04 January 2004

War and Peace and The Lord of the Rings

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the 1961 Russian film of War and Peace, directed (and starring) Sergei Bondarchuk, who seems to have been Russia's answer to Orson Welles. It's a breathtaking film -- one of the most expensive ever made -- covering four DVDs plus a bonus disc of background material, including silent films of Leo Tolstoy himself wandering around as an old man. The battle scenes are particularly amazing, making those in Spartacus seen small, though in some ways it's hard for us today, used to computer-generated scenes of thousands of people (or aliens or orcs), to fully comprehend the scope of Bondarchuk's achievement -- choreographing whole armies of people and horses, explosions and hand-to-hand combat. The film is not just great with the war scenes, though. Peace gets its due, and many of the quieter moments between only a few characters are subtle, nuanced, and skilfully acted.

It all made me think about The Lord of the Rings, since I had only a few weeks before seen The Return of the King. Though I have never been able to get overly excited about the books, I've loved the movies for their scale and their effects and their detail. Before seeing War and Peace, I'd even thought the battle scenes were the best ever filmed. (In terms of special effects, they still are, but I think there's a vast difference between Bondarchuk's accomplishment and Peter Jackson's.)

But the differences between the films, and their individual successes and failures, tell a lot about the differences between the source materials, the difficulties of adapting one medium into another, and the nature of epic storytelling itself.

Let me be clear about my biases: I think War and Peace is a vastly superior book to The Lord of the Rings, though I think the accomplishments of the films of both are almost comparable.

The one absolute superiority for Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace over Jackson's of Lord of the Rings is in the quieter scenes I mentioned above. There are many of them. And though it can be difficult to keep the characters straight if you haven't read the book, a few of them (Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei especially) come through with much of the complexity they possess in Tolstoy's original. While most of the characters in Lord of the Rings are translated to the screen without too much harm done to them, and differentiating between the various personalities is much easier in Jackson's film than Bondarchuk's, what I most disliked about The Lord of the Rings, both book and movie, is the hollowness of the characters. While Bondarchuk certainly provides some painfully unconvincing moments between his characters, Jackson's three films have a total of perhaps half an hour of interesting, vital, nuanced moments between characters. The scenery is amazing, the effects stunning, the battles nerve-wracking. The characters are, mostly, tools of the story to keep it moving along from episode to episode.

Perhaps this is not a fault. Overall, it seems to come from Tolkien's determination to write an epic myth for England. Most epics and myths are not full of well-rounded characters, and the characters are far less important than the events. When the characters do matter, what matters is their motivation to act -- their effect on the events rather than the events effects on them.

Tolstoy's goal was not so much to create a myth as to destroy myths. He wanted to change the world's perspective on Russian history, on historiography itself, and, most notably for this discussion, on how large actions occur, and their ultimate effects. He created his story, and filled it with didactic passages, to prove that history was made by ordinary people committing small actions, and that the grand commands of men like Napoleon had far less effect on what actually happened in both war and peace than did the small actions of millions of people.

Unfortunately, Bondarchuk was not able to find a cinematic correlative to Tolstoy's philosophizing about history and action, which is a shame, since in many ways it is the book's core.

What he is able to do, though, is maintain Tolstoy's hatred of war. This is what makes War and Peace a monument of literature, distinguishing it from Tolkien's monument of entertainment and imagining. Tolstoy had seen what war could do, and, unlike many anti-war writers, he admitting that killing could be exhilerating, that battle can make a person feel like they have meaning in life. And yet the ultimate effect of his novel is to make the reader see and feel the pain, the suffering, the waste. Bondarchuk's movie, for all its extraordinary battles, conveys much of this feeling. War hurts -- it maims combatants, it ruins the lives of civilians, and crushes the people who are far away from the killing but who have loved ones in battle. Toward the end of the book and film, young Petya Rostov runs away to do his national duty, excited by the glorious myths of war, and ends up quickly dead. His naive attitude compared to the weariness of the older soldiers is beautifully conveyed in the film. Similarly, the character of Kutuzev, the commander of the Russian armies, is complex: he wants to save his beloved country, but he's not blind to the destruction. Kutuzev is one of my favorite characters from the book, and the casting and performance in the movie are nearly perfect.

