A Blagger's Guide To: War and Peace

Squeezing Tolstoy's enormous tome on to the small screen
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The Independent Culture

Leo Tolstoy's 1869 novel War and Peace is to be turned into an "epic" six-part TV series for BBC1, we are told. The man responsible is Andrew Davies, who has form: he has adapted dozens of books for the big and small screens, including Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet (which could have been written with Andrew Davies in mind) and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Northanger Abbey (which also could have been, but definitely weren't).

Davies is already positioning his adaptation in the national consciousness. The complex, 19th-century Russian extravaganza will be very familiar to fans of EastEnders, he assures us, but with "not so much yelling and nobody on the dole". Andrei is being lined up as the Mr Darcy figure, and Natasha Rostova "just beats Lizzy Bennet as the most lovable heroine in literature". Let's hope that Colin Firth and Letitia Dean have cleared their diaries, then.

Davies generally has a no-nonsense attitude to the books and authors he adapts. After bringing Wives and Daughters to the BBC in 1999, he described Elizabeth Gaskell as "the dog's bollocks".

War and Peace is the seventh longest novel in a Latin or Cyrillic based alphabet. An "original" version of the novel, some 600 pages shorter, was assembled from Tolstoy's drafts by the Russian scholar Evelina Zaidenshnur, who spent 50 years examining thousands of pages to match types of paper, different inks and subtle changes in the author's handwriting. An English translation by Andrew Bromfield was published in 2007, to the fury of some experts. Tony Briggs, emeritus professor of Russian language and literature and the author of a bestselling translation, told the IoS: "This is a sanitised, Hollywood happy-ending version, where everyone lives happily ever after. But frankly this is an outrage, and no one should be misled."

The condensing of the massive novel into six, hour-long episodes is also worrying some fans, who recall that it runs to 1,408 pages (in the Penguin Classics paperback edition) or three volumes (in the Everyman's Library box set). But Davies is not deterred. "It's nothing to be frightened of," he told the Daily Telegraph. "In a way, I think it will be quite manageable, because quite a lot of the book is taken up with Tolstoy's theories on history and his account of why Napoleon was defeated in the Russian campaign … But at the heart of the book, it is a story of four families and the interaction between them, with certain characters we get to care about and love very much." The Blagger assumes that means that, like many readers, Davies is going to skip through the "war" bits.

The first film adaptation of War and Peace was in 1915, in Russia, and starred the ballerina Vera Karalli, who was "enchanting" as Natasha Rostova. The first Hollywood version starred Audrey Hepburn as Natasha and Henry Fonda as Pierre. The last time it was shown on the BBC was in 1972, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre and Morag Hood as Natasha. Hood also appeared in a 1970 film of Wuthering Heights, and later in Heartbeat. She died in 2002.

And so, the plot: Pierre is nice but poor. Andrei is a prince but married to a flibbertigibbet. Everyone fancies Natasha, lots of people get engaged, some of them have affairs, and there's an insult on a battlefield, and a duel. Some people die. The ones who are left get married. Oh, and there's some war. Enjoy!