Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
War and Peace — maybe you’ve heard of it? According to the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on the book, War and Peace “chronicles the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families.” But more than that, it has a reputation, at least in the English-speaking world (and stop me if I’m wrong), of being a hard thing to read, based primarily on criteria like “it’s really thick” and “there too many characters, and they all have foreign names.”
Currently, ya girl is on a self-improvement kick: For me, that involves a lot more reading and a lot less everything else. And if you’re gonna go, why not go hard? So War and Peace it is — I know next to nothing about Russia and even less about Napoleon, and in fact, I can’t stand battle scenes or “war” in general. But I come bearing good news: War and Peace is nowhere near as difficult a read as I’ve let myself believe — the chapters are quite short (which makes sense, since it started as a serialized story), and the characters are distinct (Denisov is the one with the speech impediment, Dolohov is the psycho who ties a live bear to a policeman and dumps them both in the river).
Honestly, I would have started this a lot sooner if I had been informed of things like the bear and the policeman, or how one of the main characters is going through a really rough personal time so, like you do, he joins the Freemasons. War and Peace is working for me, because hey, it turns out the very famous thing that has been much beloved in dozens of languages for like 150 years is — and I think Tolstoy scholars would agree with me here — pretty fuckin’ tight.
But at the end of the day, I’m still a dumb American, and I wanted my hand held. Before I started reading, I first watched the War and Peace miniseries from 2016 starring Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James. (In the U.S., it aired on the Lifetime network, which makes War and Peace my second-favorite Paul Dano Lifetime made-for-TV movie, right behind Too Young to Be a Dad.) Dano is Pierre Bezukhov (the aforementioned Mason), Norton is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (something of a mirror character to Pierre), and James ... well, she’s Natasha, who somehow has to grow from “Moscow’s most beloved 13-year-old” to “young woman who came of age during brutal wartime.”
I’m on the record as a fan of the miniseries as a form of television, and here it works exactly as I want it to: As a beginner’s guide to a larger, more resonant story. For instance, the Bear + Cop + River = Good Times scene was portrayed like a hungover flashback, and honestly, it was kind of hard to tell what was going down. But trust me — it’s clear in the book. A dueling scene is played as a cliffhanger from one episode to the next; in the book, it quickly skips along over just a few paragraphs.
Probably the most helpful aspect of the watch-and-read is putting faces to names. Even if I don’t literally imagine Paul Dano as Pierre (and I don’t, I imagine someone much bigger and more physically awkward), Pierre is a Paul Dano type — you know, a bit of a galoot compared to his friend. (Norton’s Andrei looks like this.) Gillian Anderson is much younger than the Anna Pavlovna in my head, and really, the opening party scene at Anna’s St. Petersburg home is one of my only quibbles with the TV production. (My primary objection is with the women’s gowns, which were way too modern.)
But for the most part, the adaptation appears faithful — that said, I’m still just roughly halfway through ... only about 30 more hours of reading to go! You feel the gravity of major deaths, believe so-and-so when they say they’re in love with so-and-so, the military and battle scenes build the sense of dread, and the internal character moments that come off in the book as transcendent, religious and meaningful are horseshoe-close enough to the spirit without reading as corny. Also, I love watching good actors act. Brian Cox as General Mikhail Kutuzov became one of my favorite parts of the adaptation, and I’ve spent the past week or so falling in love with Jessie Buckley, who plays Andrei’s sister Marya as always being on the verge of tears.
It’s also been fun to measure my reactions to the same scenes in adaptation and source. Natasha’s peasant dance is a sweet character moment on screen; when I read it, I was sobbing. The Battle of Austerlitz, the Battle of Borodino, difficult to watch. On page, looking inside the heads of the doomed men brought to those places by patriotism, money, self-regard, curiosity, duty, fear, chance, the vanity of Bonaparte, makes it even more difficult to read.
Nevertheless: “Good thing good!” proclaims local critic. It became pretty funny to me, pretty early on, that self-improvement was the reason for my reading War and Peace, and that’s also the goal of Pierre and Andrei, and really, the book (but I thought it was about the effect of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society?!). So I’m using my TV column to encourage book-reading, with the aid of television. Join me, so you’ll know exactly how funny it is when I start calling dudes “Book I Andrei” as an insult.