Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace (1972) – The First BBC Adaptation

200px-WarAndPeace_dvd890 minutes in length, 20 episodes long, often slow, filmed like a stage play (there is no music) with some actors too old for their roles –  but like Tolstoy’s novel, by the time I had finished the 1972 BBC adaptation of War and Peace I felt like I had really accomplished something. It is, to say the least, the most faithful adaptation of the novel ever committed to film and really allows space to relate to the characters and explore the world and ideas of Tolstoy.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is that we spend so much time with the characters that we can watch them grow and change and interact with each other and by the end we are highly invested in them. Anthony Hopkins plays Pierre Bezukhov, not exactly like he is in the book, but he captures the awkwardness Pierre often feels, as well as his ever searching spirit and inherent kindness. We are able to follow the ups and downs and varying phases in Pierre’s search for his place in life.

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is played by Alan Dobie and one thing I especially enjoyed about this adaptation is how it portrayed the friendship between Andrei and Pierre. They debate philosophy, discuss love, and it is clear that the two characters care for each other very much, despite being very different and on different paths in life. I didn’t warm to Andrei as much in the novel, but Dobie made him likeable: sincere (it’s a sincere adaptation, everyone is sincere), focused, introverted, earnest. He was able to convey how deeply Andrei feels, but how little he was able to express it and how cold he could appear without ever letting you think Andrei really was a cold man.

Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova is one serious blot on the production, at least for the first two-thirds. The actress was around thirty and had to play Natasha even when she was a child of thirteen, which could be embarrassing to watch and she seemed affected (admittedly, Natasha is a difficult role to play). But surprisingly, by the last third of the series, I actually started to like her – she seemed exactly like I could imagine Natasha being later in life and somehow I left the series feeling more charitable considering the uncharitable things I had originally thought.

Another wonderful aspect of the series is that it brings out two of my favorite characters from the novel, Nikolai Rostov (Sylvester Morand) and Princess Maria Bolkonsky (Angela Down), who always get short shrift in shorter adaptations. When those two are largely removed from a script, it changes the dynamics, pushing the story into love triangle territory. Instead, allowing these five characters to interact, brings added richness to the story, bringing out family resemblances (Nikolai and Natasha are alike, Maria and Andrei share family similarities and background), but also sets up contrasts of character and the different choices people make in negotiating life, falling in love, forming friendships, misunderstanding each other, learning from each other.

Nikolai, in particular, we get to see grow from eager young man to confident officer to responsible husband and farmer (as his mustache and hair grow bushier). I also thought Angela Down did an excellent job making the devout and serious Maria sympathetic and interesting. Showing her father, Prince Bolkonsky, and how he becomes increasingly senile and irrational goes along way towards giving her a context (and though he often seems quite shrill, he was described exactly like that in the novel).

Sir Anthony Hopkins as Count Pierre Bezuhov

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, rescuing a child during the burning of Moscow

Sonya is of slightly lesser importance in the book (because she has a lesser developed inner spiritual life than the five main characters, so Tolstoy isn’t quite as interested in her), but still integral to the story and what is curious is just how integral she is to the story. You really see it in a film adaptation, where she is present nearly every time Natasha is (I had a similar sensation watching the truncated 1956 Hollywood adaptation). Joanna David plays her with a bit more spirit, resentment and sadness than Tolstoy actually gives her in the book and it certainly didn’t help that Nikolai’s mother was constantly pressuring her to give up her engagement to Nikolai. To read that the Countess Rostova is persecuting Sonya is one thing, but it is an entirely different to see it and my general good opinion of the countess never quite recovered from the sight.

