Having slogged through Anna Karenina back in 2010, I decided not to bother with Tolstoy’s other epic masterpiece, War and peace. Not that Anna Karenina was a bad book; I just didn’t think it needed to be so long. The plot wasn’t really complex enough to justify it – when you strip it back, it’s basically Madame Bovary.
Then I saw that the BBC was adapting War and peace for TV and thought I’d watch it instead of reading it. I found myself enjoying the series so much that 3 episodes in I decided to have a crack at reading the original book as well.
Published in Russian between 1865 and 1869, War and peace is set over 40 years earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars in which Napoleon’s French army basically tried to conquer all of Europe and Europe, including Russia, fought back. There are two strands to the novel: one takes the reader out onto the battlefield and to the heart of the military action (‘War’) and the other is concerned with the concurrent domestic and social affairs of the Russian aristocracy (‘Peace’). There is some crossover between the two strands as they feature some of the same characters, and have similar themes: strategy and manouevre; the power of privilege and patronage; and how to find meaning in life. The novel spans 15 years, beginning with the first military engagements between France and Russia in 1805 and climaxing with France’s invasion of Russia in 1812, with an epilogue taking events up to 1820. There is a large cast of characters, which often confuses readers,especially non-Russian speakers not familiar with Russian names. It is epic in its scope, attempting to cover a wide range of human activity, emotions, motivations and personalities, and epic in length, being over 1400 pages in the version I read. Now, 1400 pages isn’t impossible to read – the combined output of the Game of thrones books so far is around three times as long – but the reason so many people struggle to finish it is probably the fact that it does combine two different genres in its mash-up of military and society, with the result that some readers will think there are 700 too many pages of war, while other readers will think there are 700 pages too many of peace.
How has the BBC TV series fitted such a behemoth of a book into 6 hour-long episodes? It has tightened the focus of the story onto three characters (Pierre, Andrei and Natasha), jettisoning a few of the minor characters and sub-plots. Being a visual medium, it was also able to replace pages of description about a character’s emotions (and Tolstoy doesn’t really do ‘succinct’) with an expressive look from a good actor, or pages of military logistics and discussions of soldiers’ morale with brief panoramic battlescenes before cutting to more detailed coverage of the actions of a few main characters. Above all, the TV adaptation cuts out Tolstoy’s musings on history, philosophy and religion. In the book, these diversions from the plot are sometimes astute and occasionally vivid. I loved Tolstoy’s comparison of abandoned Moscow to a queenless hive:
From the alighting-board, instead of the former winy fragrance of honey and venom, and the breath of warmth from the multitudes within, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the scent of honey. No sentinels watch there, curling up their stings and trumpeting the alarm, ready to die in defence of the community. Gone is the low, even hum, the throb of activity, like the singing of boiling water, and in its place is the fitful, discordant uproar of disorder […] Black robber-bees prowl swiftly and stealthily about the combs in search of plunder; while the short-bodied, dried up home-bees, looking withered and old, languidly creep about, doing nothing to hinder the robbers, having lost all desire and all sense of life.
(Book 3, part 3, chapter 20)
However, beautiful immersive passages like this are far outnumbered by Tolstoy’s dry, abstract essays. I read the majority of War and peace in three weeks, and then struggled for nearly a week to finish the last 40 pages, which consists of Tolstoy’s opinions on the role of man’s free will in history and is really boring. I take my hat off to the BBC adaptation for managing to preserve the interesting story at the heart of War and peace whilst ruthlessly editing out the ramblings that slow the novel down: the result is both intimate and coherent. It could have been a bit longer though. I don’t think 20 episodes (like the 1972 BBC series) are necessary, but why not 8 or 10? The BBC seems to have a stubborn inflexibility regarding the number of episodes it commissions for its TV series: it’s always 6, whether it fits the story or not.
So much for what the TV series left out; did it add anything that wasn’t in the original novel? Not really. A few scenes were altered or added to explain to the viewer developments that Tolstoy ‘tells’ the reader rather than ‘showing’ them. But in general it sticks very faithfully to the order of events and the essential personalities of the characters. Much of the dialogue stayed so closely word-for-word to the version I was reading (Rosemary Edmonds’s 1957 English translation for Penguin) that I have a strong suspicion this was the version the script was based on. Some online commentators have – wrongly – claimed that the TV series introduces things that are not in the original book. These often relate to Hélène, the most outrageous of War and peace‘s characters. Possibly this is because she is highly sexualised and viewers think that her actions must be the outpourings of Andrew Davies’s feverish mind; his reputation as the writer who introduced a wet shirt scene for Mr Darcy in his 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and prejudice precedes him. Here are some of the things I have read people claiming are modern introductions by the TV series but are actually in the original novel (please skip this section and proceed to the final paragraph if you haven’t read the book or seen the TV series and don’t want any plot spoilers):
- Hélène’s ‘modern’, slangy way of talking. In fact, in the book this is one of the things that shocks her husband, Pierre:
He recalled the coarseness and bluntness of her ideas, and the vulgarity of the expressions that were characteristic of her, though she had been brought up in the most aristocratic circles.
(Book 2, part 1, chapter 6)
- Female characters wearing low-cut, clinging and generally revealing dresses. This is not a modern sexing-up of staid 19th-century clothing for TV. Unlike the later, buttoned-up Victorians, early 19th-century women’s clothing was low-cut, clingy and revealing. Influenced by ideas of freedom and a return to nature that had been promoted by the French revolution and thinkers such as Rousseau, women’s dresses were made of thin fabrics and drew attention to the breasts. As a prominent society woman, Hélène takes up this fashion with enthusiasm:
She was, as she always did for evening parties, wearing a gown cut in the fashion of the day, very low back and front.
(Book 1, part 3, chapter 1)
During the opera scene in which Natasha is introduced to Hélène’s brother Anatole, Hélène’s clothing emphasises the licentious nature of the surroundings. She is repeatedly described as “half-naked” and “nearly naked”, and at one point she stands up in her opera box with “her whole bosom completely exposed” (Book 2, part 5, chapters 9-10).
- Hélène’s unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Again, it is clearly outlined in the book:
Everyone was very well aware that the lovely countess’s illness arose from the complications of marrying two husbands at the same time, and that the Italian doctor’s cure lay in the removal of this difficulty
(Book 4, part 1, chapter 1)
- Most controversially of all, the TV series shows an incestuous love affair between Hélène and her brother Anatole. Some say it is not present at all in Tolstoy’s novel, others that it is coyly hinted at. Well, it’s most definitely there in the original, and pretty baldly stated in a way that doesn’t require much interpretation:
‘Didn’t I hear that her own brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, that there was a regular scandal and that was the reason he was sent away?’
(Book 1, part 3, chapter 1)
And again, later on:
‘Anatole used to come to borrow money from her and kiss her on her naked shoulders. She didn’t give him the money but she let herself be kissed.’
(Book 2, part 1, chapter 6)
Of course, both of these extracts are narrated from one character (Pierre)’s point of view, so it could be argued that Pierre’s view of things is mistaken and their affair is only in his head, but this in itself is an interpretation which is no more justified than taking the words at face value and accepting that they are in a relationship.
I’m glad I read War and peace after all. I enjoyed it, I didn’t find it anywhere near as hard-going as I thought I would, and now I can talk about it. But I have to say I took more enjoyment from the BBC TV adaptation. That’s only my personal choice: if you like epic, sweeping big-picture novels, or have a particular interest in the Napoleonic Wars (or the philosophy of free will and necessity), go ahead and read the book.