Five Things I Loved about the BBC War & Peace Miniseries

As soon as I got back from the States in January, my husband and I rushed to catch up on the BBC’s War & Peace miniseries. It’s the latest costume drama from screenwriter Andrew Davies, who is behind many favorite literary adaptations, including Bleak House (2005). I enjoyed War & Peace much more than I expected to given my utter unfamiliarity with Russian literature. I can’t comment on how well the miniseries captures Tolstoy’s plot or tone; my response is just that of a literature lover who appreciates gripping television. (My understanding is that this has already shown in North America too, on various networks, but for those who haven’t watched it and still plan to, I’ll avoid spoilers in what follows.)

Natasha Rostova's first ball, Leonid Pasternak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Natasha Rostova’s First Ball, Leonid Pasternak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
1. It’s like Jane Austen – but not quite. Although Tolstoy wrote it in 1869, War & Peace is set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), so the time period crosses over with most of Jane Austen’s novels. That means some of the fashions look familiar, and a major scene takes place at a ball.

2. The superb casting. At first it seemed strange to see Paul Dano, an indie movie favorite, in a TV role, but I quickly saw why he was just right for the part of earnest, indecisive Count Pierre Bezukhov. An illegitimate son who wants to live a meaningful life but keeps falling into dissolute behavior, Pierre unexpectedly inherits his father’s fortune and marries the wrong woman, yet turns personal disappointment to the good when he devotes himself to serving his fellow man through the Masons. With his little smile, deliberate speech and round glasses, Dano is perfect.

Initially Lily James, as Natasha Rostova, seems to be just like her bubbly, flirtatious Downton Abbey character, Lady Rose, but suffering and regret chasten her. I also loved Jim Broadbent as irascible Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky and Adrian Edmondson (especially with his fez and other assorted headgear) as the Micawber-ish Count Ilya Rostov. Callum Turner and Tuppence Middleton as Anatole Kuragin and Hélène Kuragina are a skeevy, scheming brother-and-sister pair worthy of Dangerous Liaisons.

3. The authentic settings. The series was filmed on location in Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia, including at the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. It makes a difference to know this wasn’t shot in a London studio; the dachas, Orthodox churches and snowy vistas are all genuine.

4. The action scenes. The CGI crowd shots are unconvincing, but the up-close battle scenes are excellent: bombs, bayonets, amputations and all. Seeing one battle, Borodin, partially from Pierre’s viewpoint is an especially effective way of contrasting civilian life with soldiers’ daily reality.

5. The philosophical depth. I should have known what I was in for from a Russian novel, but I was startled afresh each time a character paused to stare death in the face or to question what his or her life was heading towards and consider how to change course. There are beautifully symbolic moments of forgiveness between separated sweethearts or former rivals. Another highlight is when Pierre, the rich count temporarily laid low, connects with a peasant and his dog. He even learns how to eat mindfully.


Tolstoy in 1868 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Tolstoy in 1868 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Now for something I didn’t like: with the mixture of cut-glass British and toned-down American accents, you’d be forgiven for thinking this takes place in an English-speaking country. It takes characters singing folk songs in Russian, wearing bearskin hats and participating in Orthodox rituals to remind you that, oh yeah, this is Russia. I’m not saying I wish the actors had all spoken in heavy Slavic accents, but especially after an extended period in a refined drawing room, it can be jolting to see onion domes and Cossack uniforms.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever read War & Peace; I have a feeling that, like Moby-Dick (an assigned book I never made it all the way through in college), it could have done with an editor. Even though I adore Tolstoy’s storyline and characters, I don’t think I’d have patience for long passages of historical exposition. Moreover, Philip Hensher (in a Guardian reader’s guide) thinks War & Peace has the worst opening and closing lines in literature. Actually reading the Russian masters can wait for another time.

For now, I’m happy to have seen this top-notch adaptation. In just six hours of television, Davies and director Tom Harper brought an epic world classic into vibrant life, full of romance, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption.

My rating: 4.5 star rating

If you’ve already seen War & Peace and are interested in reading more about it, this appreciation piece by Clive James in the Guardian is great (but spoilers abound). See also this interview with Andrew Davies.


Have you seen the miniseries? If so, what did you think? I’m particularly interested to hear how it matched up to the book if any of you are familiar with both.

 

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11 thoughts on “Five Things I Loved about the BBC War & Peace Miniseries

  1. I probably won’t ever be reading the book, so I would love to see the mini-series. I didn’t realize they filmed it in Russia – even better!
    Watching period films like this always make me feel like someone just made it all up – the balls, the clothes, the exaggerated manners, etc. It makes for such great viewing. 🙂
    CJ at ebookclassics has read the book and watched the series. She compares them on her blog:
    https://ebookclassics.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/book-to-movie-review-war-and-peace/

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    1. Thanks for pointing me to that! Good to see that she also noted the strong casting, and rated it identically. Reading her response strengthens my feeling that I will probably not read the book. Or, I wonder if there’s a good abridged version out there??

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      1. I think I would have to get really good at skimming. I hardly ever skim (I hate to miss stuff), but I have to admit to a little bit of skimming when I read Anna Karenina.

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      2. Ah, so you’ve read some Tolstoy. I’ve only ever read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella, and I didn’t get much out of it. I like the idea of reading the Russian masters, but I worry it would just be such hard work. Philip Hensher says you can read War & Peace in 10 days with no problem, but that means plowing through ~150 dense pages a day!

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  2. I have read War & Peace – as a teenager, so I really ought to re-read it as an adult, but can’t devote the time yet… I loved this series – all the locations made it seem so much richer. Loved Paul Dano, he lived up to my memories of Anthony Hopkins in the Beeb’s 1970s adaptation. There was a depth to the casting that made even smaller roles stand out – from Rebecca Front to Gillian Anderson, and of course Ade Edmondson and Greta Scacchi were brilliant and so was Jessie Buckley as Marya.

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    1. I read Dickens and Hardy as a teenager and the Brontës, Woolf and D.H. Lawrence at university, but I wish I’d been more ambitious with the classics when I was younger. Now it almost feels like it’s too late to catch up — though of course that’s not true; I enjoyed trying W. Somerset Maugham for the first time last year, for instance.

      I agree even the bit parts in W&P were so well cast. Marya, especially, really blossomed as a character. It was just poor Sonya who ended up overlooked.

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  3. Of course I enjoyed War and Peace, but I’m afraid it hasn’t tempted me to read the book. I haven’t had much success in my attempts to plug the dreadful gap in my education – not a single Russian novel under my belt. But I think this is partly the fault of translations that read, well, just like translations. Does anyone know any versions worth a go?

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    1. I own copies of many of the Russian classics (mostly older translations by Constance Garnett) but just haven’t been brave enough to pick them up yet. You hear of new translations of Dante or Flaubert all the time, but not of the Russian greats.

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