onsdag 24 februari 2016

War, peace and TV adaptations

Right then. War and Peace.

Not the novel, mind - I must admit that not only have I never read it, I'm unlikely ever to do so. Call me shallow, but I don't think I can face a 1000 page-long story set during the Napoleonic wars from an anti-Napoleonic perspective, especially as it includes the catastrophic Russian campaign. Moreover, it doesn't matter if a novel is 1000 pages long if the plot moves at a fair lick, but I suspect Tolstoy of being a digresser in the Hugo vein - and I wouldn't be too surprised if many of the digressions were soundings-off about a certain French Emperor.

However, I have watched the old, 15-hour-long BBC adaptation of the novel starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre (something must have happened to my attention span since then), and so I do have something with which to compare the new, snappier Andrew Davies adaptation. What I found I enjoyed in the old version were the relationship dramas - a largish cast of characters were linked in intricate and sometimes unexpected ways, and it wasn't entirely predictable who would end up with whom. This seemed like promising material for the magic Davies touch.

The first episode was frothy enough, and included the suspenseful "get Pierre to his dying dad on time" storyline. Four episodes in, though (the whole series is six episodes long), and I can't help noticing that the pace isn't exactly frantic. When I first heard the melancholic Russian theme song I thought "get away with you, Andrew", but as a matter of fact, this adaptation is rather more pensive than one is used to from Davies, and contains scenes which don't advance the plot much but which Set the Mood. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit dull at times. Sometime during episode three I thought "this is the peace part, I should be enjoying this more" - and got a feeling of déja vu when I realised I had been thinking much the same thing when watching much the same part of the story in the old 15-hour-adaptation.

Having said that, the Davies adaptation is an Express train compared to the old one, and the more sensible choice if you want a handy TV version of War and Peace which will give you an inkling of what's it all about. Let's face it, if you want an endurance test, you might as well read the novel - at a rate of 50 pages per hour you'd be on page 750 after 15 hours, with a mere 250 pages to go. All right, so if you skip the old adaptation you don't get Anthony Hopkins or Alan Dobie's handsome Andrei. But the new version's heroes aren't bad either - Paul Dano is sweet as Pierre, and James Norton gives Andrei an intensity of feeling which just about saves the character from being too much of a stuffed shirt. And then there's Lily James as a lovely but clueless Natasha, dangerously getting to grips with love and desire through trial and error. James (known as Lady Rose in Downton) is used to playing wilful teenagers, and the fact that Natasha is merely eighteen when committing a fundamental error which needlessly complicates her love life is much more convincingly brought home than in the old version.

The other characters are well-cast too: Stephen Rea as the scheming Prince Kuragin (!), regrettably more or less absent after the two first episodes; Rebecca Front  - always a joy - as the ambitious mum of personable but shallow Boris; Adrian Edmondson and Greta Scacchi as Natasha's parents, with Edmondson particularly poignant as a man seemingly incapable of anger ("it is a little difficult... we will have to close down our house in Moscow" is his reaction when his son contracts an astronomical gambling debt); Tuppence Middleton as Pierre's sluttish wife Hélène, who can be relied on to crank up the drama a bit; and so on. (I was a little disappointed in Hélène's brother Anatole, but maybe my expectations were too high, as this is a character who's supposed to be able to fell ladies with a glance. I don't think I'd have minded the same actor as, say, Sampson Brass in The Old Curiosity Shop.)

For lazybones like me, then, this War and Peace adaptation is a fairly pleasant way to acquaint oneself with the source material. I do wonder, though, whether it doesn't risk falling between two chairs, as being too frothy for the real War and Peace diehards and not frothy enough to costume-drama addicts who simply want a good time. But who knows? The same thing might be said about Davies's Dickens adaptations, and I thought they were brilliant, speaking both as a costume drama viewer and as a card-carrying Dickens fan. It is perfectly possible that those who have read and loved War and Peace will enjoy seeing both the available BBC versions.