But the ’72 adaptation does not skimp on the military side of the story. All outdoor sequences were filmed in Yugoslavia. And we get a lot of military discussion. General Kutuzov, Tolstoy’s hero who represents the Russian people and Russian spirit, is somewhat hampered in the film because he gets saddled with a lot of Tolstoy’s thoughts on history, but the actor (Frank Middlemass) did bring out just how old and ill the general was (he’s a martyr in this film). General Kutuzov would, in fact, die only months after pushing the French out of Russia and in this performance I believe it. There is also quite a bit of Napoleon, who (played by David Swift) is a posturing man who likes to hear the sound of his own voice and believes he can do no wrong (which is pretty much how Tolstoy viewed him). It did take me aback, however, that Napoleon had a British accent (though it shouldn’t have – everyone has a British accent in this one; it’s a very British production).

It is, as I said, often very slow, but the very slowness of the pacing brings out some perhaps unintended truths. We spend so much time with soldiers marching, wounded be carted away, soldiers waiting, soldiers charging, cameras always at ground level, that it actually succeeded in robbing war of its glamour and brought a greater sense of reality, both the long moments of boredom as well as the moments of confusion. There are none of those sweeping camera shots that make war seem exciting. In this film, war is a bloody and awful drudgery, not especially heroic, executed by individual men. The series also succeeds in humanizing both sides, both the French and the Russians, which is something that also comes out in the novel.

Almost all of Tolstoy’s minor characters are given their due. The inner lives of characters are also illuminated through a voice-over of the actor thinking to themselves. We see Tolstoy’s vision represented through the choices people make. It all adds up to a remarkably rich experience.

The adaptation is somewhat difficult to get into at first. I tried watching it years ago and didn’t even get past the first episode. I think it helps to read the book first. It starts out slowly (like the music playing during the credits, “God Save the Tsar”) and builds to a tremendous crescendo. It has a limited visual scope, but the emotional scope and characters turns out to be tremendous.

This series can actually be viewed on youtube.


Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Movies, Uncategorized


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War and Peace (1956)

War_and_peaceThis film is not Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I knew coming in so I meant to give the film a fair viewing on its own merits and not as an adaptation. But it was harder to do than I thought, especially because I’d just completed the novel. But I gave it my best shot.

Actually, sometimes when a movie tries to follow a book and doesn’t quite make it (whether for scripting or casting reasons) I often wish it would depart even more from the story than it does rather than doggedly follow the main events. An entirely different, internally consistent film (consistent as a film, not consistent with the book) can be more satisfying and I confess, I wish they had changed War and Peace more.

The film chooses to focus on three characters: Natasha Rostov (Audrey Hepburn), Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda), and Prince Andrei (Mel Ferrer, who was married to Audrey Hepburn at the time), which is understandable, though it does turn the film into a love triangle. Other important characters, like Nicholas Rostov (Jeremy Brett) and Princess Mary (Anna-Maria Ferrero) are sidelined, especially Princess Mary. It’s only 208 minutes (a faithful 1972 adaption of War and Peace is 890 minutes) and even with the characters trimmed, my dad commented that it is not easy to keep up with them all. It often felt, he said, like scenes that probably took ten pages (or even chapters) were flying by in 30 seconds.

The film’s biggest issue is its inconsistency and the casting (frequently cited as a problem) contributes to this feeling. It’s like it can’t decide whether to stick with the book or branch out into new territory. Of course, any time you cast big stars (those Hollywood stars with established personas) it nearly always skews the movie in favor of the stars and away from the story.

For example, Audrey Hepburn does not play Natasha Rostov; she plays Audrey Hepburn, though she does so very well, looking like she was born to play Cinderella when she is at her first ball and Prince Andrei is falling in love with her. Henry Fonda is a strange mix of naive indecision (leftover from the book) and decisive hero (left over from Henry Fonda). But his character is at its most convincing when he plays the war-hating, peace-loving, take charge to rescue Natasha’s reputation Pierre, as opposed to the Pierre who naively falls for his cold and shallow cousin, Princess Helene (Enita Ekberg). Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei is adequate, but seems a bit stiff.

