Did you enjoy the latest BBC adaptation of War and Peace?
I have been thinking about War and Peace a lot – so much, that I have had a dream about it.
I dreamed I was in the pub down the road. It was crowded and I was trying to get a drink. Standing next to me was an old man with a long white beard. His shirt wasn’t tucked into his trousers, but his trousers were tucked into his boots. We get all sorts in there.
I got talking to the old man, oddly enough in French, which is not often spoken in the Charlton Inn, but that’s how it is in dreams. The old man said his name was Lev Nikoleyavich. Where had I heard that name before? Gosh ! This was Count Tolstoy – the Leo Tolstoy who wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
What brought his Excellency to Shepton Mallet and, without wishing to be nosy, hadn’t he been dead since 1910?
Count Tolstoy said that was true, but where he was now, you did occasionally get to go out on special missions. Tonight he was here to have a drink with the famous screenwriter Andrew Davies, to give him some feedback about the latest BBC War and Peace, for which Mr Davies had written the script. He had no idea why the meeting was in the Charlton Inn – but then this was my dream not his. He added that there had been a bit of a mix up in the fx booth in the departure lounge and if I’d be kind enough to buy the beer, I’d be welcome to join them.
My apologies for what follows to Mr Davies whom I have never met and greatly admire. I have probably dreamed him all wrong – if so, I hope he will forgive me. Double apologies if Mr Davies has dreamed of meeting Tolstoy in a pub, only to have the encounter spoiled by an interloping beer-buying buffoon (which would be a pity – but what a fantastic coincidence).
Back to my dream.
By the time I’d got the beer we were all on first name terms and, to my relief, talking English.
It turns out that Leo (as I must now call him) is a great fan of screen adaptations of his work. (What did we think they did all day where he was? Sit around playing the harp? Actually they are supposed to do an hour of harp practice every day just in case, but they are so bad at it that after about the ten minutes a message comes from the Boss to please shut the **** up. Apparently the Boss can be quite direct.)
Leo said that Andrew’s is at least the fifth screen adaptation of War and Peace. There have been at least two other TV mini-series, one by the BBC in 1972 and one by Robert Dornhelm in 2007, a film directed by King Vidor in 1956 in Hollywood and a film series directed by Sergei Bondachuk in 1967 in Soviet Russia.
Leo thinks that a good story can improve with the retelling – that was the secret of Homer. However, with a novel, an adaptation for the screen becomes the only opportunity for retelling. So there is much to be learnt from what works and what doesn’t work on the screen, what gets left out and what is added.
Andrew asked hopefully how his adaptation measured up against the others. Leo replied that it had gone down very well where he was. Everybody had loved it. Nobody could ever beat what Bondachuk had done in 1967 (quirky as it was in some ways) but then Bondachuk had a number of advantages, such as the availability of a sizeable portion of the Red Army for the battle scenes and a budget that must have been a measurable proportion of the USSR’s GDP. After Bondachuk, Leo would put the 2016 BBC adaptation ahead of the others, including the previous 1972 BBC War and Peace.
Of course, Leo went on, he’d had to accept that any screen adaptation of War and Peace reduced it to the level of mere romantic drama more or less centred on the characters of Natasha, Pierre and Andre, with battle scenes and some background for added colour. This rather puzzled Andrew. Was War and Peace not a romantic novel centred on Natasha, Pierre and Andre? At this Leo sighed and shook his head. I decided to speak up on his behalf.
Whose story is War and Peace really, I asked. It is that of Russia itself, told through the experience of hundreds of characters, set out over twelve hundred pages. That is the genius of it (and why during his lifetime Leo himself had not liked to describe it as a novel). It follows through Leo’s idea that the world was driven by the sum total of the actions and interactions of millions of individuals, not the largely ill-informed, ineffective and irrelevant deliberations of those who believed themselves to be in charge.
War and Peace, I said, transcends fiction. It is a work of applied social physics, using a vast mass of biographical detail, historic and reconstructed, instead of big data.
Yes, something like that, said Leo.
