“ Man or woman, we have to be in love with Natasha, because she is life”
Clive James, The Guardian
My twitter friend Maisie @Yahyah56 shared Clive James review of War and Peace in the Guardian. “I thought you’d love this” she tweeted me. And she was right. James touched me with his thorough love and appreciation for the magic of Toltstoy’s classic. And his shout out for how the most recent BBC version got much of it right.
Since I owe you a review of that same BBC version starring Lily James, Paul Dano & James Norton, I’ll steal his words to give you a feel for what I felt reading the book and watching the series. Clive James is an acclaimed journalist, known for his prolific writings on culture and the arts. Maisie tells me that James, who is also a memoirist (note to self, check out Unreliable Memoirs) is quite ill with cancer. Which makes his statement that he probably won’t be alive to see another adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic, all the more touching.
I also want to share today’s Saturday Matinee: The 1972 BBC version of War and Peace. The 20 episode long series is available on YouTube and, while perhaps as overly long as Tolstoy’s manuscript, is certainly faithful to it. One of the reviews I’ve read, said something about watching ‘paint dry’ but still it boasts Anthony Hopkins as a bumbling Pierre so how can one resist it especially, in that what it does, in its fidelity to Tolstoy’s words, is reveal the inner workings of the minds of those characters, in ways that any abbreviated telling just can’t.
Here, from the pen (computer, laptop, device, God knows what he writes on) of Clive James in The Guardian:
“The BBC’s lavish, sexy, heart-rending, head-spinning and generally not-half-bad adaptation of Tolstoy’s vast novel War And Peace finished last weekend, so this weekend there is nothing to do except discuss whether Natasha was credible when she fell so suddenly for the odious Anatole Kuragin, and to start waiting until someone adapts it again. At my age, I doubt that I’ll live to see the next attempt, but I’m definitely thinking about reading the book one more time. It really is that good: good enough to get involved with again, even if it’s the last thing you do.
On a shelf near where I sit writing this, there are half a dozen different editions of the book, and I’ve been reading one or other of them for half my life. Despite the heaps of evidence that Tolstoy was in reality half crackers, you would swear from the pages of War And Peace that he was God’s stenographer. As Isaac Babel said, if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy. So why bother with the screen adaptations at all? Well, there’s the sheer fun of watching thousands of clever people pouring millions into doing the impossible. And sometimes they can add a dimension to the studies of character, even though they always subtract a dimension from the battlefield spectacle, no matter how much they spend.”
Unlike some reviewers, this is a man who has read his Tolstoy. He sees the beauty of his words, the look at the world and the inner workings of the minds of the characters that Tolstoy shares with us.
“ Tolstoy’s gift is to draw upon what’s already in your head. But in your head there might be no Pierre Bezhukov except the dolt you see in the mirror, and over him you will always cast a gloss, usually by imagining you are really the broodingly taciturn Andrei Bolkonsky. On the page, Tolstoy’s limitation is you. On screen, the writer and director can get you into less restricted territory.”
“After Pierre (played in the BBC adaptation by the American actor Paul Dano, with a faultless mastery of the whole range of dithering) came into his gigantic inheritance and set off to inspect his holdings with a view to spreading justice and thereby improving the world, there was one little scene that perfectly sums up his character. Noticing a woodpile stacked against a hut, and two or three bits of wood still lying around the chopping block, Pierre picks up the two or three bits and adds them to the pile. Then he dusts his hands and lies down, plainly to dream about the sanctity of honest labour.
In half a minute you have had it proved to you that Pierre’s ineffectual sensitivity will always sabotage his ideals. From both the adapter, Andrew Davies, and the director, Tom Harper, this is sterling work: I marvelled at it, and forgave Davies his earlier, almost fatal boldness in making Pierre’s bad choice of wife, Hélène (Tuppence Middleton), a livelier character than Natasha (Lily James). Besides, Natasha revved up nicely in the later stages, and I quite saw how her impatience to get her sex life started might have impelled her to seek initiation elsewhere when Andrei (James Norton) so strangely obeyed his mad father and put off the marriage for a year.”
“It was quite believable that Natasha thought a year was an eternity. Harder to believe was that she found Anatole an acceptable substitute as an object for her hot-blooded longings. From certain angles, he might have had a facial bone structure not notably inferior to that of the current Duke of Cambridge, but his general demeanour was of some well-connected lout who had failed the intelligence test for entry to the Bullingdon club.”Indeed! Who would throw over the dark, deep and deeply gorgeous Bolokonski for Anatole, who in pure Americana, is nothing more than a frat boy?
“Whichever gender we may be, we have to be in love with Natasha ourselves, because she is life, about whose fleeting nature Tolstoy had been preoccupied since he first dodged bullets among the bastions at Sebastopol. So not only must Natasha be a knockout, she must have the imaginative hunger of, well, of a novelist.”
“People who accuse Davies of being too interested in sex, however, should remember that Tolstoy himself was capable of conceiving a whole epic in the form of a beauty contest. That, partly, is what War And Peace is: and although it is often more, it is never less. Tolstoy, to paint his Veronese-sized picture of the dvoriantsvo (the Russian upper class), was looking back to a time when he was not yet born; but when he was writing the book, the noble marriage market was still going on all around him and he knew all about it. Above all, he knew that it wasn’t just a stock market, it was a meat market. Female beauty was a currency.
In his text he was ruthless about having old Bolkonsky tell his daughter Marya that she was no looker and that nobody would want to marry her. (The new screen version was less ruthless in casting Jessie Buckley as a Cinderella who gradually blossomed into one of the loveliest women on the screen.) Finally, Tolstoy says, personality counts most; but initially, he admits, sexual attraction rules.”
Read the rest of Clive James review at The Guardian
Here’s Episode One of the 1972 BBC version where everyone, while dutifully parroting lines straight from the book, seems quite a bit older than Tolstoy’s characters as written. It’s really a study in contrast between the rather speeded up version that we saw on television (the BBC without commercials in the UK, Lifetime with plenty of, here in the states) these last few weeks. The BBC has learned, that modern viewers with our 140 character twitter attention spans, couldn’t possibly hang in for the slow and steady duration. Like Tolstoy’s novel, really appreciating War and Peace, takes a whole lot of time. Time, my friends, most of us just don’t seem to have anymore.