Where the BBC got it right: ‘War and Peace’ on the small screen


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.

What works:
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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 21.30.28.png

Kitty Bennet and Mary Bolkonskaya.  They’re plain, so no cleavage allowed!


What’s actually a shame:
Natasha’s age
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.

Images are from the BBC and tumblr 

This entry was posted in Russian Reading, War and Peace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Where the BBC got it right: ‘War and Peace’ on the small screen

  1. Sarah says:

    I almost cheered when I read your appraisal of P&P. I’ve watched it so often, and it has now become our family’s ‘not feeling very well’ telly of choice because it is such comfort-viewing. It’s down to that adaptation that my children totally lack of fear of attempting to read Jane Austen and classic literature in general, and know that while language may have grown archaic over time, there are a wealth of powerful stories there waiting to be unearthed.
    I’m also really enjoying the Beeb’s War and Peace, and actually can’t wait to read it. My daughter wants to watch it too, so I’m viewing with caution, and then will let her watch a slightly sanitised version (she’s only 11) with the help of the fast forward button. Who knows, it might help pave the way to a lifelong love of Russian literature. 🙂

    • Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
      You’re right, unlike P&P it’s not a PG watch, but I can see it forming comfort-viewing the future because it is a great story and the dramatisation really sells it.
      My problem now is that I definitely hadn’t planned on re-read W&P so soon after last years Tolstoyathon, but episodes 1-3 have made me really want to pick it up again…

  2. Good to hear – I’m stacking this up for a binge watch – I’m really looking forward to it 🙂

  3. Lucy says:

    I do enjoy this, but then I wonder if having read it first helps, as people on Twitter (and my daughter) have been getting confused. I often have to explain bits to her as it’s so ‘truncated’ as one person said, if you have no grasp of it, it could be easy to forget who is who and why they are so upset about what it is they are upset about. However, I don’t think they could win with this, and ti’s probably the best it can be. To do it justice would be so long and so expensive to make, the viewing figures of those who really care about military detail and such could be quite small. And yes, Pierre needs a few more pies in him 😉

    • I’ve been trying (and failing) to put myself in the position of someone who doesn’t already know the story. I’m really impressed with how the BBC have simplified it, but then I’m not the right person to judge! I suspect that if this was my first viewing, I’d have my phone on hand to check out character lists – my edition of the novel has a very well used cast list just after the contents and on first reading I would have been lost without it.
      As long as it’s not so confusing that it puts people off! Hopefully they’ll find enough to love and then will go and read the book to get all the finer details…

  4. I’ve held off reading this post until I’d nearly finished the book as have been reading it in tandem with the series – totally hooked on both, and for different reasons, but ‘cheating’ and following the badaptation with the man’s pearls of wisdom has really made the massive novel more accessible. Just read your review now and is as always 100% spot on in my book. Hasn’t it been glorious. Cantankerous disapprovers, move over!

    • Hooray – I’m pleased that both book and dramatisation worked so well for you! Really looking forward to hearing your conclusions (and somewhat jealous that you’ve just discovered it for the first time, a wonder experience that I cannot re-capture or re-live…)

      • Well yes, but tinged with regret that I didn’t have the references earlier and as always makes me so conscious of how many more classics are in this same “need to read” category. One step at a time, I guess… I’m on the home run now – and already feeling a bit desolate, as is always the case when you near the end of a really Good Book. Just as well there are plenty more out there, really…

      • It’s especially true with such a long book that by the end it’s a real friend that’s hard to say good bye to (though you may feel ready to give up if you try to make it through the second appendix – it usually defeats me in the end).

      • Ha, that’s very funny. I finished Epilogue 1 (what’s that whole Natasha bit about??! still musing about that) and started the very last part yesterday evening – but as soon as I realised it was more of a treatise on history and free will and all that decided to consider I was done and may (but probably won’t) go back and read that bit in my dotage! Gosh, bit bereft now though.

  5. Pingback: “War & Peace” by Leo Tolstoy (1869) – whatever am I going to do with myself now? | Literary ramblings etc

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