There can be little doubt as to Andrew Davies’ commercial success. His adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch are indelibly marked on the minds of the viewers, and as such, Davies has rapidly found himself to be the go to screenwriter when dealing with an unwieldy classic text. It is hardly surprising then that Davies found himself to be the adapter of choice when the BBC came to producing Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Davies showed little reverence for the text and cut the tome into six easily digestible episodes.
The critical reception for War and Peace has been overwhelmingly positive, but for me, its success is in spite of Davies, not because of it. I have never been especially taken with Davies’ style of adaptation, and here, in his latest work, his focus on getting through the narrative rather than attempting to transfer certain authorial aspects to the screen exemplify my issues with him.
Adaptation is, I believe, a largely overlooked craft. A craft that the majority of people believe should merely translate the original text in its entirety rather than attempt to offer or create an original artistic work in itself. Davies’ work never really strays away from the root of the text, aside from adding the occasional titillating moment that is guaranteed to attract the attention of the press, and as such, feel lacking.
Having studied Tolstoy at university, I have, rightly or wrongly, both applauded the attention paid to such a text, whilst despairing at the manner in which it has been received. At regular intervals on social media I have seen viewers commenting that ‘the ending will be sad’ without any sense of the political and social commentary that Tolstoy imbues his text with. I largely place the blame of this superficial engagement at the feet of Julian Fellowes (who patronisingly believes that without the benefit of a university education such classic texts are inaccessible) and his dull, melodramatic Downtown Abbey, which inexplicably has been the subject of much acclaim and award. Since Downtown Abbey it would appear that fans have found themselves watching any period drama available without any sense of discernment to quality.
Furthermore, Davies, when interviewed by the BBC, showed his complete and utter lack of engagement with contemporary TV and it is this lack of awareness of current TV viewing trends that, for me, is predominantly why War and Peace is not wholly successful. Davies made in his interview several claims and statements which are quite simply erroneous (stating for example that Mad Men had garnered huge audience figures – simply not true) and decrying the popularity of streaming services such as Netflix as resulting in poor TV drama. Davies simply doesn’t know what he is talking about here. Not only have Netflix (and the like) produced quality, critically acclaimed programming, but their entire remit when producing these shows is to produce a superior product that will entice the viewer to pay for a subscription. Such services recognise that the manner in which audiences view programmes has completely changed. No longer do viewers find it necessary to wait for the next instalment of an episode a week later, instead they will binge watch a boxset, or as in the case of streaming services, watch several episodes of a programme one after the other. This manner of viewing has huge implications for the nature of the narrative of a series. No longer does the oft-clichéd cliff-hanger exist in the same way. Viewers don’t need a hyperbolic cliff-hanger to remind them to watch the next episode, they only need to be entertained enough to select the next episode immediately after. Ridding the narrative of this rise and fall trajectory is, I believe, completely freeing for a screenwriter. They can focus on the narrative itself rather than worrying about where each element fits in to an hour long episode.
I find it rather quite damning that Davies (and Fellowes in his assumption of the need of a university education to be able to engage with Shakespeare) have demonstrated a rather filtered, narrow view of what television here given the proliferation of their product onscreen. I suppose, ultimately, I am hoping for some diversity in who is employed to adapt. I would much rather see a product akin to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, than the rather pedestrian affairs that are presented to us currently.