War, Peace and Brideshead

In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, Harry Mount declares the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace by Andrew Davies to be a failure. This is inevitable, he writes, when an attempt is made to compress a massive 19th Century novel, written originally in a foreign language, into 6 hours of English language television. See earlier post. For one reason, it just doesn’t sound right:

Artifice creeps in everywhere. So, in this new adaptation, the French characters speak English with a French accent. But the posh Russian characters speak English with public school English accents; the peasants speak with northern English accents. Think about it for a second and it’s ludicrous.

He might have mentioned that, to make matters worse, several of the Russian names and places are mispronounced, confusing even those who may be familiar wth the novel and its original language. For example, Drubetskoy is Tolstoy’s fictionalized version of the Russian name Trubetskoy, but the stress is on the final syllable. In the BBC version, it’s pronounced Drubetsky, with the stress on the second syllable, and is unrecognizable to anyone knowing Russian.

After explaining his disappointment with the Tolstoy adaptaton, Mount thinks back to one novel adaptation that was successful and explains why:

The 1981 Brideshead Revisited series was a triumph. But that was because it was given 11 one-hour episodes to cover a relatively short book: 326 pages in the Penguin Classic edition. No plot compression required.It helped that the actors, particularly Anthony Andrews and John Gielgud, mirrored Waugh’s characters immaculately. The acting in War and Peace was perfectly good – but no one jumped out of the screen as a Tolstoy original in the flesh.It helps, too, that Brideshead Revisited was written in English in 1945 – recently enough for nuances of language and plot to be recognisable to viewers 36 years later, with minimal exposition required.

Most crucially, the director, Charles Sturridge, ripped up John Mortimer’s script for Brideshead Revisited and rewrote it. Sturridge incorporated long, original tracts from the book, read out as a voiceover by Jeremy Irons’s Charles Ryder. The big screen version in 2008 was no good because the screenwriters badly rewrote Evelyn Waugh’s impeccable lines. One of those screenwriters, incidentally, was Andrew Davies on a rare off-day.

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