“War and Peace” - Tom Harper (2016)

War and Peace (2016) is the most recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel of the same name about Russians caught up in the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century.  Like all such adaptations, including King Vidor’s American version (1956) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Russian version (1967), the filmmakers, this time British, had to come to grips with what parts to choose to emphasize from Tolstoy’s great work.

The novel is considered to be one of the greatest of all literary offerings, although Tolstoy didn’t call it a novel; he said it was an "epic".  There were several earlier versions of it produced in the 1860s before Tolstoy published his final version in 1869, which was over 1400 pages and had almost 600 characters.  In fact with its great length and scope, many people have read only abridged versions that are less than half the length of the full version.  What is left out, perhaps almost by necessity, of the abridged versions and the film adaptations are Tolstoy’s extensive philosophical reflections about life and society that are interspersed throughout the novel.  This is unfortunate, because that philosophical commentary of Tolstoy’s is in my opinion what makes the novel stand out above all others.  Tolstoy, himself, was on a lifelong path towards Sufi-like enlightenment, which led to his embracing vegetarianism (in 1885), Georgism, Christian spirituality, and pacifism.  Indeed, late in his life, Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindu” (1908) [1] led to some correspondence with fellow-vegetarian Mahatma Gandhi that influenced Gandhi’s own developing commitment to pacifism.

Nevertheless, this BBC production, which was presented in six roughly one-hour-long episodes, makes a noble effort at telling Tolstoy’s remarkable tale.  The mini-series was directed by Tom Harper and written by Andrew Davies, who was famous for his House of Cards television series (2013-2017).  The six episodes of War and Peace are weighted towards the first half of the novel, and they cover the experiences of several Russian aristocratic families and how they were affected by Napoleon’s military interventions.  In particular, the series, like the novel, focuses on three characters representing three key perspectives.:
  • Pierre Bezukhov (played by Paul Dano) is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count.  He is  a recent university graduate and well-versed in modernism’s ideas, but he is also innocent and naive.  To a large extent he presumably echoes Tolstoy’s own personal conscience. Ultimately, Pierre represents compassion.
  • Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) is the heir to a noble Russian family and Pierre’s close friend.  Unlike the naive and altruistic Pierre, though, Andrei is generally cynical about the modern world and primarily concerned with his own personal dignity and honor.  While Pierre is open-hearted, Andrei is more self-obsessed.  He represents self-attainment.
  • Natasha Rostova (Lily James) is an innocent and vivacious young teenager from a noble but financially stressed family.  She represents romantic love.
However, as I mentioned, Tolstoy’s extensive reflections on these larger themes are largely understated in this mini-series, and we only get glimpses of these perspectives from the action shown.  Another aspect in the novel that is somewhat neglected in the film is the situation from the Napoleonic side of things.  This is a significant slant, because Napoleon’s military adventures were largely conducted in the spirit of the values promoted by the French Revolution, so we could view his military invasions as early instances of liberal interventionism – a phenomenon that continues to infect world politics of present times (think of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example).   The war scenes that are shown, however, are extremely visceral and full of blood and gore.  They give a ground-level glimpse of the meaningless brutality of war.

The mini-series’ six episodes cover a period from1805 to 1820.
Episode 1
It is 1805, and Napoleon’s invasion of Austria represents a direct threat to Russia.  The main characters are introduced.  Nevertheless, Pierre who has recently returned from Europe, expresses in social gatherings his support for the liberal values (e.g. human rights, etc.) espoused by Napoleon.  Andrei, seeking personal glory to provide some meaning in his life, decides to leave his pregnant wife at home and go off to fight with the Russian army.  Naturally, when these aristocrats join the military they take on the roles of officers.

Episode 2
Pierre has inherited his family’s wealthy estate after his father’s death and gets wangled into marrying the beautiful but unscrupulous and immoral Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton).  Hélène cuckolds Pierre with a number of libidinous relationships, including an incestuous one with her equally hedonistic brother Anatole Kuragin (Callum Turner).  Note that the emphatic contrasts between the ruthlessly selfish characters in the story (this includes Dolokhov, see below) and the innocence of Pierre and Natasha are perhaps the dramatic highlights of this series.