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda

But because the film is focused on its stars – with space saved for Napoleon, who is played plausibly by Herbert Lom (he captures that theatrical, pompous, faintly ridiculous, entirely earnest, and even a bit petulant attitude that Tolstoy gives him in the book) – almost all of Tolstoy’s philosophical and historical opinions are left behind. Pierre does not seem to be spiritually lost or searching, except at the beginning of the film (which I had trouble believing coming from Henry Fonda). Andrei’s trouble seems to be more moodiness than ambition and pride. The notion of living by instinct and accepting one’s place in life is absent. The film is really an old fashioned historical melodrama set during Napoleon’s invasion of Russian in 1812.

But here are some examples of how I think the film could have departed even further from the book. Pierre’s character is inconsistent, which is perhaps best illustrated by his disappearing and reappearing spectacles. The trouble was that director King Vidor wanted Pierre to be played as a more traditional romantic hero without spectacles while Henry Fonda wanted to try to be true to the Pierre of the book as much as possible and wear them. Th result was that whenever the director was near the set, Fonda couldn’t wear them, but he whipped them out whenever Vidor was absent. But Pierre’s character is somewhat like that and I almost wish they had just made him the slightly more romantic hero (still with an emphasis on being a thinker who hates war…not that Pierre is a pacifist in the book, but it works in the film). But the film really seems to not want to be a proper love triangle. It should be more of a straightforward romance between Pierre and Natasha, with Andrei third in the film. We’re just waiting for the two of them to both realize that they love the other and to get untangled from other relationships. I almost wished for more of that and less of the annoying entanglements.

In the film it is clear nearly from the beginning that Natasha and Pierre are right for each other – they already seem to be in love (and to have a real relationship based on friendship and understanding), though it is unacknowledged and unrealized. This is helped by the fact that while Natasha is only thirteen at the beginning of the novel, Audrey Hepburn is clearly not. She seems to be playing someone who is in her late teens.

But all other romances appear to be distractions. Pierre’s infatuation for Helene, even Natasha’s crush on Andrei (it comes off like a crush). Likewise, Natasha’s other crush on Prince Anatole, Helene’s brother (played by Vittorio Gassman). Because one character (a family friend with a forceful personality) is understandably removed from the movie, suddenly Natasha’s elopement must be dealt with more forcefully by her cousin, Sonya (May Britt), and by Pierre. Not only does this show how much Pierre loves her, but that he is already worthy of her. It felt natural that he should act so decisively, however wrong for the Pierre of the novel.

Jeremy Brett and Audrey Hepburn...eight years before they made My Fair Lady

Jeremy Brett and Audrey Hepburn…eight years before they made My Fair Lady

But Sonya also gets to act more maturely in the novel then she does in the book and since we spent considerably more time with her than we ever do with Princess Mary, it seems like the height of injustice that she should not win Nicholas, Natasha’s brother. Instead, Nicholas and Mary’s romance occurs off-screen and Sonya is deprived of the man she loves for no apparent reason other than that they were following the book for the mere sake of following the book.

I’ve complained a lot, but it’s not as bad as all that. The second half is better than the first, when Napoleon invades Russia. The battle where Pierre observes Borodino is well-done and visually compelling. When Pierre is captured, the character of Platon (John Mills) does seem somewhat tacked on. He’s important in the book because he shows Pierre how to live, but he’s wasted in the film because Pierre does not appear to be experiencing an existential crisis. But the portion where the French are retreating from Russia is also extremely well-down. I almost felt sorry for Napoleon.

It’s Hollywood glossy (which for some reason stood out to me more than usual, perhaps simply because I had the book so freshly in mind), with a more British than Russian feel to it. When the Rostov family ride out hunting, they could be fox hunting rather than hunting wolves (as they were doing in the book). But still, there is an inherent grandeur and breadth to the story (how can you lose with Napoleon invading Russia?) that carries the film along.


Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Movies


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War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

103959-MI’ve finally done it! After years of promising myself that I would read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, after starting and stalling halfway through the book in my teens, I have at last finished reading Tolstoy’s masterpiece. But as soon as I closed the book and returned it to my shelf, I felt deflated. All the energy and attention I had invested in trying to fully comprehend Tolstoy’s expansive vision was suddenly gone. I had lost an aim in life and a constant companion.

