The BBC Adaptation of War and Peace

The BBC has produced an adaptation of War and Peace featuring scenes of nudity and incest. The adaptation, by Andrew Davis, will air in the New Year. As The Telegraph writes, Davis is known “for his racy take on Pride and Prejudice and for admitting that he read Austen’s book only when he undertook the project.

So, does Tolstoy depict an incestuous relationship? I read War and Peace many times in Russian and in translations by Anthony Briggs, and Pevear and Volokhonsky. I will be quoting here from the latter, but first a few words about Tolstoy’s plot.

Scholars are now debating Tolstoy’s intention in depicting Anatole and Hélèn Kuragin, more specifically the brother and sister relationship. I believe there is hardly any need to speculate––Tolstoy clearly suggests it involved incest.

When Pierre Bezukhov receives a vast inheritance, becoming a millionaire overnight, the Kuragin family at once considers him a match for their beautiful daughter, Hélèn. During Anna Pavlovna’s soirée, attended by the cream of Petersburg aristocracy, Hélèn is seated next to Pierre: money and beauty go together.

Pierre is divided in his heart between everyone’s expectations of him to marry Hélèn and the unattractive things he knows about her: “I’ve been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, and there was a whole story, and that’s why Anatole was sent away.”

True, not everything Tolstoy wrote appears in the final draft. As Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, writes in her autobiography, she persuaded her husband to exclude some “cynical scenes” involving the beautiful Hélèn Kuragina. However, Tolstoy was no puritan and an ardent reviser, so it’s hard to know whether he heeded her advice or slashed some paragraphs because he wanted to.

In an early draft, published in Tolstoy’s 90-volume Collected Works, the brother and sister relationship is shown in more detail. Anatole refuses to leave his sister’s room until the small hours of the morning; their mother, entering unexpectedly, witnesses Anatole caressing Hélèn. Tolstoy further suggests that Anatole experiences sexual arousal and that Hélèn enjoys being fondled. After the incident the old Prince Kuragin strictly forbids brother and sister to be together and sends Anatole away.

Tolstoy undoubtedly implies an incestuous relationship. But he certainly doesn’t show brother and sister in bed. It is enough to depict Anatole’s sensuality, to show “animal” expression on his face when he is caressing Hélèn’s bare shoulders. Less is more––the reader gets the message.

I believe that scenes of nudity in the BBC production of War and Peace will not affect audiences as much as Tolstoy’s implication, which leaves room for imagination.

Finally, because I know and love the novel, I unlikely will be watching the BBC production, although I also realize that some viewers may be drawn to the adaptation because of the bedroom scene. And this is regrettable. While scandal helps draw attention to the film, it takes away the audience’s attention from the book.

Fifteen years ago a Russian publisher produced Tolstoy’s magnificent novel without the war and philosophical parts––a sensational publication of War and Peace minus the war. The BBC adaptation strikes me as an attempt to sell the masterpiece on the strength of nude scenes, to which modern audiences are accustomed, but which present some novelty because this is about nineteenth-century aristocracy.

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