Pernicious Ambition and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” on the Silver Screen




TOLSTOY WAS an ambitious writer. “With no false modesty, War and Peace is like The Iliad,” he declared after completing his 1,200-page magnum opus. Mutatis mutandis, everything related to War and Peace is comparably ambitious. For many, just reading the novel is a grand enough intellectual aspiration to figure on a bucket list. For filmmakers, the attempt to adapt the text to the silver screen is a career-making gamble. Sergei Bondarchuk’s state-sponsored Soviet rendition (1966–’67) cost close to eight million rubles (nearly 60 million dollars now) and featured the Soviet army as extras. Even so, with over eight hours of screen time at his disposal, Bondarchuk still cut most of Tolstoy’s theoretical musings. Given the novel’s length, any adaptation without comparable resources or geopolitical motivations must trim back Tolstoy’s grand canvas. But if all adaptations of War and Peace are somehow infelicitous, it is still interesting to observe how each is “unhappy in its own way.” One recent example is the BBC adaptation produced by Andrew Davies, which significantly alters Tolstoy’s understanding of ambition and motivation. If Tolstoy emphasized the dangerous pull of ambition, the Davies adaptation tames its force, rechanneling the more immoderate desires of the original novel along domestic and familial lines.

Like other novels of its time (Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, or Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma), War and Peace was inspired by Napoleon’s meteoric rise to imperial and continental rule. Ambition features prominently in Tolstoy’s narrative and rarely in a positive light. Reacting against the Great Man theory of history popularized by Thomas Carlyle, who would have us see history as driven by the designs of extraordinary characters like Napoleon, Tolstoy reduced the great emperor to a hollow narcissist — a shell of a person that only cares about his own glory and dehumanizes others in the process. More importantly, where ambition is concerned, Tolstoy shows that it is not the designs of great men that move history, but the collective actions of ordinary folk, plugging away at something that feels natural and beneficial to them.

But although Napoleon cuts a ridiculous, ineffectual figure in the novel, his ambition is perniciously infectious. His achievement fires up several of Tolstoy’s characters, including Andrei Bolkonsky, whom critics have seen as an import from the epic genre. As the novel starts, Andrei yearns to be like Napoleon at the expense of everything and everyone else in his life. His story embodies a tension between incredible personal ambition, the desire to conquer nations and master peoples, and our basic regard and affection for others. As Tolstoy shows, insofar as he seeks to be a Napoleon and gloriously lead the Russian army into battle at Austerlitz, Andrei is ultimately unsuccessful, because he cannot control the actions of others, who have their own motivations. When he returns to the private sphere and begins to act locally while caring for his family, Andrei is more effective in producing meaningful change.

Almost always, his own ambitions notwithstanding, Tolstoy advocated community and decency over far-reaching aspirations. He found the smaller ambition of family happiness more palatable and preferable as a vehicle for social and historical change. Even so, he realized the pull for something greater than home, and used Napoleonism to recreate Homer’s Achillean dilemma — the choice between the comforts and responsibilities of domestic life and the passion and drama of heroic battle. And just as Homer’s Achilles paid for his ambition in blood, so too do many of Tolstoy’s heroes. There is a moment in the novel when a whole battalion of Polish soldiers boldly fords a river in order to impress Napoleon and drown as he looks the other way.

Perhaps having intuited Tolstoy’s disdain for ambition, the creators of the BBC series focused most of their attention on the realm of home. The disease of Napoleonism is largely absent from the Davies adaptation, where Napoleon emerges as a pedestrian villain. In minimizing Napoleon and the Napoleonic quest, the series’s directors domesticate male characters, robbing them of the outward ambition so apparent in Tolstoy’s novel: Andrei (James Norton) seems bored and restless, while Pierre’s (Paul Dano) primary motivation appears to be a very contemporary kind of anxiety.

Interestingly, this directorial choice serves to empower Tolstoy’s female heroines. According to the conventions of the 19th-century novel, male characters were granted bildungsroman plot lines with plentiful travels to discover their place in the world, whereas female heroines found themselves confined to courtship and adultery plots, which bound them to the home, compelling them to locate fulfillment internally, usually on the body. Tolstoy’s works are no exception, and ambition and desire assume very different forms for his male and female characters. In the BBC adaptation, the balance shifts: as male desire and motivation are partly redirected internally, so female desire and motivation, which were already situated in the personal sphere, are given greater emphasis and attention.

