‘War and Peace’: Trimming Tolstoy’s Epic Tale for a Modern Age

War and Peace
War and Peace

At 1,440 pages, it’s one of the longest stories ever told. And one of the hardest to trim into a TV miniseries. No one has attempted to adapt Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—the tale of five aristocratic families during the Napoleonic wars—for English-language TV since the BBC’s 1972 version starring Anthony Hopkins. But now, the BBC is giving it another go—this time with a shinier, more youthful attitude. (The series will premiere Stateside simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime and History.)

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“There’s something so immediate about Tolstoy’s writing,” says the miniseries’ director, Tom Harper. “When I read the book, I found it amazing how much I connected with the characters and how modern they felt.”

It was Harper who insisted on casting American actor Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) in the lead role of Pierre Bezukhov, a directionless young man who inherits heaps of money and a royal title in the first episode. James Norton (Mr. Turner) plays Pierre’s closest friend, the heady Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky, who trots off to war rather than listen to his pregnant wife’s prattle. Downton Abbey’s Lily James is impulsive Countess Natasha Rostova, who, at different points in time, loves both men. Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent and Gillian Anderson help round out Tolstoy’s gentry. “It’s a testament to the script that we got our first choices for most roles, but each casting,” says Harper, “still felt like a gift.”

War and Peace, Premieres Monday, Jan. 18, 9/8c, A&E, Lifetime, History