Sexed-Up Tolstoy

‘War and Peace’ Goes ‘Game of Thrones’ in New BBC Adaptation

The BBC’s ecstatically reviewed new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic is coming to your TV screen—with an incestuous twist the writer may or may not have hinted at.

01.14.16 5:01 AM ET

If you loved Downton Abbey, chances are you will already have earmarked the sofa for next Monday night, in preparation for Part I of the next epic British costume drama due to hit U.S. TV screens, War and Peace.

The eight-hour BBC adaptation, complete with heaving bosoms and lots of very silly hats, will be screened in four two-hour blocks on all the A&E channels (Lifetime, History, A&E). Produced by the BBC and Harvey Weinstein, and with a cast list comprising the cream of British acting talent including Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave), Lily James (Lady Rose of Downton Abbey fame), Gillian Anderson, and Jim Broadbent (Iris), the lavish series has already aired its first two hours in the U.K. to ecstatic reviews.

But this War and Peace comes with some controversy: Writer Andrew Davies—a veteran screenwriter who, among other triumphs, adapted the original House of Cards novels for the BBC—has been accused of mercilessly “sexing up” the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s 1,800-page epic account of the Napoleonic Wars and Russian society. Most scandalously, he’s included an incestuous relationship between Hélène (Tuppence Middleton) and her brother Anatole (Callum Turner). They are seen in bed together in the first few minutes of the new adaptation.

Davies has said the incestuous liaison between Hélène and Anatole Kuragin is “crucial” to his adaptation and denied that he invented the relationship. “Brother and sister Hélène and Anatole are in an incestuous relationship, but Tolstoy indicates this so subtly that most readers, including me, at first reading, miss it altogether,” he todl the Radio Times. “This relationship, and their attitude to it, is so crucial to our understanding of them that for me, at least, it needs to be on screen.”

The Daily Beast asked several prominent scholars of the great Russian epic if they felt Davies was justified in including the plotline, or if indeed the incestuous affair was a case of extreme dramatic license.

Professor Faith Wigzell, emeritus professor of Russian literature and culture at University College London:

There is something in the book about it, but in the form of rumor. At the end of Vol. I, Part 2, Pierre recognizes that there is something not right—even nasty—in his feelings for Hélène and recalls that he’d been told that Anatole had been in love with her and she with him and that was why Anatole was sent away.

Unlike any of the other female characters, Hélène is not herself attracted to any of the men around and docilely does what her father wants, by implication perhaps because her heart (such as it is) has been given to her brother.

In the BBC adaptation, Pierre does not seem to have much in the way of perceptive insights but is just a social klutz, so Davies has moved the incest from rumor to action. I don’t mind too much, though I think it could have been done another way.

However, I am hating the BBC adaptation less than I feared (it’s always hopeless when you have taught a novel for 30 years and you see it dramatized). I’m still watching—and not out of masochism.

Professor Catriona Kelly, professor of Russian, University of Oxford:

Andrew Davies isn’t making it up. Tolstoy has Pierre doubting whether he should marry Hélène Kuragin, because of the rumors she is in love with her brother, and he with him:

“Но она глупа, я сам говорил, что она глупа, — думал он. — Что-то гадкое есть в том чувстве, которое она возбудила во мне, что-то запрещенное. Мне говорили, что ее брат Анатоль был влюблен в нее, и она влюблена в него, что была целая история, и что от этого услали Анатоля.”

“But she’s stupid, I’ve often said so myself,” he thought. “There is something nasty in the feeling she’s aroused in me, something forbidden. I was told her brother Anatole was in love with her, and she with him, that there was a whole scandal about it, and Anatole was sent away on account of it all.”

The word that Tolstoy uses for “sent away” suggests this was done by the family. Note, though, the implication is that the incestuous relationship is in the past, not the present.

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Natalia Krylova, Ph.D., lecturer of Russian language and culture, University of Minnesota:

In the original text, any kind of incestuous relations between the two, otherwise doubtlessly sinister characters, is less than obvious.

When Pierre recalls the the rumors to which he was once exposed, he can’t provide a reliable source of this information. Given how starry-eyed, imaginative, and impressionable a person he is, it is not quite obvious whether it is a figment of his own imagination or a sure fact.

In one later episode, Anatole comes to Hélène to borrow some money and kisses her “naked shoulders.” But Hélène’s “naked shoulders” are her signature appearance trait—representative of her dressing style and women’s fashion of the time, as well as of the particular archetype of femininity she is the explication of (beautiful Helen of Troy). Secondly, the ways in which affection was expressed (a) in Russia and (b) in the beginning of the 19th century were strikingly different from the modern Western standards. I don’t believe that Anatole’s kissing his adult sibling was, in fact, meant by Tolstoy to be a demonstration of his character’s incestuous inclinations.

I do not belong to the conservative cohort who believes that all classic art is a sacred depot of untouchable artifacts that should be left alone in their original / petrified form. But I hate some contemporary film directors’ attempts to play on the most primitive instincts of their audience in order to secure commercial success for their productions.

I will watch the adaptation—but I am totally prepared to be perpetually frustrated and annoyed over the weeks when this series will be on the air.