I’ve just finished watching the 1972 BBC Adaptation of War & Peace. Those of you who follow the blog will know that I recently read the novel. I had seen the TV series before too, on its original broadcast, presumably in 1972 or ’73!

I can remember being hooked by the series, though apart from Anthony Hopkins I couldn’t remember any of the actors in it, by name or face. In fact, when I came to watch it again I didn’t know all that many. Rupert Davies I knew, and Eric Chitty (who took a small role), but most of the rest slipped by me. I can remember that at the time of that first showing my friends and I thought it was a good watch! Several of us made a point of viewing, despite being students, and the local pub open when it was on… there were no large screen viewings in the bar-room in those days.

I enjoyed seeing it again, and took the 20 episodes over about 8 evenings, mostly two at a time. The story is substantially the same as the novel, but the what I saw was not what I remember having seen. My memory told me that the action was good – the battle scenes at Borodino and Austerlitz especially. In fact the battle scenes, compared to those we are now used to, with CGI and hand held or helmet mounted cameras, were not only tame, but quite unconvincing in many respects. Cinematography has moved on, but storytelling is still storytelling.

Tolstoy didn’t have to create a visual representation of the Napoleonic battlefield, only evoke one, by his use of words – even in translation that worked – but TV had to show it to us, and that meant working within limitations, of cameras, special effects, and casting. There were thousands of extras, well hundreds at least, and said to be of the Red Army. The movements though were not convincing, and neither were the numbers. It was one of those situations where the viewer, suspending disbelief, has to say ‘we know what you mean’, even though we’re pretty sure it’s not what you’ve said, or in this case, shown.

I had another carp too. Moscow, as Tolstoy makes plain, at some length, was a wooden city. That’s why, he says, it burnt so easily, having been abanadoned by its authorities. There was wooden furniture, true, but nary a wooden structure in sight!

Tolstoy’s book isn’t about tactics though, nor about architecture. It’s about people, and society, and the TV captured that aspect of the book remarkably well, I thought. The long philosophical authorial asides of the book were put into the mouths, or minds with voices over, of the characters. In particular, Napoleon, convincingly portrayed, spoke much of what Tolstoy had speculated about him.

Even the first Epilogue was present, showing the post-war family of Pierre, and the political discussions it was involved in. This for me was one of the notable features of both book and film which I had not recalled from my youth. Tolstoy was pointing out to his contemporaries, in what to some extent was a ‘state of the nation’ novel, that if the Russian ruling class did not effectively manage change, it would be swept away by revolution from below. Strange, that as the TV series was being made the same might be said of the Soviet regime, which fell less than twenty years later.

One aspect that caught my attention was how the needs of the different media, text and film, meant that long passages of the book could be accomplished in a few seconds of film – an internal monolgue, for example, such as goes on in Andre’s head as he lies dying – whereas a passage quickly passed over in words, might be stretched to the greater part of an entire episode in film. I’m sure this is something to do with creating the context in which the burden of a passage is carried. A few words can suggest an enduring and wholly imagined background that in film, requires an elaborate set and continuous action to represent. Which brings me to an image to finish on, that of the long column of retreating French soldiers, wagons and prisoners, plodding across a snow swept landscape, to my mind, from this second viewing, the most powerful of all the images given us by the BBC version.


Another image, not quite so stark is that of the cover of BHD’s new collection of short stories, due out at the end of the month from Pewter Rose Press. Talking To Owls, a collection of 22 short stories, flash fictions and monologues, will be in their online shop, as paperback and e-book versions, from 31st of October. Just in time for Christmas then!!