‘War and Peace’: The BBC’s adaptation was a triumph for Tolstoy

Get a line on why the BBC’s War and Peace TV series bewildered the Russian audience and became a must-see iconic adaptation.

A period drama show that replaced Sunday’s prime time Downton Abbey on BBC could not but claim for success. War and Peace directed by Tom Harper is the second adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, filmed by the BBC. The first 20-episode TV series with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov was released in 1972 and brought the actor a BAFTA award. The script for the new series was written by Andrew Davis, known for films about Bridget Jones and the BBC adaptations of Vanity Fair (1998) and Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth (1995) as well as Doctor Zhivago with Keira Knightley (2002) for ITV.

The new six-part adaptation is an outstanding one because the epic novel acquired a new form understandable to modern viewers. Students who were burdened with reading over 1200 pages of the mixture of historical narrative drama, romantic fiction, and philosophical discourse now have the opportunity to get acquainted with Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork by means of TV. Surely, it’s not the best way to immerse your child into the world of classic literature, especially if you can’t control what your child watches. However, it’s not a problem if you have a KidSecured app. So, you can leave your child watching this TV series knowing your child is being educated.

In the UK, the TV adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace has captivated the audience and brought the book to the top 50 of the national bestseller list. Immediately after the show had been broadcasted, the series became one of the most discussed events in the cultural life of Great Britain. 7 million people watched the first episode of the series.


What Made It Impressive?

The filming of War and Peace took two and a half years and the series itself became the most expensive in the history of the BBC: a large film crew, chic costumes, filming in St. Petersburg, near Novgorod and in Vilnius.

For the authenticity of the actions, extras who played soldiers had to undergo training to the level of an average 19th-century conscript who knows the basics of combat, field and fire training. Actors who played soldiers on a close-up were prepared more thoroughly so that they looked like experienced recruits.

The film crew set their hopes on spectacular battle scenes including naturalistic images of internal organs sticking out of corpses on the battlefields. In the BBC’s series, all military episodes are spectacularly shown. The costume designer and his team meticulously studied the archives in order to historically scrupulously show the uniforms and military equipment of the Russian and French armies, as well as everyday signs of those days: fashion, carriages, everyday clothes. In total, over 10 million pounds were spent on the lavish BBC’s adaptation.


Why did It Unleash a Storm of Criticism?

As it usually goes with adapting literary classics to a modern context, the main subject of controversy was the casting of actors and in this regard, Tolstoy’s novels were always doomed. The new British film version also has something surprising: Gillian Anderson from the cult series The X-Files was unexpectedly entrusted the role of the wealthy Petersburg lady Anna Pavlovna Scherer. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky was played by the brutal handsome James Norton, well known to fans of Vikings series.

For unknown reasons, Natasha Rostova in the series appears not as a brunette but as a blonde. At the beginning of Tolstoy’s novel, she was still a teenager and actress Lily James was 26 years old at the time of filming. Stylists, to rejuvenate the actress, went to all sorts of tricks: they curled James’ hair, put on light make-up, emphasizing the girlish plump cheeks.

Also, the creators of the TV show took some heat for excessive eroticism. At the beginning of the first series, there appears seductively naked Hélène on the screen, who sees Pierre Bezukhov. Later we see an incest scene between the Kuragis, brother Anatole and sister Hélène, what Tolstoy did not even think about. However, the scriptwriter said that he understood Tolstoy’s intention in such a way, according to which there was a sexual relationship between brother and sister.

Perhaps the most debatable scene of the series became the scene of the bathing of soldiers in the river (the fifth series). A lot of people asked: “Why are men naked?” The director Tom Harper said it had been written in the script. They were washing and they had no reason to wash in their clothes. Tom wanted everything on the screen to look natural. And he nailed it.

Andrew Davis’s War and Peace should be considered as a separate work, rather than a reliable adaptation of the epic novel (which the authors and actors, by the way, did not read before the start of the shooting; during the work on the series, too, not all). The BBC series does the same thing as any good film adaptation — it gives a new life to its source, arouses a great deal of public interest, retelling a sophisticated family and philosophical story without losing psychologism.

The director closed the 200 years gap between characters and viewers making you feel amazing closeness with characters. They appear to be modern people. You begin to realize that over 200 years, people have not really changed. We also love, we feel guilty, we feel attraction and passion. All characters constantly make mistakes because they are only humans. In this way, you get attached to them because of how they let you feel. Perhaps this is what makes Tolstoy’s masterpiece a genius one.