I must say, however, that War and Peace was not nearly as difficult to read as I found it when I was a teenager. I think the key to getting through Tolstoy’s many battle sequences and dissertations on the war is to approach them, not as a history lesson, but as Tolstoy making a larger, metaphysical point: Russia defeated Napoleon’s invasion of 1812 because Russia lives by instinct, and the characters who do best are the ones who understand this, or come to understand.

Tolstoy’s cast of characters is massive, but the central characters are Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, an ambitious young man eager for military glory and inclined to morbid intellectualizing. Pierre Bezukhov is his friend, a wealthy count who spends much of the book on a spiritual quest, looking for the meaning of life and struggling against a feeling of futility. Natasha Rostova is the woman both Andrei and Pierre love, a young girl who is entirely uninhibited, free of self-consciousness, who seems to embody that intense spiritual connection to the infinite that Tolstoy values so much. Her brother, Nikolai Rostov, is in many ways like her, though perhaps not quite so intense in his reaction to the beauty of life. Princess Marya Bolkonsky is Andrei’s sister, a self-sacrificial woman striving genuinely to be good.

The backdrop for these characters is the Napoleonic Wars, especially Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Actually, it is more than a backdrop. Russia is almost the main character. All of Tolstoy’s characters serve to illustrate Russia: its character, the expression of its soul and the deep spiritual nature that eschews artifice and theatricality (Tolstoy repeatedly shows Napoleon enamored of theatrical gestures). He calls Moscow a city that “appeared to be instinct with life” (translations by Rosemary Edmonds). He even makes the case that Napoleon is defeated by seizing Moscow. “And Moscow engulfed the army deeper and deeper into herself” and the result is that five weeks after the French entered the city “they were a mob of marauders” and no longer an army.

General Kutuzov is Tolstoy’s hero. He is the general who oversaw the driving of the French from Russian soil and he does so, according to Tolstoy, because “Kutuzov’s merit did not lie in any strategic manoeuvre of genius, as it is called, but in the fact that he alone appreciated the significance of what happened.” He was the only person who knew that by taking Moscow, the French were defeated and so he did not waste time or men with needless attacks. “This extraordinary power of insight into the significance of contemporary events sprang from the purity and fervour of his identification with the people.” Tolstoy goes on to explain why the men who shape history the most are never remembered: “Such is the lot, not of great men – grands hommes – whom the Russian mind does not acknowledge – but of those rare and always solitary individuals who, divining the will of Providence, subordinate their personal will to it.” Tolstoy has a low opinion of German generals, who embody futile strategy.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

And Tolstoy’s assessment of Napoleon? “Self-confident mediocrity.” For Tolstoy, Napoleon was self-deceived because he imagined that he directed events when, in fact, the events of history are determined by the individual acts of the people, which, taken together, make inevitable what the leaders do. For Tolstoy, this means that the insignificant person has more power than any leader, who is merely reacting to what is already happening. Tolstoy doesn’t think much of historians, who look for “great” men to explain events and he goes to great lengths to show how wrong historians are, especially in their love-affair with greatness, which Tolstoy fears, gives such “great men” a pass on issues of good and evil:

And it never enters anyone’s head that to admit a greatness not commensurable with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit one’s own nothingness and immeasurable littleness….and there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.

With this backdrop, Tolstoy’s characters struggle to find their place, to reconcile desire for greatness – or even desire for self-comfort – with that world.

One of the things I like about Tolstoy (he does the same thing in Anna Karenina) is how he contrasts and parallels decisions and events that characters make. Andrei, Pierre, Nikolai and Natasha all go through an experience where they are troubled, but are then renewed with a fresh understanding of the infinite, of their place in the infinite and that so many things, in comparison, do not matter.

For some characters, like Andrei, it takes several such moments and he never truly understands until he is dying. Pierre, however, has a near-death experience. He thinks he’s going to be shot by the French and is then taken prisoner. As a result, he is able, without actually dying, to discover what really matters in life.

