22 January 2016
“Voyna i mir” – The transcription of the Russian for the prosaic War and Peace sounds mysterious and exotic.
Are you watching the latest BBC TV version? More to the point, are you enjoying it? Someone in The Times boldly pointed out that Lithuania, where the tale is almost entirely filmed, is the real star of the show.
The vast tapestry of Tolstoy’s masterpiece has been concertina’d into 6 hours of viewing. The book contains more than one thousand four hundred pages, which makes this representation a mere précis or taster. One hopes some viewers who have never read it might be tempted into actually tackling the text. Perhaps they have been put off by the strange foreign names, or indeed the sheer length of the thing. The films of Henry James and E M Forster’s books have been hugely successful and have introduced many a new reader to their joys.
Personally, War and Peace has been a favourite of mine for more than fifty years, regularly re-read and almost as familiar as Vanity Fair. There’s a romantic reason for this. BH was reading it (in Russian, of course) as his train approached Waterloo Station where he got off and proposed to me on Platform Eleven 58 years ago. It was he who introduced me to Natasha, and Pierre; irascible old Bolkonsky, and poor little Lisa. BH likened my family to the Rostov family and me, mistakenly, to Natasha. Very charming of him, considering.
Naturally one is critical of the actors in this BBC version. Rostov senior is well played; Bolkonsky Sr too big, and Jr too bland – although admittedly a handsome fellow. The concentration on Hélène’s love life is vastly overdone: a sales gimmick, I suppose. Andrew Davies, who adapted the book for the screen, has admitted to “sexing it up”, a ghastly expression and a quite unnecessary addition to a subtly vile member of the evil Kuragin family.
But any portrayal outside the written page of a favourite character, be it stage screen or even painting, is bound to be controversial. My idea of Eleanor Dashwood or Becky Sharp is not yours and probably we shall never agree as these heroines are enshrined in our mind’s eye. Nonetheless it won’t stop us looking at other people’s ideas and admiring or criticising them.
Episode One of this latest War and Peace was not encouraging, but these sofa critics (BH and I) feel it has improved, despite the galloping pace. The battle scenes are convincing, the costumes are impressive and, as the Times man said, the setting is stunning.
If you can get hold of it, possibly the best adaptation of the Russian classic is the 1968 Sergei Bondarchuk production. The film captures the real spirit of the book, and one quickly forgets the subtitles if you don’t happen to speak Russian.
BH prefers King Vidor’s 1956 film with the enchanting Audrey Hepburn as Natasha. Bondarchuk cast an ex-ballerina in the role, I believe. Come to think of it, Audrey was an ex-ballerina, wasn’t she?
I remember tumbling for Mel Ferrer – but Bondarchuk’s dark-haired, gloomy Andrei is nearer the original. Whoever plays Pierre must always look like Henry Fonda as far as I’m concerned. Well-padded out.
If you havn’t, and I’m sure you have, do read the book – before, after, or even during…
Someone kept a copy by the telephone and read a page or three while waiting for it to be answered. It took him almost a year to finish the book. Customer Services at British Telecom? Fill in your own culprit…