THE TELEGRAPH – When it was last on television, it took an epic 20 episodes to tell the sprawling story of love, family and Napoleonic war in Tolstoy’s Russia.

The BBC’s latest version, more than four decades on, has enlisted Lily James, Andrew Davies and a cast of hundreds to convince a new generation that War and Peace is for them in just six hours.

The BBC aims to broadcast the “definitive” War and Peace for the 21st century, executives said, as they unveil the first-look images from their far-from-cosy new period drama.

It will aim to encapsulate Tolstoy’s magnum opus in a six-part adaption that will showcase the “humour, energy, light and love” of the original story, while syphoning off the philosophical musings.

First announced in the Telegraph two years ago, prospective fans can now get their first glimpse of the drama with new images of Natasha Rostova, played by Lily James, Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov and James Norton as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.

Executives hope the adaptation, by “master” of the genre Andrew Davies, will convince a new generation that War and Peace is not a daunting, dry book to be consigned to history, but full of the modern-day dilemmas affecting teenagers through time.

Its tales of young love, parental disputes, bad decisions and ambition, they say, make “perfect sense” for young people, who will be familiar with the programme’s stars from Downton Abbey, Cinderella, Happy Valley and 12 Years a Slave.

Filmed in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia, is due to be broadcast on the BBC this winter in a major collaboration with American channels and The Weinstein Company.

The last time War and Peace was on the BBC was a major 20-part series in 1972, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.

This time, its three main stars will be joined by Jim Broadbent as Prince Bolkonsky, Gillian Anderson as Anna Pavlovna, Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna, Aneurin Barnard as Boris, Brian Cox as General Kutuzov and Ade Edmondson Count Rostov.

Lily James will take on her third major role in a corset, following her long-running appearance as Lady Rose in ITV’s Downton Abbey, and Hollywood film Cinderella.

Faith Penhale, head of drama at BBC Wales, said “master of the classic adaptation” Sir Andrew had a “particular eye” for finding the essence of a novel, “boiling that story down into a size and shape that works for television.”
“I think what struck us was how fresh and contemporary the characters were, how young they were and just how universal and timeless it is,” she said.

“They fall in love with the wrong people, they make mistakes, they fall out with their parents, they put ambition before everything. They just do what young people do.”

Bethan Jones, one of the show’s executive producers at the BBC, said: “We’re looking at a very big, very detailed, sprawling novel with lots of themes. With War and Peace, everybody makes assumptions that it’s going to be about a lot of old people, and heavy, and it’ll draw you down, but really Andrew was saying how surprised he was about the humour and the energy and the light and love. He takes that material and he filters everything through character. It feels contemporary, lively and easy to understand, brilliantly emotionally affecting. It’s not cosy. This was not a cosy time in history. It’s a version that makes sense for this generation.”

Penhale added: “I think everyone on the team feels this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and hopefully we will deliver this generation’s adaptation. You feel the weight of that responsibility but you also feel hugely excited. It’s really pushed people to deliver something really, I think, quite epic on screen.”

War and Peace will be broadcast on the BBC this winter, with details of transmission dates to be confirmed later in the year.


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