War & Peace in your lounge

Be­ware bon­net bash­ers, a real epic of a pe­riod drama has just ar­rived, writes Louise Sch­warzkoff.

The Press - The Box - - COVER STORY - Fair­fax

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.

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