Haven’t seen this adaptation yet? Beware of the spoilers!
Another year, another massive costume drama from the BBC.
I spent the latter part of last year nursing a deep but abiding impatience for the premiere of War and Peace, Andrew Davies’ latest adaptation of a classic novel. I was thrilled; not only had I actually already read the source material (which, when the source material happens to be a 1,300 page book, is definitely something to celebrate) but I was, for the first time in my life, actually in the UK at the same time as it premiered, and could therefore avoid the two-year delay which I would have faced were I still back in Australia. Naturally, I was excited. Add to that the fact that Davies was writing the script. Seeing as I’d loved his adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Wives and Daughters, I was pretty sure I’d be pleased with just about anything he decided to do with Tolstoy.
There was, understandably, a lot of hype around this particular adaptation. Big names were involved, budgets were large, and the source material was felt to be particularly timely: the fallout from war, the ruthlessness and carelessness of too-powerful men, and the sense of a society and a world on the brink of major upheaval.
What was the end result? Well, I’ve read quite a few criticisms which see the adaptation as ‘simplifying’ and ‘trivialising’ Tolstoy’s novel. Not to mention the scandalised reactions to the sex, nudity, and incest(!) that quickly emerged following the premiere of the first few episodes. What I find particularly amusing about these kinds of comments is that when Davies adapted Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, emphasising the erotic aspects of the characters’ relationships, nobody seemed to mind, or found this a ‘trivialisation’ of Austen (although, it must be conceded, Davies never had Darcy go commando on-screen; Full-Frontal Firth would probably have led to an enormous spike in cardiac episodes among women aged 28-65, so maybe Davies had the greater health of the nation in mind when he made that decision).
Let’s be honest: if you’re going to make the kind of war film that involves the graphic sawing-off of someone’s leg, a few boobies is not a big deal. (In case you’re wondering: yes, I did indeed cover my face with a pillow like a five-year-old at that point – the leg-sawing, that is, not the boobies – although the fact that I’ve just typed the word ‘boobies’ three times now probably suggests that ‘five years old’ is perhaps an accurate measure of my current mental age.)
As for the male nudity – I’ll admit to being a little puzzled as to why male nudity always garners such a reaction. I find it amusing that poor Tuppence Middleton (who played Hélène) had to spend every second scene with her bosoms hanging out (yes, I actually did just type ‘bosoms’, but in my defence: mental five-year-old, remember?) and nobody seemed to mind, but some poor extra stripped off for a few seconds and a) everyone freaked out, and b) he will forever be remembered as the guy who bared his ‘crown jewels’ (see, I can be maturely euphemistic when I want to be) to a shocked nation. I wonder if we’re less shocked when we’re (generally) exposed to a full-frontal view of the female anatomy because we’re more used to seeing it, because we’re so used to female bodies being treated as property that it doesn’t faze us as much, whereas a naked man is just a little too exposed and vulnerable for our tastes – it contravenes the basic assumption that women are looked at and men do the looking, rather than the other way around.
Davies is well-known for trying to highlight latent erotic content whenever he does an adaptation, and I think it’s completely valid to try and bring out the implied erotic content of a particular piece of literature, as a way of examining the way that desire is constructed, both in the original story and in contemporary society. Nudity (with or without sex) can also signal a kind of desire for historical authenticity and/or honesty with respect to the way that ‘humanity’ is depicted on-screen.
Are these scenes completely necessary? No, in the sense that removing them would take nothing away from the broader plot. It would, however, subtly alter the tone and style of the production. As with all adaptations, the key is balancing imagined (or implied) scenes of nudity and/or sex with what you’re given on the page. Most importantly of all, the scenes should serve some narrative or stylistic function, not just be thrown in to appease viewers’ voyeuristic desires. For this reason, I thought the incest plotline perhaps added something to the story that readers and viewers could discuss, something that shed a different kind of light on the two characters involved. Hélène’s numerous semi-nude and sex scenes, on the other hand, were perhaps a little too frequent, although they could also be considered for what they tell us about the treatment of the issue of female desire.
So. Now that I’ve discussed all the (forgive me) meaty issues that this adaptation raised off-screen, I’d like to cover a few of my own reactions to the program, which are completely random, and probably don’t encompass even a fraction of all that I wanted to say.
To begin with, I think it’s noteworthy that this is an adaptation which is undoubtedly influenced by hipster aesthetics: the pared-down style of the production is in keeping with popular contemporary styles. But I think it succeeds in presenting Tolstoy’s story in a way that appeals (visually as well as narratively) to contemporary viewers, and particularly younger viewers.
And those younger viewers are important. In a production dominated by a youthful, energetic cast, Jim Broadbent (who plays Prince Bolkonsky) and some of the other older actors look hopelessly out of place – which is undoubtedly the intention. The visual contrast between the sagging, irritable Broadbent and his young daughter and son perhaps captures some of the feelings of a younger generation frustrated by the continued influence of an ageing population that has lost touch with the new world. This is captured, too, in the less energetic Pierre, who is rarely in control of his own destiny, but is instead shuttled from one situation to another. Is Pierre the hapless, stereotypical ‘millennial’ suffering from a chronic apathy and lack of direction?
Finally, for viewers of the BBC’s series Dickensian, which was broadcast at roughly the same time as War and Peace, there’s the interesting experience of seeing a number of actors appear in both shows. Tuppence Middleton, who plays the scandalous and immoral Hélène here, appears in Dickensian as the savvy businesswoman Miss Havisham, who becomes vulnerable to the charms of a notorious fraudster. In Dickensian viewers are aware of the fact that her character (as written by Dickens, at least) is heading towards a descent into madness and decay, and her vulnerability springs from her naivety and blind trust in the man who has seduced her. Readers of Tolstoy know that Hélène is heading towards doom too – but that this doom springs from the fact that she is all too aware of her sexuality. It’s easy to see how both characters deal with the question of female desire in different ways, in both cases presenting a rather pessimistic view of the consequences (at least for women in the nineteenth century) of indulging those desires. You could argue that it’s probably a coincidence that the same actor played characters whose stories have such interesting thematic cross-overs – it’s certainly a popular concern with period dramas generally, as it rightly should be – but the coincidence is in itself notable.
Then, of course, there is that fact that Hélène’s father, a scheming and greedy aristocrat, is played by the same actor who portrays the deeply moral detective Inspector Bucket in Dickensian, and that the hugely important peasant Platon Karataev in War and Peace, whose peasant philosophy marks a turning-point in Pierre’s spiritual development in the novel, is portrayed by the same actor who in Dickensian is a luckless merchant whose concern for material wealth is paramount, but whose business acumen is, to put it kindly, completely lacking. These cross-overs may mean little in a fast-paced television world, where actors and producers move from one project to another in rapid succession, but they are an interesting aside which influences the viewer’s experience.
The BBC seems to have done a good job balancing the expectations of contemporary viewers (many of whom are not regular viewers of period dramas) with the task of communicating the central ideas, images, and resonances of Tolstoy’s novel. The adaptation points to those aspects of Tolstoy that remain relevant for us today, but it also prompts viewers to ask questions of Tolstoy, and, through its little inconsistencies and/or additions, ask what Tolstoy tried to keep hidden, suppressed, and why. Whether you’re there for the sweeping thematic concerns, the lush cinematography, or the naked ladies (and gentlemen!), this adaptation will probably have something for you.
Rating: 4 Stars
Have you seen this adaptation? What did you think of it?