Andrew still did not get it. Sure, he said, War and Peace is a bit long and there’s a lot of abstract stuff in it that probably went down a bundle when you wrote it, but, you know, for a modern audience it’s all a bit philosophical and inaccessible and, well, a bit irrelevant.
This upset Leo. He had been reading the Economist in the departure lounge. He thought Andrew should consider the current European immigration crisis, with millions of people from Africa and the Middle East voting with their feet, before which the statesmen of Europe were both useless and helpless. How could Andrew not see the relevance of his thinking?
I changed the subject and asked how Leo had liked the new scenes Andrew had added, that weren’t in the book? Ah said Leo, referring to something Andrew had said in an interview, you mean the scenes he (Leo) had forgotten to write? He didn’t mind them at all. They were what he had meant about a retelling being an opportunity for a story to grow.
He specifically wanted to mention the bit where arch enemies Andre and Anatole had found themselves mortally wounded on adjoining operating tables and had reached out and held hands. He wished he’d thought of this himself. They’d all been deeply moved in his place, even the Boss, who has literally seen everything.
He thought Andrew had brought out the relationship between Pierre and Dolokhov beautifully, although he was not impressed by the love scene between Dolokhov and Helene. He went on to explain how he himself would have seen to Helene, as he put it, in rather graphic terms, I thought. Andrew said there were limits to the BBC’s appetite for historical authenticity.
Talking of Helene, Andrew admitted that he had simply not understood Helene as Leo had written her (bland and demure) and could not see how she could function. That was why he had to update her, into loud and tarty. Leo said he gathered from some of the more recent arrivals in his place that we no longer had women like Helene, so it would be difficult for us to understand. He had discussed this with a French fellow called Zola who had written a book called Nana which he recommended we should read.
We went on to talk about the cast, about which Leo was very complimentary, especially of the two Prince Bolkonskys, Andre and his father. He thought Natasha was a very fine actress and as far as acting went as good as any other Natasha there had ever been, including Audrey Hepburn. Everybody had loved her. But somehow she wasn’t quite right for the part – for one thing she was too obviously 24 to be credible as a 13 year old, which is Natasha’s age at the beginning.
Andrew’s Pierre was the right age, which was more than could be said for Bondachuk’s Pierre (he had played the part himself in his own film), but in Leo’s place they called Andrew’s Pierre Harry Potter on account of the glasses and the puzzled look. (Apparently they are big Harry Potter fans in Leo’s place. When they want to annoy the Boss they call him Dumbledore. Of course, nobody wants to annoy Voldemort.)
Actually, Leo said that apart from being about 20 years too old, Bondachuk had been a very good Pierre, but so too was Anthony Hopkins in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation. Couldn’t Andrew have got him this time? He was now about 50 years too old but surely they could have fixed this with one of those computers we now have? Andrew thought not.
Leo said that he’d really have to be going back to the departure lounge in a minute but there was one last big question he wanted to raise with Andrew before he went. This was that Andrew had kept all the Russian names, used at least some Russian locations and kept the Russian historical background, yet he had adapted War and Peace into something which struck Leo as English, filtering out its Russian-ness. This was puzzling to Leo because the whole point of his book was that it was Russian in a way that was entirely different to the way for example Pride and Prejudice (and he mentioned he was a big fan of Andrew’s adaptation of that book) was English.
Andrew was evidently surprised by this. He could not see what Leo meant at all. Not only had they used Russian names, locations and history, they had gone to immense trouble with the sets, the costumes, the props and everything.
Leo said that it was not at all about sets and costumes and props it was about in here, deep in here, and he thumped his chest impressively. What the BBC had done was no more Russian than pale ale (which he pronounced as one word – ‘pellell’ – looking wistfully into his glass) compared to vodka.
Take the sleigh rides. Had we seen the troikas in Bondachuk’s film Leo asked. Had we noticed that always they were at full gallop, as a Russian troika should be – but always to dramatic purpose, to show how Nikolai really wanted to get home after years in the army, the joy amongst the Rostovs at Christmas, the careless irresponsibility of Kuragin and Dolokhov (boy racers, as we would say). In Andrew’s adaptation, when there is a sleigh, it ambles along at a gentle walking pace.
