As I pull up outside a 1960s brutalist tower block on the outskirts of Vilnius on a drizzly morning, my heart sinks. I’m in Lithuania to observe the filming of War and Peace, Andrew Davies’ epic six-part adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel for BBC1, but it scarcely looks like the setting for an exquisite period drama.
Then I enter the building and am immediately transported back to the early 19th century.
The set designers have done a miraculous job in transforming this former carpet factory into the interior of the lavish 1800s Moscow mansion owned by the well-to-do Rostovs. There are sumptuous rooms decorated with grandiose, gilt-framed oil paintings, enormous ornate mirrors, spectacular glittery chandeliers and vases large enough to hold a garden’s worth of flowers.
Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, set between 1805 and 1812 against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, zooms in on the life during war and peace of three conflicted young people, Natasha Rostov (played in this version by Lily James, who has appeared in Downton Abbey and Cinderella), Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton, Grantchester) and Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood). The original weighs in at 1,296 pages and has been seen by many as unfilmable. Adrian Edmondson, who plays Natasha’s good-hearted father, Count Rostov, comes over to chat between scenes.
He admits that the magnitude of War and Peace can be intimidating. “I was always frightened of it before,” he says. “It’s weird that the story isn’t better known. After the Bible, it is the world’s most-bought book, but it must also be the least read. ‘We’d better get a copy of War and Peace, darling. I’ve made a special shelf for it’.”
The sheer scale of the novel did not daunt Davies, 79, the Welsh screenwriter responsible for such memorable television dramas as Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House and House of Cards. He confesses that he had never read it before but when he did, he was “absolutely surprised to find out how fresh and lively and modern it felt”.
“I thought it was going to be this great solemn tome,” adds Davies. “But there’s a lot of humour and affection in it. Once you’ve cut out the bits where Tolstoy is arguing with himself about theories of history, it’s such a vibrant, fun and very moving story, with really, really interesting characters. He is just so good on different sorts of family dynamics. I just fell in love with it.”
His method was simple: “When I’m reading the novel, I’m looking for whose story is it really, who are we really going on this journey with. In War and Peace, it’s very much Pierre, Andrei and Natasha. I try to make everything a scene with them in it, or a scene that relates to them, so that we never lose touch with them and make sure we come back to them regularly. We get on their side and stay there. War and Peace isn’t as complicated and difficult as something like Bleak House, which has such a multiplicity of characters.”
Davies’ version also stars Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Rebecca Front, Greta Scacchi and Brian Cox. “I haven’t felt any need to change War and Peace,” he says. “[but] occasionally, I have written one or two things that Tolstoy forgot to write.” These include, to the horror of some purists, plenty of nudity (“When you expect someone to be nude, they are.”) and a scene in which brother and sister Helene and Anatole are shown in bed together. “Tolstoy hints very clearly that the characters of Helene and Anatole Kuragin have been having an incestuous relationship. The convention of the day means that Tolstoy would never have actually written the scene.”
The cast and crew are certainly impressed by the way in which Davies has filleted the novel into six hours of television. “I don’t think there is anyone really better at adapting than Andrew,” says the director Tom Harper (This Is England ’86, Peaky Blinders). “He is very, very skilled at condensing very big things into very small things. There is so much in the book, but actually what he has really focused on is the human story. Once you take out a lot of the military tactics and the philosophy, and distil it into six parts, I think it’s amazing how little of the character story is missing.”
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Norton, 29, is equally taken by Davies’ work. “I think he has done an amazing job. The script is brilliant. He has made it have a contemporary feel, which is great. Some scenes he has left aside – a lot of Tolstoy’s ruminations on history, for example. But where Tolstoy passes over other bits, writing, for example, ‘Then Helene and Boris went upstairs and continued their liaison’, Andrew will have a nice big scene, very fleshed out.”
War and Peace has, of course, been filmed many times before – and will certainly be filmed again. Thomas Arnold, who plays one of Natasha’s suitors, Captain Denisov, says: “This drama will resonate with a modern audience because we all experience the love and loss and the war and peace of everyday life. Everything is in there from an exploration of the many different forms of love to the effect death has on you.
“Before I first read War and Peace six years ago, I thought it would be alienating because it’s about 19th-century Russian aristocracy. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s an absolutely universal story because it’s about what we all go through.”
Jack Lowden, 25, who plays Natasha’s dissolute brother, Nikolai, agrees: “It is set in the context of the Napoleonic wars, but War and Peace is essentially about boys chasing girls who are chasing boys who are chasing girls. That’s what it comes down to. There is nothing new under the sun.”
War and Peace starts on BBC1 in the new year
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