War & Peace (2016): A Review
To do a review in full of War & Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s most famous work, would be a momentous undertaking and likely a pointless one at that. Not only is the tomb simply massive, with multiple storylines and characters and themes, but it is also one of the most over analyzed literary works in history. For that reason I greatly debated writing this review of the latest television adaptation by BBC One of the novel, but ultimately my appreciation was too great for me to allow it to pass my without writing a few words on it.
The same reasons that make War & Peace so difficult a novel to review also make it a nightmare to adapt to a miniseries. There is so much to cover that trying to fit everything and everyone in within a six to ten hours time period is all but impossible. Inevitably something has to be cut or rushed or fade into the background. Unfortunately, this often leads to producers focusing almost exclusively upon the triangle of Natasha Rostova, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov at the expense of the other characters and plots. Given that the relationship between the aforementioned three is one of the elements of the novel I find least interesting this is one of the main sources of dissatisfaction I have had with most adaptations of Tolstoy’s work. Indeed, the only one that ever felt like it was genuinely making an effort to tell the story in full was the previous 1972 BBC serial starring a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre and it had well over twenty plus episodes. Unfortunately it also was clear as paint that it had the budget of a ham sandwich, leading to blatantly reused sets for repeat scenes and an overall amateur feel to production despite quite excellent acting and scripting.
I was therefore delighted to discover that the BBC’s second adaptation took this approach again, making a genuine effort to develop and explore all the characters and their stories throughout the course of the show’s arch. This isn’t done perfectly. As the series nears its end the strong start it makes of taking its time and building up the story starts to slip away very clearly in a struggle to wrap everything up within the six episodes allotted to it. It is painfully obvious that another two to three episodes would have made all the difference, particularly when the better part of the last third of the story is crammed into the two-part finale.
This emphasis on telling everyone’s story however pays dividends. Tolstoy is a very slippery individual to try and pin down as far as his politics and message. Indeed, as a individual he changed his positions on things several times over the course of his life, and both the revolutionary and reactionary will find within his writings things to love and to loath. Possibly because of this, however, Tolstoy was able to craft characters of very differing viewpoints and attitudes and accurately portray them in ways the reader finds compelling, even laudable. War & Peace is no exception.
Take for example the character of Pierre Bezukhov (yes I know I was just complaining about how he gets too much attention – sue me!). When we are first introduced to him, he is very much a character adrift. As the illegitimate son of a nobleman, he quite literally has no place in the world around him, and his attempts to fill this void with the superficial pleasures of women and alcohol bring him no real solace. His story is one of a quest to try and find meaning. He seeks to do so at first through devotion to causes, be it the revolutionary republicanism of Bonapartist France or the secret mysticism of Free Masonry or the liberal reformation of his inherited estates, but through it all we can see that none of this truly brings Pierre any genuine satisfaction.
There is a very real parallel between Pierre’s struggles and those of the far too many people of modernity (particularly among the youth) that seek to drown out its sheer emptiness in various ways through either zealous devotion to various causes and ideologies or simply through the white noise of pointless consumerism and degenerate sensory gratification. Like Pierre, we know we should be happy – everyone has told us the modern world will make us happy – yet somehow we’re not. So like Pierre we lash out blindly and in rage to try and fill that void, attacking the pointed out bugbears that have been preapproved by the same ones who told us we should be happy with what’s around us in the first place; it’s all patriarchy’s fault or hierarchy or tradition! Boo!
Yet it is those very bugbears that ultimately give Pierre the satisfaction and meaning he craves. He ultimately finds peace and direction not through his revolutionary liberalism but via his love for Natasha and the family that they have together, and he is shown the way towards it by the peasant Platon through his simple religious humility and kindness. This is not done perfectly, as the series does skimp on Pierre’s conversion from atheism to Christianity (which is one of the few parts the 2007 production by Lux Vide did do well), but it is still one of the better representations of Pierre’s journey I have seen.
Sadly, I was far less impressed with the portrayal of Nikolai Rostov, Natasha’s brother, who together with Princess Maria Bolkonskaya is one of my favorite pairings in the novel. The two together are representative of the Russian status quo, with Nikolai the soldier embodying the authority of the aristocracy but being tempered by the kindness and love of the Christian Princess Maria, who is a stand in for the Orthodox Church. For this reason, I suspect, Nikolai is one of the characters frequently given the short end of the stick in adaptations of War & Peace, often given minimal development with little investment on the progression of his relationship with Princess Maria (which I’ve only ever seen done well in the aforementioned 1972 version). Here he largely comes across as an unmotivated and oafish layabout and a bit of a playboy. This is somewhat mitigated by the greater screen time given to the character of Princess Maria, but overall still is most unsatisfactory.
But where the BBC truly manages to deliver is by capturing the grandeur and beauty of the Tsarist period it portrays. We see the balls and salons; the palaces and opera houses; the gowns and jewels; the majesty of the Tsar; the reverence to and centrality of the Church. All so beautiful and all gone; torn down and destroyed by revolutionaries only a century later in a devastation even worse than the one reaped upon Moscow through Napoleon in the book till nothing remained but haunting ghosts wandering the empty palace halls as a noxious reminder of past glories.
People very often have trouble understanding the nostalgia I feel for the Russia of before (my own ancestors being peasants and Jewish ones at that!). How can I express such sympathy for a system and time that was so oppressive and disenfranchising, the old refrain goes. I shan’t go into the details of answering at this time, but that nostalgia is captured quite perfectly by War & Peace as it is portrayed here. We see everything that was lost, and just for one moment are allowed to forget. For that alone, the BBC’s most recent portrayal is one of the finest ones I have seen in recent years.