Contrast this to Tolkien's use of violence and destruction in his books, and, worse, Jackson's in the film, and the superiority of Tolstoy's and Bondarchuk's work is clear. While there are a few moments of questioning in the book and films of The Lord of the Rings, these are quickly cast aside in favor of genocidal battles. Such is the nature, I suppose, of any conflict between Good and Evil. Napoleon in War and Peace isn't the paragon of Evil, but is, rather, a flawed and destructive man who happens to have the power to bring millions of soldiers into battle at his whim. Thus, Tolstoy doesn't let any one character stand for Evil, but rather investigates the forces which allow them to move their desires into evil actions. It is both a moral analysis and an analysis of how history is created and communicated, an analysis which The Lord of the Rings, in Tolkien's desire to create myth and Jackson's desire to create exciting action, lacks.

Tolkien was reimagining history, too, but he was reimagining imagined history, creating a detailed fantasy to give a nation and a group of people a story which would clarify their own feelings toward themselves, toward ethics and morality, and toward their nation. This is both a magisterial and a frightening goal, one which is nearly impossible, and the various meanings the books have had for readers over the years show how difficult it is for an author to control how a story is read. Tolstoy knew he couldn't just leave the story up to his readers' interpretations, and so he interprets it for us as we read along, making the book part novel, part history lesson, and part philosophical discussion (indeed, Tolstoy said his Anna Karenina, written after War and Peace, was his first novel). Much of the authorial lecturing in War and Peace can be tedious, but it is a testament to Tolstoy's genius that so much of it is compelling.

Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace, for all its brilliance, is, in the end, a failure, because it cannot encompass Tolstoy's work, though it tries to. Not only are entire chunks of narrative removed, but the themes of the book are pared down and simplified. (How they could be preserved within a movie which was watchable, is a damn near unsolveable problem.) Jackson had an easier time of it -- while he certainly had to cut and change much from the original novels, his films of The Lord of the Rings convey most of the ideas and much of the excitement of the books. Indeed, for some of us, the films are superior to the books in their narrative momentum. While we can all quibble with various changes made in the adaptation from book to film (I have some problems with the ending of Return of the King for instance), overall I think it's clear that Jackson has captured the essence and spirit of the books, and mangled it far less than many people suspected would be necessary.

What Bondarchuk did was not so much mangle War and Peace as use elements of it to create an often great, though deeply flawed, movie. He was under pressure similar to the pressure Jackson received from Tolkien fans -- Tolstoy was and is worshipped in Russia, and people wanted Bondarchuk to make a film which was faithful to a book which they loved. Filming War and Peace, though, is harder than filming Lord of the Rings because War and Peace is a richer text. Bondarchuk's film must be nearly impossible for people who have not read the book to follow, because all of Tolstoy's many explications of why events happen are removed from the story, making many of the scenes feel random and disorienting. I went back to the book a few times to refresh my memory of what was going on and its relation to the narrative as a whole.

The achievements of the two films, then, seem almost opposite to me. Lord of the Rings is great on the whole, but numerous single scenes are, it seems to me, clumsy or simplistic or even embarrassing. This doesn't diminish the pleasure of the films, though, or their technical accomplishments, and I've seen each of the three films at least twice, with great joy each time.

Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace is brilliant in pieces and a mess as a whole. There are images and scenes which, I expect, will live in my memory for a long time -- a boy being executed, a wolf's eyes after it has been shot in a hunt, Pierre stumbling around the battle of Borodino in a white top hat, Natasha standing alone at a ball, desperately waiting for someone to dance with her -- these are powerful, searing moments.

Perhaps this is for the best. Tolstoy would have wanted the small moments, the human moments to matter most, just as Tolkien would have wanted us, I assume, to focus on the grand sweep of the narrative.

Ultimately, both films and, more clearly, both authors show us how impoverished so much of even the best of our contemporary fiction is. So much contemporary fantasy is written purely to give readers a way of wasting time between waking and sleeping, while so much mainstream fiction has little sense of history or scope. It would certainly be nice, too, to see some SF writers use Tolstoy as a model rather than Tolkien, for we've gotten about all the imitations of Tolkien as a world really needs. Creating an epic narrative which never loses sight of the everyday moments of life, the ordinary people, the miniscule events ... now that would be quite an accomplishment for the SF field.

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