Sunday, 10 January 2016

On the new BBC adaptation of War and Peace

I tried watching the new adaptation of War and Peace last night.
I couldn't watch a whole episode.
You know I love Tolstoy. You know what I often think of adaptations. You know what I think about Andrew Davies and the Colin Firth effect (my fear came true, by the way).
So I won't say anything about this series. What I say instead is: fine, this isn't for me, but we'll always have the book, and if this adaptation gets more people to read War and Peace, great.
You can say, let's be realistic, most people won't. Some will be interested but find the size daunting. Some will think watching an adaptation is good enough. Some will intend to read it but never come round to reading it. After all I'm not much better- I can humiliate myself now by making a list of classic novels I haven't read despite watching the adaptations: Les Misérables, The Three Musketeers, The Age of Innocence, A Room with a View, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, Barry Lyndon, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and so on and so forth. The seen-the-film-not-read-the-book list will be much longer if we include more modern works: The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Psycho, The Shining, American Psycho, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Brokeback Mountain, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc.
Still, it will get someone to read the book. However critical I am of the adaptations of Anna Karenina, they led me to the novel. For years I heard my mom's praise of Tolstoy and was indifferent- or I was interested, but not enough to tackle the book, partly because of its size, partly because of its tragic ending, partly because of my ignorance of Russian literature and indifference to Russia. Then after watching about 4 adaptations, I thought: why not read Tolstoy's novel when I'm obsessed with Anna Karenina and already know the story so well? So I won't be angry now. I'll see this new adaptation as 1 of those TV series that other people watch and I don't, like Games of Thrones or Downton Abbey (I'm indifferent to many things in popular culture anyway*), or something that motivates someone to read Tolstoy's book. That's it.
We'll always have the novels.

*: I intended to write a post called "Di Nguyen on pop culture, or Why I have no friends", but it sounds pretentious and hipsterish, so never mind.


  1. Di, some books (well, I would argue most books) deserve to be spared the film-makers' meddling; I've never seen a film version of a book that measured up to my reading experience, but I know that I am in the minority with that POV.

  2. The Prisoner of the Mountains (Bodrov, 1996) is a great Tolstoy adaptation. I don't know if it led too many people to the original - it took me 20 years - but it's a great movie.

    I should watch more movies. Movies are wonderful.

  3. Tom,
    Movies are wonderful, yes! These days I've been thinking about Canudo's idea about cinema being a reconciliation of the rhythms of time and the rhythms of space, a synthesis of the ancient arts- architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry. It's so true.

    You haven't seen any film as good as the book? Not even 1?

    1. I think my book v. film comment may be influenced by the fact that I see so few films. I will give more thought to the issue, but no novel-to-film stands out in my memory as being memorable and worthwhile. But I will ponder the issue some more.

  4. Some examples that I found memorable and worthwhile. Not all of them are "novel" to film. Novels, who cares?

    The Wizard of Oz
    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
    "The Rabbit of Seville"
    "What's Opera, Doc?"
    The Maltese Falcon
    Howards End
    Vanya on 42nd Street
    Country Life (which is Uncle Vanya moved to Australia)
    Glengary Glen Ross
    Hunger - the 1966 Danish version, almost in your neighborhood, Di. Danish director, Swedish actor (tremendous performance), Norwegian novel.

    These are all cases where I have know the source text.

    1. I can tink of two films that I thought were better than the sources: Rear Window and Psycho--coincidentally both were directed by Hitchcock. I can think of one film, right now, that is the equal of the book--The Maltese Falcon.

      I can think of several films that were so good that I searched out the book and ended up reading everything I could by that author: PD James's mysteries because of the BBC adaptation, Thomas Hardy because of the BBC version of Jude the Obscure, Nikos Kazantzakis' works because of the film of Zorba the Greek. There are others whose names will appear once I hit the publish button for this comment.

    2. Films that are better than the books: the 1st ones that come to my mind are The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs and Gone with the Wind and Dr Strangelove. I know the source text.
      Mentioning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button perhaps isn't fair, because the film is so different from Fitzgerald's story.
      Equal to the books, I can think of the 1995 Sense and Sensibility. Clueless, the modernisation of Emma is also excellent.

      By Pinocchio, I hope you're thinking of Disney, not Roberto Benigni?

      I haven't read the original of Psycho. But I've just watched the film again recently and it's a masterpiece. Have you seen the remake?

    3. Yes, Walt Disney. He had his team had a great run for a while.

    4. Disney indeed. He totally ruined The Little Mermaid though.

  5. Di,

    No, I haven't seen the remake of _Psycho_. Have you seen it?

    1. Yes I have. It's a shot-for-shot remake. Frankly I don't see the point.

    2. I see the point for the director. It must have been intensely educational and enjoyable. What I can't understand is why a studio would fund it.

    3. For Fred:

  6. Di,

    Thanks for the link. I see what you mean. I also listened to the discussion afterwards. The few changes that were made were unnecessary as far as I could tell from the discussion.

    I'll rent the original Psycho and forgo the copycat version.

  7. Have you seen this?

  8. there are some books that are better than the novels on which they are based. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest", for instance. Or "The Godfather". I think John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" and Billy Wilder's "Double indemnity" matched the novels on which they were based.

    (Much later in his career, John Hustom did full justice to teh james Joyce story "the dead".)

    And Steinbeck very modestly said that John Ford's film version of "The Grapes of Wrath" was finer than the novel. Fine though the novel is, he may well have been right.