War and Peace is considered to be one of the great novels, but the idea of sitting down to read it isn't the most appealing. It's not as though most of us would not find great benefit in peeling open the cover to delve into the story, but its a book that brings so much weight. It's an intimidating book to get started on.
A great place to start with War and Peace is with this recent BBC production. It's an absorbing, compelling watch that has won over not only viewers new to Tolstoy, but also viewers who have read the epic countless times.
On the screen
This is a powerhouse production with a great cast on screen combined with some of TV's best talent behind the scenes. Writing the series is legendary House of Cards (UK) creator Andrew Davies, who has also received considerable acclaim for his work adapting Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice (starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), Bleak House, and Little Dorrit. Peaky Blinders and This Is England '86 director Tom Harper was behind the camera.
Paul Dano, Lily James, and James Norton star in the series. Lily James is currently earning a considerable fan base following star turns in Baby Driver and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - she was also a regular on Downton Abbey for a number of seasons. Paul Dano and James Norton are well-known already - Dano for films like There Will Be Blood, and Norton for memorable roles in McMafia and Happy Valley.
When the series first aired, War and Peace received near unanimous praise from critics. Right now it sits at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Writing for The Telegraph, critic Ben Lawrence declared: "War & Peace is the greatest costume drama of the decade". He later went on to say "I can’t remember the last time I was so seduced by the storytelling or sublime visual power of a TV drama."
Who are we to argue with him?
One of the most entertaining reviews of the show came from the great Clive James. Make sure you take the time to read the review in full once you watch this production. James mounts a very strong defense of the emphasis the series has on sex.
"People who accuse [writer Andrew] Davies of being too interested in sex, however, should remember that Tolstoy himself was capable of conceiving a whole epic in the form of a beauty contest.
"... he [Tolstoy] knew that it wasn’t just a stock market, it was a meat market. Female beauty was a currency. In his text he was ruthless about having old Bolkonsky tell his daughter Marya that she was no looker and that nobody would want to marry her. (The new screen version was less ruthless in casting Jessie Buckley as a Cinderella who gradually blossomed into one of the loveliest women on the screen.) Finally, Tolstoy says, personality counts most; but initially, he admits, sexual attraction rules."
Leo Tolstoy on his own novel
The original book looms heavy in this adaptation. Obviously, those already familiar with the book will already be well-versed in what is being shown on screen. But, if anything, the book should not deter anyone who has not read it. Rather, consider the series a taste of the richness of Tolstoy's book.
It would be interesting to know what Tolstoy would make of the TV adaptation - he struggled with how to define the story himself, unsure if he even felt comfortable calling it a novel:
"This work is more similar to a novel or a tale than to anything else, but it is not a novel because I can not and do not know how to confine the characters I have created within given limits - a marriage or a death after which interest in the narration would cease". He later said that War and Peace "is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle."
For Tolstoy, it was not simply a matter of putting fictional characters into a setting with a historical backdrop. Rather the work entailed a philosophical understanding of the nature of history itself.
The TV adaptation of War and Peace is a thrilling, absorbing, and incredibly sexy drama.
It airs on SBS Thursday night from 8:30pm with episodes streaming after at SBS On Demand.