Meanwhile Natasha’s brother Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden) also seeks glory and joins the military. Andrei returns home from war in time to see his wife die while giving birth to their son.

Episode 3
One of Hélène’s lovers, the ruffian Fedor Dolokhov (Tom Burke), openly mocks Pierre, who then impetuously calls for a duel.  Miraculously, the awkward and inexperienced Pierre wins the duel and comes out of it unscathed.  Afterwards, Pierre decides to devote himself to a higher cause, and he becomes a Freemason.  Later Dolokhov gets in a card game with Nikolai and takes so much money from him that he plunges the Rostov family in debt.  Later, in 1809, Andrei, who is feeling guilt over having neglected his deceased wife, abandons the army.  But when he subsequently meets Natasha at a social gathering, they fall in love.

Episode 4
Andrei wants to marry Natasha, but his domineering father orders him to wait for a year and travel abroad.  Natasha, feeling abandoned, now succumbs to the romantic advances of the manipulative Anatole Kuragin, and she breaks off her engagement to Andrei.  She is about to elope with Anatole, but she is stopped just in time when Pierre informs her that Nikolai is already married to a woman whom the rake has abandoned in Poland.

Episode 5
It is now 1812, and Napoleon has invaded Russia and is headed for Moscow.  The various families scramble in their separate ways to respond to the coming danger.    During this period Pierre finally realizes to himself that he is in love with Natasha.  By chance, Nikolai Rostov, who is leading a military detachment passes by the Bolkonsky estate and comes to the aid of Andrei’s modest and religious sister, Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley) during a chaotic confrontation with her rebellious serfs.

Episode 6
Everything comes to a head with the bloody Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army attempts to make a last stand. It turns out to be an honorable (for the Russians) stalemate, and the Russian army does survive and subsequently makes a wise, tactical retreat. But there are 70,000 casualties in the battle, and both Andrei and Anatole are mortally wounded.  Pierre has watched the whole battle and has even participated in it, although in the end he is taken prisoner by the French.

When Napoleon reaches Moscow, he finds the city already in flames and undertaking a scorched-earth withdrawal.  Since his army is badly in need of supplies, he orders his army to make the long retreat out of Russia, thus relieving the threat of military takeover.

At this time Hélène seeks to abort her pregnancy from one of her illicit love affairs and dies of a drug overdose.  Near the end, Pierre and Natasha are finally united in love and agree to get married. The final scenes show that in 1820 what is left of the Bezukhov, Rostova, and Bolkonsky families have been united.  Pierre has married Natasha, and Nikolai has married the gentle Marya. They are living happily and are raising young families. 
It is difficult for a dramatized version of War and Peace to capture the full depth of the thoughts and feelings expressed in Tolstoy’s work, but this mini-series makes a good attempt.  In particular, the presentation of the sensitive and thoughtful character of Pierre Bezukhov by Paul Dano is a strong point in the work.  It tunes the viewer in to Tolstoy’s considerations of those turbulent times.  On the other hand, I thought the characterization of Andrei Bolkonsky was too cold and stiff to draw my extended interest and sympathies.  His self-obsession led to his withdrawal from life’s narratives and hence from this narrative, too.

This is not to say that all the characters had to be sympathetic to be effective.  One of the more magnetic characters was Hélène (Tuppence Middleton), whose seductive personality was entirely natural and recognizable.  Her entrapment of Pierre was a particularly compelling piece of this story. 

In fact perhaps the best production feature of the whole mini-series is the general vibrancy of the female characters, particularly those of Natasha, Marya, and Hélène.  Best of all was the performance of Lily James, who played Natasha.  She was coming off a strong performance in Downton Abbey (2011-2016), and her infectious and barely suppressible passionate gestures are even more stirring in this story.  She and Paul Dano, as Natasha and Pierre, sustain the narrative momentum throughout the course of this fascinating tale.

  1. Leo Tolstoy, “Letter to a Hindu”, Correspondence with Gandhi, Literature by Leo Tolstoy, Nonresistsance.org, (1908-1910).  (pdf version here).   

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