War and Peace (BBC, 2016), adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Harper
Last year there was a lot of buzz about the new BBC War and Peace adaptation: it seemed that everyone was watching it and wanting me to watch it too. I would be lying if I didn’t say that this series was one of the big inspirations for me reading the book last year; I had decided not to watch the series until I had read the book, so I had extra motivation to finish it before the end of the year. My expectations were quite high, particularly since so many of my friends and family had really enjoyed the series, and I’m pleased to say that it lived up to the buzz it had created, at least in my opinion.
In many ways, War and Peace is a great book to adapt: it’s long, but there are so many parts that can easily be cut out without losing anything from the main narrative. Tolstoy’s long digressions about the war, which I mentioned I had struggled with when reading the book, can be condensed into some well-edited, big-scale battle scenes that work well on screen. This then leaves the creator with very rich character storylines; the freedom to develop the relationships between characters; and the opportunity to draw out the themes that weave the characters together. Episode 3 is one of the strongest examples of this: it’s a visually stunning episode that brings together so many different storylines in beautiful ways.
As far as the way the characters were portrayed, there was definitely an attempt to make some of the characters nicer than they are in the novel. I was surprised to find that Andrew, for example, is much less self-centred than in the beginning of the novel: clearly an attempt to warm the audience to his character earlier than is the case in the novel. This was a little frustrating because part of the richness of the characters is that they are all deeply flawed and make many mistakes, but grow and learn over the course of the narrative. For the most part, however, I thought the characters were well portrayed and true to the novel counterparts. There were two characters I thought were particularly well done: Lily James was the perfect Natasha, almost exactly how I had imagined her on the page; Jim Broadbent, likewise, as the old Prince was inspired casting.
The series is definitely slicker than the novel: there are lots of beautiful dresses, sweeping shots, and swells of music. A cynic might claim that the creators have sacrificed some of the tone of the novel for the trend of period dramas. However, I am not a cynic, and I felt that it kept faithful to the narrative of the novel. The scope of it makes for a very good TV series: aesthetic and engaging, with plenty of emotional moments.
Overall, this is definitely a series I would recommend, especially for anyone who enjoys period dramas. Although I wanted to read the book first, you definitely don’t have to have read the book before watching the series: the characters and narrative are strong enough on their own that you will still know what is going on. I do know that one or two people have mentioned they struggled to tell the characters apart in the first episode, but this seems to be something that changed as the series went on. This is just an engaging series that will leave you engrossed in a world past for a while.