It’s very hard to convey quite how important the BBC ‘Pride and Prejudice’ mini-series was to me as a teenager. Every Sunday, my family would set the video recorder (for future viewings) and sit down for a protected hour of uninterrupted watching. A year later, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones captured the moment beautifully: ‘Sunday 15th: 8.55am – just nipped out for fags prior to getting changed ready for BBC ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Hard to believe there are so many cars out on the roads. Shouldn’t they be at home getting ready?’ Of course that was back in the dark days, before iPlayer and modern technology made it so easy to miss out on synchronised watching for such national TV events. Maybe it’s the internet, maybe it’s my post-teenage cynicism, I’m sad to say I haven’t been watching ‘War and Peace’ at the scheduled programme time. I have been loving it though, and the half way point in the series feels like the appropriate time to set out how I think this ambitious undertaking has succeeded in recapturing the BBC mini-series magic.
Oh, so much, I’m just going to list a few highlights
1. The War and the Peace
As I wrote in my tips on tackling the novel, the book is pretty evenly spread between the war and the peace moments. Neither will work on its own, but, when being sold as a romance, it’s very easy for the important military aspect to be lost. I started smiling with the opening sequence of episode one, which looks down on the army camp. While I knew there were going to be lots of beautiful frocks and love-lorn looks coming up, it was so good to see that the first word of the book’s title wasn’t going to be sacrificed. Also, I think the battle scenes look wonderful. It can sometimes be hard to take pre-industrial warfare seriously on TV, but here the fighting is bloody and brutal while the sheer power of the period’s weapons is never forgotten.
2. The costumes
Of course the clothes look stunning. I’d expect nothing less, but just watching the array of fabrics and designs makes my life feel that bit more opulent and luxurious. Fittingly, the locations and set design are equally beautiful and exactly what you want from such an classy adaptation.
3. The geography
The novel isn’t an epic solely because of its length. It also fits the genre because of its scope, covering two major cities, large noble estates and muddy battlefields. All of these are shown, and it may be my inner-teacher but I really love the captions explaining where we are at different stages. In the book, I think Tolstoy is making a serious point about the different identities of the two towns, and how these contrast with the more authentic life-style in the country. The decadence of Petersburg is shown visually on screen and contrasts perfectly with the beauty of the vast landscapes as soon as we leave the cities. Oh, and the Rostovs keep their pigs outside their Moscow house which is a lovely touch.
4. The details
This is very personal, because naturally lots of small events have to be missed out for the epic novel to fit into the running time. I’m just really happy that so many of my personal favourite incidental moments have made it through. From Denísov’s mazurka to Pierre’s initiation into the Freemasons, it’s been a joy seeing quite how much of the original story has been kept.
The enjoyable dramatic licence:
1. The sexy moments
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice was famously busty, shocking those who never expected to see woman with so much, let’s call it ‘support’, in the early nineteenth century. ‘War and Peace’ seems to have picked its own moments to ramp up the racy elements of the original text. Take one example, in my translation of the novel, the Princess Mary finds her caddish suitor getting a bit too close to Mademoiselle Bourienne: ‘she raised her eyes, and two steps away saw Anatole embracing the Frenchwoman and whispering something to her’. Let’s just say she sees a little bit more in the mini-series! On the other hand, this is TV in the twenty-first century, and the adaptation succeeds in keeping the drama, the pathos and the humour of the situation. Tolstoy may not have approved, but then he’s not the one watching; personally, I’m not complaining.
2. The beautiful people.
I’m being picky here, but I do wish Pierre was fatter, Princess Bolkonskaya was plainer and Sonya looked more like a cat. Tolstoy did his best to describe real looking characters and the younger generation weren’t all quite as beautiful as they appear on screen. On the other hand, it’s been a cute piece of P&P nostalgia to see all of the ‘plain’ woman stuck wearing high necked dresses to prove that they’re not really attractive, so I’m still getting a lot of enjoyment out of this traditional costume decision.
What’s actually a shame:
In the book, we first meet Natasha on her thirteenth birthday. She is a very obviously younger than the significant men in the novel and it takes years for her to grow into a romantic heroine rather than a charming child. Introducing her to us as a mature teenager makes the time scale easier to fit into a mere six hours, and also makes the romances much more palatable to modern sensibilities, but I do wish the BBC hadn’t compromised on this.
There are three more hours to go and I can’t wait to see how the final twists of the plot are worked through. What’s wonderful is that I’m no longer watching in fear, worrying that one of my favourite novels will be reduced, trivialised or just look wrong. Congratulations to adapter Andrew Davies and everyone involved. ‘War and Peace’ is a winner and just goes to show that any book, no matter how epic or intimidating, can be brought to the small screen if treated with the right care, attention and respect.