As the last episode of the BBC’s handsome adaptation of War and Peace came to a close a couple of weeks ago, my first thought was – ‘what is going to fill that gap in my Sunday night viewing?’ and my second was ‘has watching the series made me want to read the book more, or does it mean I now don’t have to?’
As for many people, I’m sure, Tolstoy’s epic novel has been on my (ever-growing) ‘to read’ list and there is no doubt it is a daunting challenge especially in our time-poor modern lives. There are too many distractions, too many opportunities for ‘bite-sized’ online reading – who has the luxury these days to spend the many hours and weeks it takes to plough their way through a novel that amounts to nearly 600,000 words? So it was heartening to read over the weekend that War and Peace has moved in to the Bookseller’s top 50 list for the first time in nearly twenty years, with 3,581 copies of the BBC edition of the book sold last week and more than 13,000 since its release in December. (Although, it has to be said there is no guarantee those books will actually be read, of course, good intentions, and all that). Similar spikes in sales have been experienced with Dickens, thanks to the BBC’s Dickensian, and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when the broadcaster screened their new version a few months ago, part of a series of literary classic adaptations which also included L P Hartley’s The Go-Between and Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie.
In the ongoing debate about whether television is an art form or merely entertainment, there can be an element of intellectual snobbery around literary adaptations on the small screen, but if they encourage people to read (or re-read) the classics, that can only be a good thing, surely? To my mind, anything that gives people a way in to the arts is to be applauded.
Back to my first thought – luckily, the gap in the Sunday night schedule has been more than adequately filled by The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, as it happens another literary adaptation, this time of John Le Carré’s 1993 bestseller. One episode in, it’s already shaping up to be a winner.
Le Carré himself has praised the adaptation in a piece in The Guardian. Despite the fact that changes have been made to the era, location, ending and gender of one of the main characters (the always brilliant Colman, here complete with pregnancy bump, as intelligence agency head Angela Burr), the author declared it a success “opening up my novel in ways I didn’t think anyone had noticed.” And it might just get people to pick up the book too...