“War & Peace On Lifetime” sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit. In that version, Tori Spelling might play Anna Pavlovna Scherer, although in this version that part goes to Gillian Anderson. The six-part Leo Tolstoy adaptation (shown across four nights in the U.S.) will also air on History, so in that SNL version, Tom Berenger would play General Kutuzov, but instead Brian Cox gets play the part. And, let’s not forget A&E—which made its name with this sort of programming in pre-Duck Dynasty days—is also where this War & Peace airs, so one of the Robertson men would surely take on Pierre. But, alas, there will be no bearded protagonist, because Pierre is played by Paul Dano.
All in all, the TV version of War & Peace isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds on first blush. The BBC production is filled with fine actors, and has the Weinstein Company stamp of approval. So instead of being Lifetime weepy or a reimagined historical epic, this version of War & Peace is more like the CliffsNotes version of Tolstoy’s classic novel. It’s the bare bones of the plot with the exciting bits highlighted (War! Love! Potential incest!), and the complex philosophy omitted.
Adaptations of epics like War & Peace are less about catching all the details, though, and more about making sure the story holds up—even though the material has been reformatted for a medium that didn’t exist when the novel was first published. Andrew Davies, who wrote all six parts of the miniseries, has experience successfully adapting this kind of work. He’s best known adapting Pride And Prejudice for the BBC (the Colin-Firth-in-the-pond version), and he’s similarly successful with War & Peace. It’s not as comprehensive as the BBC’s 1972 version, but the good bits make it through: Pierre (Dano), the favored illegitimate son of a dying count, comes into an unexpected inheritance just as Napoleon’s battles with Russia reach their boiling point. Dano is perfect as Pierre, all awkwardness, impulse, hedonism, and idealism. Pierre’s friend, Prince Andrei (a brooding James Norton) goes off to war in order to escape the monotonous life of the aristocracy. Pierre’s uncle (Stephen Rea) starts to scheme to regain the inheritance he once thought his, even if that means marrying Pierre to his narcissistic daughter Helene (Tuppence Middleton), who might prefer to sleep with her brother (or literally anyone but Pierre). Then there are the Rostovs, led by Natasha (Downton Abbey’s Lily James, who shares some of the same effortless grace as Audrey Hepburn, who played the same part in the ’56 film adaptation), an exuberant romantic, and her brother Nikolai (Jack Lowden), who sees combat in the war against Napoleon.
That summary doesn’t even begin to mention the other characters who don’t appear in the first two segments of War And Peace screened for critics. It’s a lot to juggle, and Davies handles the various storylines deftly, although he also understands that he has to make television, and he gussies it up accordingly: Here, there’s no doubt about the incestuous nature of Helene and Anatole’s relationship. Davies gets help from the deft directorial hand of Tom Harper, who plays up the book’s sly humor and keeps the tone in check. Still, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and while the first two hours keep the story in line, Davies’ real challenge comes later, as the scope continues to expand.
Like any good costume drama, War And Peace doesn’t just live or die on its storyline, but on how it looks. It’s a BBC Production, so it looks great—but not as spectacular as, say, a theatrical release that has a major studio’s money behind it. (Then again, studios don’t make costume dramas like they used to.) The wardrobe is gorgeous—Anderson looks particularly radiant in her salon hostess role—and though the battle scenes may not feel as epic as they do in, say, Game Of Thrones, Harper is smart to keep the focus tight on the people in those battles. The sequences feel visceral if not expansive.
But the story itself still feels expansive—and it’s comprehensible, which is important in an adaptation like this. This version of War & Peace may not have all of its parts intact, but it keeps the structure of the plot in place, giving a nice overview of Tolstoy’s novel, and keeping a tight pace for TV. It’ll be interesting to see whether the series can sustain throughout its six-part run, but the first few hours are an enjoyable way to pretend to digest great world literature.