While a prisoner, “it did not now occur to him to cogitate about Russia, or the war, or politics, or Napoleon. He realized that all that was no business of his…” He learns that “man is created for happiness, that happiness lies in himself, in the satisfaction of human needs; and that all unhappiness is due, not to privation but to superfluity.”  He goes on to comprehend that “Life is everything. Life is God…to love life is to love God.”

Natasha seems to realize all this by instinct. After Andrei dies, she grieves deeply, but recovers faster than one would suppose, within months coming alive again and welcoming love. She seems to realize (though she never spends time reflecting like Andrei, Pierre and Marya) that it is her duty to live and be sensible of the incredible world around her.

Poster for the 1956 film War and Peace

1956 War and Peace

An example of contrast between characters is Sonya – Nikolai and Natasha’s cousin – and Marya. Both love Nikolai, both of them are dependent and must suffer some abuse from their elders, and both of them are externally good. But Tolstoy draws a clear distinction between the state of both their souls. Sonya genuinely loves her adopted family, but when her aunt verbally abuses her, her response is to try manipulation to win Nikolai. Marya spends the first half of the book submitting her will to her tyrannical and senile father. When it comes time for her happiness, she earns it, not through any efforts of her own, but because Nikolai recognizes the beauty of her soul and character because of how she has responded to trials. She submitted her will, Sonya did not. Tolstoy writes of Marya, who is not beautiful, as Nikolai sees her:

For the first time all the pure, spiritual, inward travail in which she had lived till then came out into the open. All her inner searchings of spirit, her sufferings, her striving for goodness, her resignation, her love and self-sacrifice – all this now shone forth in those radiant eyes, in her sweet smile, in every feature of her tender face.

As a result, unlike Sonya, she has a deeper spiritual connection with other people and is able to understand them, even without words. This deep spiritual connection is everything for Tolstoy. It is also the source of wisdom for his characters. After Pierre’s experience as a prisoner of war, he discovers that he no longer has difficulty making decisions, since “now there was a judge within him.” Nikolai, likewise, seems to often know what is right, though he cannot argue effectively: “for in his heart he knew – not by reasoning but by something stronger than reason – that his opinion was the right one.”

The irony is that the end of Tolstoy’s novel does not feel like an ending, but like a new beginning. Tolstoy originally meant to write a novel about the Decembrist Revolt in 1825. Pierre was going to be a character returning from Siberian exile in the 1860s (nearly contemporary with when Tolstoy serialized War and Peace in 1865-1867). But as Tolstoy studied the revolt, he felt that the roots of it were to be found in the Napoleonic Wars. War and Peace ends in 1820, five years before the revolt and you can already see Pierre espousing views that could lead to trouble.

1966 War and Peace

1966 War and Peace made in Russia

It is a great irony that after all Pierre has discovered, after 1400 pages of Tolstoy underlining the hubris and folly of a single person imagining that they are uniquely able to influence events (Napoleon is his ultimate example of this folly), it is about to start all over again. Not only Pierre, but Andre’s son, Nikolai Bolkonsky, who dreams of making his father proud, saying “everyone shall know of me, shall love and applaud me.” Of Pierre, Tolstoy writes that “at that moment it seemed to him that he was chosen to give a new direction to the whole Russian community and the world at large.” Pierre, it seems, can’t help himself. He deplores evil so much that he longs to do something to alleviate it, not realizing that it is not for him to do so.

But perhaps there is hope for Pierre. Pierre and Natasha have a happy family, something Tolstoy greatly prized (despite his own difficulties in his personal life and conduct). Marya says of Pierre’s ideas that “it is our duty to help our neighbors…but he forgets we have other duties nearer home, which God Himself has marked out for us, and that we may run risks for ourselves but not for our children.” Theoretically, Pierre’s family and responsibility to his family could save him from folly. One wonders about Nikolai Bolkonsky, though.


Posted by on November 4, 2015 in Books


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