Andrew replied that there had been a bit of a discussion between the sleigh consultant and the Health and Safety Representative. He thought the walking pace had been a workable compromise. Maybe Russians did like faster sleigh rides than the British – they certainly liked drivng cars faster. However, apart from being a fairly peripheral dramatic device he did not see how it mattered.
Leo said he really should go now but what he was talking about was central and important. Take for example, the big scene of Natasha’s dance after the wolf hunt (which Andrew had moved to the Christmas party, but no matter).
Could Natasha dance! Leo said that he had already told us that in Moscow she was the star of the dance school. Here in the country, improvising to a folk tune played on the guitar, how did she do? Leo closed his eyes and quoted (first in Russian and then in English translation) what he had written.
“She did it exactly right, and so precisely, so perfectly precisely, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father and in her aunt, and in her mother and in every Russian.”
Why was this important? Because we should not be deceived by the outward appearance of the French-speaking, French-educated toffs (as we would say) of whom Leo wrote. They were Russian to the core. That was why they did not crumble in 1812, as all other elites in Europe had crumbled and sent their soldiers to help subdue the Russians. That was why the Russians did not crumble in 1941 when the rest of Europe again sent their soldiers to help the Germans. That was why Europe was saved from Bonaparte and why it was saved from Hitler.
Natasha expressed this through her dance as he had described – Pierre, Andre and others at Borodino.
Leo said that Andrew did not have to put this dance into his film but if he did, it must be right. The audience must weep through its laughter. And they must understand it was Russian.
In Andrew’s film there was skirt-twirling and arm-waving, maybe agreed between Andrew’s esteemed consultant in folk dancing and his most excellent Health and Safety Representative. How would Leo know? What Leo knew was that he did not weep through his laughter, that there was no mention of Russia, that the big point was not made.
Leo told us to watch Bondachuk’s film. He had got it right. He got his Natasha from the Kirov. She could dance. In Leo’s place they had all been in tears when they saw the dance in Bondachuk’s film, just because this Russian Natasha from the Kirov was so exquisite, even the Boss (who likes it when a bit of creation comes good).
In reply Andrew said that he was a great admirer of Bondachuk and so on but the world had moved on. In a Europe without frontiers nationality was less important and had negative connotations for the modern audience, of nationalism, racism. imperialism etc. The focus now was on the universal human angle. To play up the Russian national angle in War and Peace would be to make it less accessible to a modern audience and, really, less relevant.
“Less relevant!” said Leo in a voice that was too loud and caused heads to turn, “less relevant! Oh so there is no longer the inequality of which I wrote? There is no longer a corrupt and autocratic government, no longer a need for reform, prevented by greed and incompetence, no fear of another 1812, 1919 or 1941 so that what is happening in Ukrainia and in Syria has nothing to do with this? So this Economist I have read is lies and you have nothing to learn from my book?”
“If Mr Davies you can go from your BBC drama department next door to your BBC news department you will see that in the real world BBC they have every day to consider Russia and the Russian sense of being Russian. Maybe it is not this real world that is irrelevant for your audience but the audience which is becoming irrelevant to the world.………………….”
At this point a good looking young man in an overcoat that was far too big except that he seemed to be wearing a rucksack underneath it appeared at Leo’s elbow. He told Leo that he had to come immediately. They were all waiting for him in the departure lounge. The Boss was due to watch a couple of episodes of Coronation Street on Iplayer and liked Leo to be there to explain what was going on – and they all knew how the Boss hated it if you let him down.
Seeing that my dream was coming to an end, I said that it had been a real privilege for me to buy the beer for Leo and Andrew. Leo said that yes it had. Andrew said I was quite right.
Leo’s last word was to please get people to read his book (I suppose authors are the same throughout time) and that if anybody wants a box set, to go for the Bondachuk.
This was only a dream but I thought I should pass it on.
16th February 2016