War and Peace: The BBC's adaptation was a triumph for Tolstoy - despite critics' sniping

They said it was just a sexed-up costume drama. But as the BBC's adaptation of 'War and Peace' reaches its climax this weekend, Boyd Tonkin says that boorish critics were wrong – it captures the magic of Tolstoy's masterpiece

In autumn 1909, a young lawyer and activist wrote from London to one of his heroes, now a frail old man who would die within a year. "Very eager to engage your active interest and sympathy." The disciple won his idol's support for a campaign of non-violent protest in South Africa. The pair exchanged friendly, admiring letters. "Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the Earth, is yet in the centre of our interest," Count Leo Tolstoy told Mohandas K Gandhi from his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. For Tolstoy, delighted to find not just another fan who shared his ideals but a dynamic organiser who might put them into practice, both men had chosen "the same struggle of the tender against the harsh, of meekness and love against pride and violence".

For decades, Leo Tolstoy was not just the best-known but the most influential author in the world. Although snuffed out by Soviet brutality after 1917, his principles of non-violent, spiritually driven social revolution spread further and lasted longer than Lenin's doctrine of state terror. Gandhi passed the Count's baton to Martin Luther King, then to a host of good-life movements and peaceable resisters all around the world. Foes who castigate the allotment-tending, jam-making, nuke-scrapping Jeremy Corbyn as a ferocious Bolshevik have got the wrong end of the stout peasant-style stick. He is a pure Tolstoyan.

To its credit, Andrew Davies's six-part adaptation of War and Peace has allowed the Count's world-view to slide slowly into sight, like a sledge emerging from a snowstorm. The BBC series, which ends on Sunday after harvesting golden reviews, warm online feedback and healthy Sunday-evening ratings, opened its run obscured by a blizzard of trivialising scorn. The canny Davies did little to disperse it. Playing off his reputation as the serial sexer-up of set texts, the screenwriter of Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House, Daniel Deronda and much else diverted the previewers' gaze to his (literal) fleshing-out of Tolstoy's hints about an incestuous liaison between the devilishly sensual Kuragin siblings.

Acting the mildly philistine everyman, Davies reported that he had axed the novel's boring essayistic bits but whetted appetites for the drama of boudoir and battlefield. "I took it with me on holiday, and you know what? Once you get into it, it's a page-turner," he matily confided. So the dramatisation began to a braying chorus of (possibly) hungover pundits and columnists. They swallowed Davies's titillating bait about the Kuragins and scoffed at the allegedly soporific stretches of an overlong epic. Several of these privileged boors smugly announced that, of course, they had not read the book.

So the War and Peace kick-off displayed British culture in miniature – the best and the worst. On the one hand, a far-sighted and high-achieving public broadcaster crafts an ambitious version of a classic work with top-notch acting, resourceful direction (from Tom Harper) and a shrewdly, subtly compressed screenplay – despite the writer's diversionary antics. On the other, a mob of well-paid media loudmouths take it as read that this giant fossil of a book needs rescuing from the "worthy but dull" file by dumping the serious stuff and spicing up the bedroom scenes. Only in England would columnists proudly boast about their total incompetence to judge an adaptation of this kind.

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Playing it by the book: Andrew Davies on set (BBC)

Over the past five weeks, Davies's screenplay has gradually come good. True, he can't afford to visualise all the novel's lengthy meditations on life and love, history and destiny. But he can – notably via the luminous performances of Lily James as Natasha and Paul Dano as Pierre – suggest the way that Tolstoy makes his characters wrestle inwardly with their choices, their characters, their fates. Just as, in this epic on a tight budget, a patch of Lithuanian woodland has to stand in for endless Russian forests and a close-focus skirmish must represent the clash of vast armies, so brief snatches of dialogue or silent musings by candlelight or in the snow have to hint at life-changing inner upheavals.

When Natasha throws off her Frenchified airs and graces, and plunges into an ecstatic Russian peasant dance, it not only ranks as a turning-point for her and for the book. To Tolstoy's followers, Russia itself recovers her soul in this scene.

Ordinary viewers have responded with more grace and nous than the early pundits. People coming to the story with no prior assumptions have voiced surprise, alarm and shock at the twists of emotion – just as Tolstoy planned. When Natasha almost fell into the slimily seductive arms of Anatol Kuragin, the online gasps were nearly audible. "Natasha, have a word with yourself. You'll be in some pervy sibling threesome before you know it," ran a typical tweet.

Don't write off these reversals and cliff-hangers as the hallmarks of a superior soap opera from the 1860s. They relate directly to the (false) assumption that Davies has simply excised the dreary, philosophical chunks of War and Peace. Those sections usually dwell on believes that we act in the short term intending to break the rules of character or history, to rebel against family, time or class, only to find that all along we have been following the dictates of a higher law. Every time Tolstoy's heroines and heroes startle us with a headstrong swerve or impetuous adventure, they belong as much as Napoleon himself, the slave of fate, in Tolstoy's grand scheme.

"Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims," writes Tolstoy in the second epilogue to War and Peace. "But as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history". Behind spontaneity, accident and passion lies an order that belongs to the novelist – or to God. Just because Davies has cleverly disguised this mechanism does not mean that he has broken it.

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James Norton as Prince Andrei Laurie Sparham (BBC)

In his Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov notes that: "Many people approach Tolstoy with mixed feelings. They love the artist in him and are intensely bored by the preacher." But, argues the author of Lolita, "it is rather difficult to separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist – it is the same deep slow voice, the same robust shoulder pushing up a cloud of visions or a load of ideas."

From the era of Gandhi until now, that "deep slow voice" has mesmerised millions. It buttonholes us not just about lofty, abstract issues but the sort of dilemmas that obsess any teenager. How will I know who to love? Can I trust my deepest feelings? Should I do what I want and break my parents' heart? How should I live my life? Why strive to be good in a world of risk, violence and disaster? How will I ever know the truth? One virtue of the BBC War and Peace is that we see just how young its protagonists are. Tolstoy's youths cherish the sort of earnestness that embarrasses middle-aged hacks. And, by and large, viewers of the BBC series have proved wiser, more receptive – and more in tune with Tolstoy – than many of its critics.

The historian EP Thompson wrote of "the enormous condescension of posterity" towards the past. For an element of Britain's carping commentariat, that extends to one of the greatest novels ever written. Will they brush off their trite put-downs when, in March, ITV screens an adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne? Probably not, since this classic retread comes from the stable of Lord Julian Fellowes of Downton, and boasts a former royal girlfriend – Cressida Bonas – in the cast. In this country, snobbery tends to trump philistinism. Not that it did much good for Count Tolstoy.

The public did not patronise the BBC War and Peace. Only the professionals did that. Although too short, the Davies-Harper dramatisation has captured much of the intimacy that brings Tolstoy so close to his admirers – whether MK Gandhi or the latest Sunday-night tweeter. As Nabokov put it: "Readers call Tolstoy a giant not because other writers are dwarfs but because he remains always of exactly our own stature, exactly keeping pace with us instead of passing by in the distance, as other authors do." On television, the walk with Tolstoy ends this weekend. Pick up War and Peace itself, and he may keep you company for months.

'War and Peace' concludes on Sunday at 9pm on BBC1

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