The BBC's adaptation of Tolstoy's novel is thin and shallow

The last time I watched War and Peace on the television, I was ten years old. That was the version in which Anthony Hopkins played Pierre, and which ran for twenty episodes, making over 15 hours of viewing time. Four decades on, I remember parts of it vividly – most of all the burning of Moscow, Pierre’s brush with death, the way he plays patience wondering whether he should flee Moscow or not. It was unforgettable television. I remember finding the parts to do with Pierre’s freemasonry rather mysterious. But so much of it persists in my memory that it must have been a simply mesmerising series. I certainly remember the way that every week we had an appointment to see it – no recording then – and how, after each episode, the matter would be discussed in detail.

When I was sixteen I read the book, and loved it; I then read Anna Karenin, and loved that too; and after Anna, I went back to War and Peace and reread it. From the reading of the novel, I remember not so much the tense action sequences and the plot devices (all the stuff about the old Count’s will, for example, and the matter of not being able to marry your sister-in-law according to the teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church) but the ethical, existential and spiritual dimensions of the story. Pierre and Prince Andrei and young Rostov, to a lesser extent, are on a spiritual quest.

This is not really a novel about who marries whom, but more a novel about how a man finds his place in the world. That is why Pierre and Prince Andrei are friends – they are both, in their several ways, misfits. I remember feeling rather annoyed with both of them: why can’t they simply be happy? They have a place in society, beautiful wives and lots of money. Why can’t they make the most of it? Four decades on, I can now see that the real problem with them both is some sort of existential malaise: they are both looking for meaning in life.

The other thing that struck me then was the cruelty of the novel. Tolstoy does not have a happy ending for everyone, and one can be forgiven for thinking that he feels some people do not deserve a happy ending. Sonia ends up unloved and thwarted; old Countess Rostov has an awful end to my mind, as does her foolish husband. Old Prince Bolkonsky is a monster. Nikolai Rostov is a bit of a boor. Princess Maria is unquestionably good, but dull. As for poor Helene, well Tolstoy really does not like her, or Anatole her brother; his treatment of both is spiteful. I was also a little bit shocked to see how anti-Catholic Tolstoy was.

The current adaptation now showing on the BBC strikes me as simply disastrous. Some compression there has to be, but all the wrong bits have been compressed out. The interior monologues of Prince Andrei are more or less gone, along with his interior life. He appears no more than an arrogant young man with a bad hair do; Lisa’s unhappiness seems quite justified, as we lose the essential insight that Andrei can’t help hating her, because really it is himself that he hates. Likewise, we miss the point of Pierre’s marriage; he seems tricked into it by the pantomime dame figure of Prince Vassily, whereas in the novel Pierre declares his love to Helene, saying “Je vous aime!”, knowing this to be false, simply because he cannot think of anything better to do.

The BBC production gives us a War and Peace that is not just pared down, but utterly without depth. As for the war scenes, one is left wondering why this war is happening at all. The concept of the mysterious inevitability of human folly has quite evaporated. No amount of portentous Russian chant in the background can make up for this spiritual vacuity.

The costumes, however, are magnificent. So are the buildings – too magnificent: they seem to have forgotten that the Rostov mansion is wooden, which is rather important for the plot. And was that the battle of Austerlitz in the last episode, with trees in full leaf and high summer grass, which took place on 2nd December 1805? But as I say, the costumes are great, which is just as well, as they seem to be doing most of the acting.