Consider the case of Hélène Kuragina, whose transformation on the screen is radical and intriguing. The beautiful Tuppence Middleton brings new depth to the character, who appears as delightfully clever and devious. In the show, Hélène seems to have ironic awareness of her own spectacular immorality, which she enjoys at every step, beginning with the controversially filmed incest scenes, adulterous sex with Dolokhov and Boris, and her performance at balls. As we know, Tolstoy was quite disparaging to his Hélène. She is essentially a statue who enters every room bust first. At no point do we ever get inside her head, and even if such an entry were possible, one feels as though one would find white noise instead of thoughts. Even Homer, whose Helen has a lot more to atone for, gives the woman more personality.

As with Napoleon, the problem for Tolstoy might have been Hélène’s ambitions, her scorn for home and family life. If Napoleon is a warrior conquering the world, Hélène cannot be bothered with humbler domestic pursuits because she is a siren conquering men with her wiles. Along with Anna Karenina, Hélène is also one of Tolstoy’s few female characters with any degree of agency over their sexual desire. Her rap sheet includes incest, countless affairs, and, at one point, successfully managed bigamy, of which even Anna Karenina can only fantasize dimly. Such transgressions can only be motivated by a powerful sensuality of her own, which seems at least partially rooted in the same Napoleonic ambition that steers the male story lines. In fact, at one point Hélène even overtly seeks to turn her woman’s path into a Napoleonic quest — becoming a salon general in wartime St. Petersburg, a counselor for the wisest men of Russian high society. For Tolstoy, her shallowness and inner corruption were both an opportunity to exact authorial vengeance and the inevitable by-product of leaving all desires unchecked.

Although she is more self-aware, Hélène’s ambition in the BBC series does not go beyond the realm of sexuality. She is allowed to indulge her carnal appetites for their own sake, in a manner that Tolstoy, always anxious about female desire, could not permit. Yet even as Hélène’s desires are allowed to roam free, her sexuality is not weaponized as it is in the novel and does not veer outside the romantic sphere. The absence of Napoleonism once again contributes to an overall muting of desires. For both men and women, ambition is inscribed into, and circumscribed by, the domestic realm.

This development is a welcome modernization of the narrative, particularly when it comes to the depiction of women and romance in general. For instance, in the novel, when Natasha Rostova becomes infatuated with Anatole Kuragin, she has virtually no agency over her desire, proceeding almost against her will, as though infected by Hélène’s crude sexuality and the nudity at the opera. The filmmakers capture this particular infatuation with fuller erotic overtones as the obvious desire of a young woman (Lily James) for an attractive young man (Callum Turner). One may miss the master’s handiwork in these depictions, but the absence is refreshing, insofar as it normalizes female sexuality.

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If the BBC adaptation makes Tolstoy more modern in terms of domestic desires and politics, its taming of the Napoleonic theme also deprives us of an important and perhaps increasingly relevant perspective. The focus on the home may implicitly bring out the novel’s messages of community and inclusion, but it omits Tolstoy’s civic messages, which extend well beyond their time. The author’s discussion of ambition is bound up with important questions of leadership. And in a society like ours, which places such a high premium on accomplishment, the Tolstoyan critique of the extremes of ambition — the kind of ambition that would have us blunder into the unknown or step over others to get to the finish line — ought to be heard. The Davies adaptation mutes Tolstoy’s demolition of authoritarian, self-driven leadership in the pathetic figure of Napoleon. War and Peace teaches us a vital and timeless lesson: that each time we enter a shared space, our own drives and desires contend with the equally valid drives of those around us.

As Tolstoy shows, leaders must be particularly aware of this idea, as their role is to help manifest the potential of those they “lead.” It is entirely by chance that General Kutuzov leads the Russians into victory, because the desires and actions of the collective temporarily coincide with his intentions; meanwhile, the self-important Napoleon, who only seeks self-aggrandizement, fails miserably. Kutuzov, painted by Tolstoy as the grown-up in the room, knows that he is not in charge, but only standing at the head of the army. When he sees the army and the country going in a different direction after the defeat of Napoleon, he steps out of the way, knowing he cannot possibly lead without the mandate of the collective will. Napoleon, on the other hand, continues his stubborn attempts to assert his will over others, unleashing chaos. Although Tolstoy’s model of disinterested leadership may seem idealistic, his core lessons about community, empathy, the limits of individual power, and the price of unchecked ambition, are as valuable now as ever before. For all these lessons, the reader must go back to the original.

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Ani Kokobobo is assistant professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas where she teaches Russian literature and culture.


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