War and Peace

With the new BBC series imminent, Henry Claridge looks at problems of adapting this epic work.

The reader coming to Tolstoy’s great novel for the first time may think the task ahead of him or her a daunting prospect:  it runs to just under one thousand pages in the Wordsworth edition and concerns itself, for much of the narrative, with events in European history, most notably the rivalry between Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I, that occurred two hundred years ago.  But appearances can be deceptive and Tolstoy’s style is so lucid, nimble, and direct that the world he invites us to inhabit is immediately familiar and natural.  How many other great novels begin in the middle of a conversation, thus giving us the illusion that we too have joined the reception at the home of Anna Pavlovna Scherer in the summer of 1805?  One critic wisely remarked that if life could write itself, it would write just as Tolstoy did.

         More daunting, however, is the prospect of translating a novel of such magnitude to the screen, whether cinematic or televisual.  The Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk’s ‘War and Peace’ (1968) took five years to complete, has a cast of 120,000, and cost the Soviet film industry $10,000,000.  But even this cinematic version of Tolstoy’s epic forfeits much of the original, for the novel as an artistic medium has a variety and versatility that is found is no other art form, and in Tolstoy’s hands the resources of fiction find their definitive expression.  The forthcoming BBC TV series runs to six episodes, each sixty minutes in length, much as Bondarchuk’s film ran to six hours (two three-hour screenings), and encompasses the events of some seven years, from July 1805 to the end of 1812.   Five aristocratic families dominate the novel, some twenty three characters whose lives intersect and intertwine.  And behind them is a truly staggering ‘supporting cast’ that includes both Alexander I and Napoleon, Kutuzov, the supreme commander of the Russian army, Rostopchin, the Governor General of Moscow (all historical personages), companions such as Madamoiselle Bourienne (companion to Princess Maria Bolkonskaya), numerous servants and peasants, among them, importantly, Karataev, the peasant whom Pierre Bezukhov befriends after his capture by the French, and the combined armies of France and Russia.  (Bondarchuk had the Red Army of the Soviet Union at his disposal when recreating the battle of Borodino.)  The briskness with which Tolstoy moves from one family to another, from the drawing- room to the battlefield, explains, in part, our sense of the novel’s compelling narrative pace, and, perhaps, above all, that things are happening simultaneously, not chronologically.  The visual medium inevitably struggles to reproduce the dexterity and elasticity of great fiction, much as it will struggle with Tolstoy’s tendency to see his characters not through his own eyes but through the eyes of those with whom they interact, as, for example, in the dinner scene at the home of the Rostovs in chapters 18 and 19 of Book One.  And without the novelist’s commentary family sagas can quickly deteriorate into costume dramas or televisual soap operas.  The novelist can spend several pages describing what is going through the mind of a central character, what he or she is thinking, what sensations they are experiencing, what past events they are recalling, what future events they are anticipating.  The screen adaptation necessarily focuses on exterior details, dress, hair, furnishings, modes of transportation, and so on, and in doing so tempts us to take pleasure in historical and visual authenticity rather than psychological insight.  And, above all, the screenwriter and director must excise and select, removing what they think does not belong to the central focus of their understanding of the work being adapted.  Reasons of economy and scale may dictate that minor characters suffer the same fate as Cornelius and Voltimand, frequently excised from productions of ‘Hamlet’, and considerations of how much a television audience can tolerate scenes of suffering on the battlefield may determine how, for example,  the amputation of Prince Anatole Kuragin’s leg in Book Ten is dramatized.

       The insurmountable task that confronts anyone turning the written words of ‘War and Peace’ into visual images revolves, of course, around Tolstoy’s ‘philosophizing’.   The Second Epilogue is, in effect, an addendum to the novel and contributes nothing to what we know already about his characters and the incidents and events that befall them.  But Tolstoy intrudes philosophically at other points, notably before and during his account of the battle of Borodino in Book Ten.  In all these ‘interruptions’ Tolstoy impresses on us his view that historical events are not shaped by the individual will but run an unpredictable and unpremeditated course.  Thus Napoleon is deluded into thinking the battle at Borodino conforms to his design.  To render Tolstoy’s arguments dramatically is next to impossible.  They could be spoken, in abbreviated form, by a character but the effect would be clumsy, intrusive, and unnatural.  They might be rendered in conversation, but Tolstoy rarely has his characters talking abstractly, and who would converse with whom in any way that would seem realistic?   So we await to see whether the new BBC series squarely confronts this problem, or as is more likely, simply bypasses it.

Henry Claridge




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