War & Peace in your lounge
Beware bonnet bashers, a real epic of a period drama has just arrived, writes Louise Schwarzkoff.
In the screening room of a smart hotel in London, the cast of a new six-part adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace is about to see the opening episode for the first time. The journalists in the room have been warned the episode is embargoed. The romance, intrigue and tragedy must stay under wraps until the series airs.
The thing is, Tolstoy wrote the book 147 years ago. It seems a little late to be worrying about spoilers.
The cast, including Lily James, Gillian Anderson and Australian Greta Scacchi, were encouraged to read the whopping saga, but not everyone did. James Norton, who plays the brooding Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, has brought his own battered copy to the interview as proof of his diligence.
‘‘[Tolstoy] writes in this magical cinematic way,’’ he says. ‘‘He goes from these big, wide shots, where you are on a hill with Napoleon as the Russian army advances . . . then he is suddenly in with Andrei or whoever and the thoughts are so intimate and personal.’’
All this talk of wide shots and spoilers shows how comfortably 19th-century literature has been absorbed into screen culture. The tales of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters are staples of the small screen, thanks largely to internationally successful adaptations from the BBC. War & Peace is a co-production by the BBC and The Weinstein Company in the US.
There are plenty who argue that costume dramas are too creaky and too costly; that in fetishising an imaginary past, we ignore the issues of the present. Last year, even Ben Stephenson, then the BBC’s controller of drama, promised to shift the broadcaster’s focus from ‘‘traditional period adaptations to . . . a really broad range of modern drama’’.
Things are changing within the costume-drama genre; rather than adapting the same old 19thcentury novels, screenwriters have dipped into Tudor England ( Wolf Hall) and the backstreets of Birmingham after the First World War ( Peaky Blinders). There have been lesbian bonnet dramas ( Tipping the Velvet) and black bonnet dramas ( Small Island). And, of course, there is Julian Fellowes’ juggernaut, Downton Abbey, which looked like a classic adaptation, but was really Home and Away in a petticoat.
Yet, here we are again with War & Peace, a famous 19thcentury novel about a bunch of posh, straight, white Europeans, adapted for the small screen by the king of the genre, screenwriter Andrew Davies.
‘‘ War & Peace is a book like Pride & Prejudice,’’ says Davies, who sent the world into a bonnetsand-breeches frenzy with his 1995 adaptation of Austen’s novel. ‘‘This is about people and how they live and how they love.’’
Austen’s English drawing rooms feel a long way from Tolstoy’s Austrian battlefields, so this might be a sales pitch designed to cash in on the devotion of Pride & Prejudice’s many fans. Still, it reveals something about the enduring appeal of classic adaptations.
These novels have the brand recognition to attract a large audience and plots familiar enough to withstand a little judicious tweaking.
Davies’ adaptations stick, broadly speaking, to the original stories. But he is not in the business of ‘‘ploddingly faithful scripts’’.
Just as Austen’s Mr Darcy never jumped into a lake in his smalls, Tolstoy’s temptress Helene (Tuppence Middleton) never cavorted naked in bed with her brother (though it is implied). ‘‘It’s all there, but Tolstoy didn’t actually write the scenes,’’ says Davies. ‘‘I couldn’t see why, so I thought I’d better.’’
These stories have endured because they deal with humanity at its most complex. There are many strands a skilled screenwriter or director can weave together into something that appeals to their particular audience.
When Davies adapted Dickens’ Little Dorrit in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, he focused on its financial swindlers and duped investors. With War & Peace, he was struck by Bolkonsky’s boredom with his privileged lifestyle and charming wife.
‘‘He’s a young guy who’s got absolutely everything going for him . . . and he just hates his life. I thought, ‘That sounds very modern’,’’ says Davies.
Bonnet-bashers often claim that classic adaptations are only popular because they are pretty. War & Peace has its share of silk and velvet, but there is something more going on beneath those bodices.
The novels of the 19th century unfold in a society tightly bound by moral codes. In contemporary Western society there is often nothing to stop people from acting on their desires. The 19th century offers delicious narrative possibilities of individuals at odds with their society: the illicit love of Irene Forsyte and Philip Bosinney in The Forsyte Saga, the unspoken sexual tension between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, the disgrace of Lydia Bennet’s flirtatious behaviour in Pride & Prejudice.
The emotions are all the more explosive because they must remain unspoken. Davies understands this; he relishes his reputation for spicing up the classics, but in reality the sex in his adaptations is only ever a subtle suggestion. Even in the much-discussed incest scene in War & Peace, one of the participants is fully clothed.
With Pride & Prejudice, Davies and his collaborators changed the way costume dramas were made. They picked up the pace, increased the budgets and took the action from wobbly studio sets into real, often outdoor, locations. It would never have worked though, had Davies – a former English lecturer – not understood the source material so well.
‘‘When I was a teacher of English literature, I talked about these great books and partly I’m still that guy,’’ he says.
‘‘I want to say, ‘This book is great because of this and this and this’ . . . If I can put it on the screen and write it in the right way, people can see how relevant it is to us all today.’’
At its heart, War & Peace is about people and how they live and how they love, believes screenwriter Andrew Davies.
Paul Dano plays Pierre Bezukhov in War & Peace.