in itself in a massive achievement. The clip below is an excellent example of how much the honed script can tell us about the various characters in a mere minute and a half.
Epic battle recreations
The BBC doesn’t often do epic – in fact, I’m not sure it ever really did epic. Their dramas have often had great set design but in terms of creating real scale, that’s often left to the big screen experts, as well as television giants from across the pond. That all changed with War and Peace, as the breathtaking battle scenes drew favourable comparisons to Game of Thrones (which has a much larger budget!).
Shot in Eastern Europe and Russia, the war against Napoleon is brought to life with 500 extras and a whole lot of vivid practical effects. For example, that drone shot in the clip below really established the BBC’s new willingness to embrace the latest filming technology, making them a genuine competitor against huge budget production companies. When watching, it quickly becomes apparent that it really was worth the investment to truly bring the historical battles to life.
Martin Phipps’ score
Naturally when you adapt a Russian novel, ‘restrained’ is not the adjective you’re aiming for. With heartbreaks, betrayals and a whole spoonful of misery, it’s important to strike a strong emotional chord without ever losing the belief of the audience – something that this version manages. However, re-watching this series, a big part of that is due to composer Martin Phipps’ score, which is sparingly and effectively used. Importantly, it also makes sure the setting isn’t forgotten with traditional Russian melodies occasionally brought in alongside deep, bass singing voices. It seems like it was a good experience for Phipps too, who told the Music Times: ‘[The director, Tom Harper] really just let me run with it and was very supportive of all my ideas from the very beginning. I was really left to do what I want.’
It shows because the music is just exceptional. Here’s a clip of the score in action (be warned if you haven’t seen it yet – this clip has an 150-year old spoiler):
That dance scene
Well, I’ve waxed lyrical about this one in a previous post but the point still stands – this miniseries has one of the best dance scenes of all period dramas ever. From the intimate camera angles to the intertwining of two different moments in time, this dance scene achieves more in three and a half minutes that most television dramas do in half an hour. By the end of that short clip, you’re guaranteed to be completely invested in the love story between Andrei and Natasha. And don’t forget, you’ll be heartbroken for Pierre too.
Enough waffling, just give it a watch and you’ll see what I mean:
So what are you waiting for? All the War and Peace episodes can be found on Netflix so set aside a lazy afternoon and get watching!