Cruel War and Peace TV Producer Says We May Still Have to Read the Book

Let's cut right to the money question here: Did the A&E networks commission a lavish eight-hour production of Tolstoy's War and Peace as a public service, so the rest of us would never have to actually read it?

It could work out that way, says director Tom Harper.

Trouble is, his boss isn't so sure.

"It's all there," Harper told TV writers in Pasadena this week. "It doesn't feel like any of the major story points are missing."

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Well, okay, since the original novel has more heft than a cement mixer, or at least that's how it always looked back in English class, Harper concedes a few matters here and there have been condensed.

"There's a lot of philosophy and military strategy" in the book, he says. "Once you take them out, it comes down to the key character stories and the love triangle among these actors. That's what drives it, really, it's a love story."

With some of the other stuff, too. War and Peace will run two hours a night for four consecutive Mondays, beginning Jan. 18. It will air simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime and History.

The filming was as ambitious as the concept. It was shot in Lithuania, Latvia and Russia, giving it a rich cinematic look often associated on television with PBS and BBC period pieces.

Equally critical, says executive producer Harvey Weinstein, it was adapted by Andrew Davies, who is known for long-form television like the iconic 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.

Getting Harper and Davies, Weinstein said, was two-thirds of what he needed to wrestle a near-mythic story onto a television screen. The other third was lead actors Lily James as Natasha, Paul Dano as Pierre and James Norton as Andrei.

All three expressed delight in their roles, and they all swore it wasn't a burden that a condition of getting the gig was reading the book.

"I hadn't read it before," says James. "But it was really a joy. I absolutely fell in love with Natasha."

Who also became, she adds, "the most challenging role I've ever had to play."

Dano says he enjoyed the book so much he read it "several times," which qualifies him for some special chair in the literary afterlife.

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Norton (above), like the others, talks about how the human dramas in War and Peace feel contemporary, despite the fact they unfold in early 19th century Russia.

Weinstein confesses that one of the reasons he pushed the project was having spent most of his life as a closet War and Peace geek. The first time he read it he wasn't even a teenager, and while the impetus was something out of a Jean Shepherd story, the love was real.

"It was my favorite novel," he says. "I was 12 years old, and my right eye got blasted in an accident, playing cowboys and Indians.

"I couldn't go to school. My next-door neighbor, who was a librarian, started me reading, and this was a great triumph to me, getting through War and Peace and loving it at an early age. So I pursued this."

Also, he says, this was the right time.

"The great thing about television today," says Weinstein, "is that you can do great work and you have time to tell the story properly."

He even thinks the miniseries will send audiences spilling out of their media rooms to their local bookstore, or at least Amazon.

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"It will make people read the book, just the way I read it," he says. "It's not like you're not going to need the book.

"A big movie does great for the book. And I think you're going to see kids and schools and everything putting this on the curriculum. I think this will inspire a whole new generation."

And if some recalcitrant student still resists? If he or she is taking a Russian literature course and decides that A&E is the new Cliff Notes, all that's necessary?

"I hope they would watch it," says Harper, "and write an absolutely amazing essay."