Professor Wu's Rulebook

Adapting Tolstoy: Paul Dano vs 1300 Russians

War and Peace

War? Check. Peace? Check. What more could you ask of any adaptation of Tolstoy’s seminal, 1200-odd page novel, War and Peace? Well, on these counts the BBC’s recent television miniseries has hit the mark, helped in part by the use of flashing sabres, corsets, Paul Dano, heaving bosoms, Paul Dano, men in uniform, Paul Dano, funny-looking Russian hats, Paul Dano, breathless kisses, Paul Dano, and a cheeky touch of incest (which seems to be all the rage in TV book adaptations since Game of Thrones).

Reviews of the BBC series have been, on the whole, positive, with critics and viewers describing it as both captivating and riveting. Yet the fast pace of the series, and the decision of director Andrew Davies to be rather liberal when it comes to cutting out chapters and events contained in the novel, has not gone unnoticed – with Mark Lawson in The Guardian pointing to the revered 1972 BBC series, which had a running time of 15 hours, as perhaps being a more faithful adaptation (albeit with less Paul Dano).

Is it possible to retain an absolute faithfulness to a text in any adaptation, and also create something that is riveting and captivating? Or are the two mutually exclusive? The 1972 series, it is worth pointing out, played at such a relaxed pace that the series began with servants laying a long banquet table “more or less in real time”, as Lawson notes. Perhaps audiences in the 1970s found the laying of tables more riveting than our modern sensibilities might permit us to think.

Is absolute faithfulness even possible? These are all questions to consider. And how else better to consider all these while watching thirteen hundred Russians recite the entirety of War and Peace over a period of sixty hours? We certainly can’t think of a better way. But we’ll leave that for you to decide!

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