How 'War And Peace' Changed For Television

When one is adapting an epic 19th century, four-volume, 1,255-page novel containing dozens of characters from five aristocratic families and featuring real-life personas such as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I, some things are bound to get lost in translation. It's just a natural part of the process. Such is likely to be the case with the BBC's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War And Peace , which premiered in the United Kingdom earlier this month and will be airing in the United States starting this Monday. But just how much was lost, exactly? How faithful of an adaptation is the BBC's War And Peace ?

To hear its stars tell it, it's perhaps the most faithful adaptation yet of the famous author's landmark novel, which is one of the longest ever written. At the red carpet premiere of the series, Lily James (Cinderella) — who plays protagonist Natasha Rostova — lauded screenwriter Andrew Davies (who created the original British version of Hosue Of Cards) as having been "so truthful and accurate" in his adaptation of the epic novel. Davies himself told The Telegraph that the complex relationships between the story's central families are so "true to life" that "a faithful reproduction of Tolstoy’s work would attract popular audiences without the need to 'dumb it down.'"

In fact, television seems to be the perfect abode for a work as dense as War And Peace. How could any single feature film adaptation possibly contain all of the intricacies of Tolstoy's writing? With six hour-long episodes, surely the BBC's version will be more faithful than any of the previous adaptations, including various stage plays and operas. Sure, there have been other miniseries — including one in 2007 starring Harry Potter's Clémence Poésy as Natasha — but even that version was only four parts compared to the BBC's six. And while King Vidor's 1956 Oscar-nominated feature film starring Audrey Hepburn came in at three-and-a-half hours (a truly bloated length for a movie), even that motion picture epic can't measure up to the 360 minutes of material the BBC will be offering audiences over the next six weeks.

But actually, as incredible as it seems, this most recent version of War And Peace is not in fact the longest adaptation yet. Exactly 50 years ago, Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk turned the four-volume novel into a series of four films, the first premiering in March of 1966 and the final one bowing in November of 1967. Those four films had a combined runtime of 431 minutes; over an hour more than the BBC produced for this adaptation. But it's the BBC itself that holds the prize for the longest War And Peace to date... just not this one. In 1972, they debuted a miniseries headlined by Anthony Hopkins that ran for 20 episodes — a staggering 15 hours of content.

In comparison, this six-hour version will, by necessity, be leaving large chunks of Tolstoy's novel on the cutting room floor. At 1,225 pages in length, Davies would have had to adapt the novel at a rate of three pages per minute in order to fit it all in; a tall order for pretty much anyone. What matters isn't that things are being cut out... it's what's being cut out. According to an interview with various cast members in Digital Spy, what has been "excised from the series are Tolstoy's ruminations on philosophy and military tactics," which take up lengthy passages of the novel.

Of course, this being a 21st century TV show rather than a 19th century novel, those length passages have been replaced with something much more titillating: "the sexier side of Russia," at least according to Digital Spy. But before readers start crying foul, cast member James Norton (Rush) insists that even the sex is from the classic source material. "There'll be a tiny moment Tolstoy passes over — 'Hélène and Boris went upstairs and continued their intimate liaison…' — which Andrew [Davies] will turn into a nice big scene," he told Digital Spy. "He's fleshed out certain bits - not always involving flesh! I think he's done an incredible job and although it's obviously been whittled down, nothing has really been lost. He's captured the incredible tone that is War And Peace, I think."

Davies wasn't the only one committed to staying true to the author's vision. James, Norton, and co-star Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) all consulted the source material frequently: "All three insist they consulted Tolstoy's work every single day while shooting, reading the relevant passage before tackling each new scene," reveals Digital Spy. Hopefully the apparent devotion of the cast and crew will result in, if not the most meticulously detailed, then at least the most spiritually faithful — and sexiest — adaptation of War And Peace yet.

In addition to James, Norton, and Dano, the BBC miniseries will also star Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Brian Cox, Stephen Rea, and Tuppence Middleton. It will air for American audiences on A&E, Lifetime, and The History Channel starting this Monday night at 9 p.m. ET.

Images: Mitch Jenkins/A&E Networks; Laurie Sparham/BBC (3)