Books

War and Peace writer Andrew Davies: Bringing Tolstoy back to life

Andrew Davies has pushed Tolstoy back up the bestsellers list. But is he dumbing down literary greats – or making us smarter?

Over the last three decades, if a TV programme has contained cummerbunds or corsets, petticoats or pantaloons and is based on a book, chances are Andrew Davies is behind it. His list of credits covers the crème de la crème of English literature: Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Tipping the Velvet, Bleak House. Does he read the literary classics so you don’t have to?

“No,” Davies corrects. The 79-year-old former English teacher believes that far from dumbing us down, it encourages people to rediscover the novels. “I hope people will enjoy the dramatisation so much that they will go and read the book. I hope they feel emboldened to read it. Certainly the sales of the books go up hugely when they’ve been on TV and I’m very pleased about that.”

Today, Tolstoy is hovering in the top 20 bestsellers after Davies’ triumphant adaptation of War and Peace brought Pierre, Natasha, Prince Andrei and a battalion of other characters into our living rooms, and made their lives, loves and losses seem immediate and vitally up to date.

“Judging by our recent sales of War and Peace, an awful lot of people have finally crossed the classic off their must-read list,” says Joseph Knobbs, book buyer at Waterstones. “In our experience, successful book adaptations for TV and cinema often lead to a renewed interest in the original book. Four different editions of War and Peace have hit our bestseller list.”

This trend began after Davies’ first successful literary adaptation of Middlemarch in 1994. Following the show, the novel topped the bestseller list for five weeks. The universally adored Pride and Prejudice was an even bigger hit the next year and it is no coincidence that membership of the Jane Austen Society of North America had jumped up 50 per cent by 1997.

Sex and money have always been huge motivating forces both in real life and almost any novel or play you come across

However, Pride and Prejudice’s popularity might equally be down to Colin Firth in a wet shirt. The iconic scene of Mr Darcy emerging from a lake was not in the original novel. Since then, through the bawdy Moll Flanders to incestuous relationships pushed to the fore in War and Peace, Davies has been accused of ‘sexing up’ his source material.

“Sex and money have always been huge motivating forces both in real life and almost any novel or play you come across,” Davies says. “The difference is in the 19th century, except in pornography, people didn’t write about sex in a very direct way. They didn’t go into the bedroom, as it were, they just implied things. In the present day we can take advantage of the freedom we have to show that people in those days had sex just the same as people do now.

“Although I don’t think we are more progressive today. I don’t know if you noticed it in episode five [of War and Peace], you get a bit of full frontal nudity, which was just a soldier taking advantage of bathing. There was such a fuss made in the papers, calling it ‘War and Penis’, which I thought was funny, like somebody taking their clothes off and skinny dipping has never been heard of before.”

The TV landscape has dramatically changed in the last few years since the introduction of on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. At the same time, the BBC’s budget and role is constantly being questioned. Are high-profile, high-cost period dramas what they should be spending limited resources on?

“Absolutely,” Davies says. “The BBC is the only broadcasting organisation that has an obligation to make high-quality programmes. For everybody else, their only obligation is to make money for the shareholders.”

Davies believes that the BBC is the only broadcaster to tackle grand literary adaptations because other channels like series that prove popular to potentially run and run. “Even a great big novel like War and Peace is finite,” Davies laughs.

“A few years ago these new platforms didn’t exist, which means there’s more opportunity and much more scope for variety. Netflix and Amazon are quite bold in their choices. They want lots and lots of content. It’s a very good time for television writers and directors and actors – all of us.”

Ironically, one of Netflix’s marquee shows, House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, was adapted from a miniseries of the same name written by Davies in 1990. “I get an executive producer credit but I’ve done no writing at all on the American House of Cards,” Davies says. “It’s almost a courtesy title because I gave them the freedom to take any ideas or any lines that they wanted out of my serial. All I have to do is never say anything bad about them and I get a substantial sum of money! I wouldn’t want to anyway, it’s very good.”

Davies’ 1990 House of Cards was an adaptation of a novel by Michael Dobbs, which in turn had its roots in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Richard III. Themes resonate through different people living in different times, and the process of adaptation focuses the audience’s attention on certain pertinent themes.

“There wouldn’t be any point adapting the book unless it had something to say to a contemporary audience,” Davies says. “It’s not hard to do that with War and Peace because a lot of it is absolutely timeless. The way Tolstoy writes about war is very intimate, he takes you into battle through the eyes of particular characters who are experiencing all the horror and fear and muddle. Tolstoy is very keen to impress that wars never work out as they’re supposed to – things always go wrong and there is a lot of chaos involved.”

History commenting on the present is something Davies’ next project promises to do. Instead of a literary adaptation, Davies has scripted a drama about Nye Bevan and the foundation of the NHS.

“I think we need reminding of what a struggle it was and how extraordinary people like Nye Bevan were, planning it in the thick of World War Two,” Davies explains. “Britain was barely recovering from the war – had no money at all – and they successfully started all these idealistic movements.” The NHS drama is written and awaiting a green light. Other books sitting on his shelf waiting to be adapted include a non-singing version of Les Misérables, Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels and Huckleberry Finn, which he hopes to turn into a film.

But when not writing TV, what does he watch himself? “Quite a few history documentaries on BBC Four. I watch Holby City and Casualty through thick and thin. I just like hospital shows, I don’t know why. I used to watch EastEnders but I finally got fed up with it and managed to kick the habit.”

War and Peace is out now on DVD

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