A tale of two TV adaptations, both by the BBC but more than forty years apart, both excellent in their way, but different, very different. War and Peace is not an easy book to bring to the screen – it’s so big, for starters, with a huge cast and an odd combination of soapy romantic difficulties and the backdrop of massive battles. There’s a philosophical undertone, too, that’s difficult to portray. The 1972 version makes a fair effort to capture everything, while the 2016 version cherry picks and goes for the emotional jugular.
BBC TV series 1972
This is, in many ways, the definitive adaptation of War And Peace, with twenty episodes, a cast of thousands, amazingly well-realised set-pieces like the Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, and a stellar cast, including a young but already brilliant Anthony Hopkins. I dread to think what it must have cost. It covers the years 1805 up to the 1812 retreat from Moscow, with an 1820 epilogue to show who married whom.
I’ve never been a huge fan of war stories of any sort, and the fact that all of this is true makes it far, far worse. The sheer numbers involved (50,000 at least dead at Borodino, for instance) is horrifying. Historian Gwynne Dyer compared the carnage at Borodino to “a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours.” To say that the program portrays this devastation well is, I suppose, a compliment. Certainly the scale of the thing was portrayed brilliantly, with no expense spared. The soldiers’ camps were fully constructed, not just the usual group of men huddled round a campfire, and the battle lines sprawled across the open plains (it was filmed in Serbia, apparently). When the armies marched, we saw long snaking lines of men and wagons.
The peace parts were far more to my taste, and here again no expense was spared. The ballroom scenes were crowded and filled with life and colour, the costumes were gorgeous and the houses of the Russian aristocracy were suitably grand. The two families of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys are the contrasting backdrops. The Rostovs are the over-spending and easy-going provincials, a charmingly happy bunch, opening their house to any passing friends of friends and going smilingly broke. The Bolkonskys are old aristocracy, rich, eccentric and reclusive. In the middle of these two is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate-turned-legal son of a vastly wealthy man, a drifting and aimless young man looking for some meaning to his life. Andrei Bolkonsky is the weary-of-the-world cynic looking for a higher purpose. Natasha Rostova is the full-of-life girl they both fall in love with.
Anthony Hopkins as Pierre is utterly brilliant, a faultless performance that captures his youthful hi-jinks, disillusioned marriage, search for a purpose to his life and final achievement of peace perfectly. Alan Dobie as Andrei comes across as rather snobbish and coldly efficient, clever but without much humanity. Not sure if that was intentional or not. Morag Hood as Natasha had the most difficult role for she was required to cover the ages from around thirteen or so up to twenty, her natural liveliness muted by age and experience. I would say that she suited the older parts much, much better. My memory of watching this when it was first shown was that I thought her sadly miscast for the part, but now I think she did rather a good job under difficult conditions.
All the other characters were excellent too. I particularly liked Angela Down as Maria Bolkonskya, Frank Middlemass as Kutuzov and David Swift as a very convincing Napoleon Bonaparte. Donald Douglas, who played Tsar Alexander, looked exactly like the famous portrait of the Tsar. I felt sorry for Fiona Gaunt, who played Helene, Pierre’s wife, whose acting talents were rendered irrelevant by costumes that displayed her other assets in full measure. No wonder Pierre was so distracted that he was mesmerised into marriage. Any man would have been.
The 20-episode format allowed the script to do full justice to the length of the books, and if the war episodes felt a little too long and the peace ones too short, that was probably just me. This was an excellent attempt to make the definitive TV version of the film and I think it succeeds pretty well.
BBC TV series 2016
Alas and alack, the remake of the definitive version is always going to be… difficult, shall we say. The 1972 version had 20 45-minute episodes, a cast of literally thousands, a budget I don’t even want to think about and (the clincher) Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. This one is 6 1-hour episodes and no amount of creative juggling is going to make it feel anything other than rushed. Add to that the need to show every death in extended glory, and the result feels like War and Peace: the Cliff Notes edition. Moments like the Rostovs departure from Moscow, which took an entire episode in the original, was just a few minutes here. People met, fell in love and were married almost instantly. There was very little time to do more than touch base with the main events of the book, and none at all for the deeper philosophical musings. Significant characters like the Tsar, Napoleon and Kutuzov were reduced to walk-on roles.
Having said all that, I enjoyed it pretty well anyway. There seemed to be more emphasis on the peace parts of the story, which suited me a lot better than the endless shots of men dying in a variety of unpleasant ways. The balls and other social events were lovely, and the homes of the aristocrats were absolutely spectacular. The Russian winter felt very authentic. The acting was uniformly excellent, although I didn’t feel that anyone particularly stood out. Greta Scacchi, maybe. My only (mild) grumble was Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov, whose quirky features took me a while to get used to. He just didn’t feel like Pierre to me, but I realise that’s a highly personal reaction. His acting, particularly in the later episodes, was perfect, however.
Ultimately, there was nothing at all wrong with this. It’s a perfectly workable update on the original, condensed and brought into line with modern sensibilities, with more gore, more of the ‘feels’, and less actual plot. The original is much better, though, in almost every way.