How War and Peace was sexed up for 2016

From Pride and Prejudice to Vanity Fair, master screenwriter Andrew Davies has turned countless classics into TV hits. Here’s how he does it...

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Many people are afraid of War and Peace. It’s an immensely long novel, full of Russians with unpronounceable names; people talk about “tackling it” as if it were a marathon, or Everest. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was afraid of it myself, but somehow I’d reached my mid-70s without even opening it. So I had mixed feelings when Faith Penhale (head of drama, BBC Wales) asked me to consider adapting it for TV.

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I took it with me on holiday, and you know what? Once you get into it, it’s a page-turner. Great characters, thrilling action scenes, lots of battles (of course), a classic duel, several love stories, with seductions, betrayals and a happy ending for some, but not all, of our favourite characters. What’s not to like?

That makes my job sound easy, and indeed when people ask me how I do it, I often say I just “copy out the best bits”. But there’s so much more to it than that: it’s not always immediately apparent what the “best bits” are, and great novelists often pass over important events and relationships in an aside. For instance, in War and Peace brother and sister Helene and Anatole are in an incestuous relationship, but Tolstoy indicates this so subtly that most readers (including me, at first reading) miss it altogether. But this relationship, and their attitude to it, is so crucial to our understanding of them that for me, at least, it needs to be on the screen.

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Screenwriter Andrew Davies

Novels are made up of scenes, descriptions, summaries and authorial reflections. In a TV drama or a film there are only scenes, so for the adapter it’s not just a question of what to include and what to leave out – often I find myself inventing the scene that the author chose not to write. And one of the great pleasures of adaptation is to write scenes that aren’t in the book, but feel so convincing and necessary that everyone believes they must be from the book. Tolstoy does a lot of editorialising in War and Peace: he lectures us about leadership, history, what it is to be Russian, and so on. All very important questions for Tolstoy, but how to incorporate them in a drama? Do we actually need to? Yes, I think we do, otherwise we’ll be serving up a generic romantic adventure story. So I have to find a way of expressing Tolstoy’s voice.

The late Simon Hoggart once wrote that what I do is to crawl inside the book like some monstrous hermit crab until I’ve made it my own: I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I like the image – and in a way, isn’t that what we all do when we read wholeheartedly?

The first question I ask myself is: “Whose story is this really, who do we most identify with, whose journey do we most want to follow?” The answer is often one character, which makes my job relatively easy. In War and Peace there are three front and centre, so I started with them.

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Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov

Pierre Bezukhov is a blundering idealist, intent on finding his true path in life, but doomed to make one mistake after another. He is the bastard son of the richest man in Russia, and when we meet him at the start of the story, hardly anyone takes him seriously. Pierre is impulsive, outspoken, and much given to strong drink and loose women, despite his efforts to reform. Despised by many, he is loved by two people, Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostova.

Prince Andrei seems to have everything. Rich, gifted and handsome, he is already married to a lovely girl who adores him; but he feels stifled by St Petersburg society, trapped in his marriage, and disenchanted with himself and everyone round him. He decides to enlist rather than endure the life he’s been leading.

Natasha is the dearly loved daughter of Count and Countess Rostov. She and her brother Nikolai have led a sheltered existence: neither can imagine that anybody might want to hurt them. Natasha is lively, passionate, with an open and trusting nature, which leads her to make the terrible mistake that nearly ruins her.

Three main characters, three families, and the war that will disrupt all their lives. Can they survive? Can love survive? Can Russia survive?

As I wrote the first drafts I was struck again by how modern the book felt – and funny, too, which you don’t often hear said about Tolstoy. People often ask me who I’m writing for: am I hoping to please the scholars and the critics, or do I have the general TV audience in mind? The answer is the latter: most people who watch War and Peace won’t have read it, and I want to introduce them to the novel in as vivid a way as I can. And I’m also writing for myself; I want to write a show I’d love to see.

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James Norton as Prince Andrei

I don’t want to give the impression I do it all on my own – every draft is discussed with script editors, producers and the director, and scrutinised by literary and historical experts. (I now know exactly what a Moscow postman wore in 1805.) All these discussions lead to new ideas, and yet more drafts, not to mention lively lunches. I often think how lucky I am that writing for TV is such a social occupation.

The climax for me is the read-through. I read all the stage directions out loud and try to control the mood and the pace; after that it’s all down to the director – Tom Harper has done a wonderful job, using authentic locations to give War and Peace a truly cinematic look.

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War and Peace begins on BBC1 today (Sunday 3rd January) at 9:00pm