The British Broadcasting Corporation announced yesterday the cast for its upcoming six-hour miniseries adaptation of War and Peace, the classic epic novel by Leo Tolstoy. Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) will portray Pierre Bezukhov, Lily James (Downton Abbey) will play Natasha Rostova. Other prominent cast members include James Norton, Stephen Rea, Greta Scacchi, and Tom Burke (The Musketeers).
The miniseries will be co-produced by the U.S.-based Weinstein Company, and, perhaps most importantly, will be scripted by Andrew Davies, the 78-year-old veteran of British television who has written numerous important and excellent television adaptations of literature (and in one case, history) such as Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit, House of Cards, Mr. Selfridge, Moll Flanders, Bleak House, The Way We Live Now, and the Bridget Jones theatrical films, among many others.
If you’ve seen a couple of these series, you know just how skillful Davies is, and how well he captures not only the surface characteristics of life in historical eras, but also, and far more importantly, the mindsets and thought processes of the times. All too commonly today, writers dealing with historical material try to impose current-day social and especially political ideas on the source material, which always ill-serves both the original author and the dramatic logic of the story.
Davies takes a non-ideological approach to adaptation, in which he keeps his own ego in check and tries to present the source material as transparently as possible while making it work on-screen. It’s an approach that is all too rare these days, and the BBC-Weinstein adaptation of War and Peace will surely benefit from his presence as screenwriter. Let’s hope that the next generation of writers for the BBC and other producers will learn from Davies’s example.