New miniseries is ultimate CliffsNotes version of ‘War & Peace’

James Norton as Andrei in War and Peace
James Norton as Andrei in War and Peace

James Norton, an up-and-coming English actor, refuses to behave like a War and Peace snob.

“You know the type: smug people who boast about finishing it,” he says. “Many people have tried to read it. Maybe they took it with them to read on vacation. Then they abandoned it.

“But relatively few people have actually finished it.”

Norton made it all the way through the classic Tolstoy novel, cover to cover, all 1,400-plus pages. But he won’t put on airs about it, because his reason for picking up the book was work-related.

Norton is one of the leading men in an epic BBC miniseries adaptation of War and Peace, which premieres in the States at 8 p.m. Monday on the Lifetime, A&E and History channels.

The actor wanted to know everything there was to know about his character, Andrei Bolkonsky, so he went to the source.

“Otherwise,” Norton admits, “I would have looked at it, 1,400 pages, and said, ‘Absolutely not!’ 

The miniseries version of War and Peace is a ripping good yarn, beautifully filmed with a top-notch cast that includes Paul Dano, Lily James, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent and Gillian Anderson.

It’s also something of a public service to make Tolstoy’s novel, first published in its entirety in 1869, accessible to anyone with a television.

War and Peace is a tale of passion, romance, scandal, deceit and the rising and falling fortunes of five aristocratic families in the waning days of imperial Russia.

Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion, there are exciting battle scenes to go with drawing-room wheelings and dealings that are just as perilous.

There’s also a childbirth scene that’s as bloody as anything on the battlefield.

At its center it’s a story of young people falling in and out of love and having duels and having sex.

James Norton

“It’s got a little bit of everything,” Norton says. “There are big themes and ideas, but at its center, it’s a story of young people falling in and out of love and having duels and having sex.”

Norton’s character is a dashing young man who leaves home to find excitement and glory in war. He comes back disillusioned and cynical, but the lovely Natasha Rostov (James’ character) might help cure that. His story is just one of a multitude of plot threads.

“Being allowed to play Andrei, this amazing literary character, was a great privilege — one I was terrified of and relished as well,” Norton says. “I found myself on these massive Russian battlefields with 300 extras. I was like 8-year-old James again, having the time of his life playing in that world.

“We also were able to film in these amazing Russian palaces. We shot the czar’s ball scene in the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. It’s this historic room, 300 meters long, thousands of candles and mirrors and amber panels, the most spectacular hall you’ll ever see.

“And there in the middle of it, with a live orchestra and hundreds of Russian extras, all dressed beautifully, Lily James and I are waltzing around. It was an amazing experience.”

‘War and Peace’ was first published in 1869.

Norton says everyone involved in making the miniseries went the extra mile to honor the book and the time period.

“We didn’t cut corners, and I think it pays off,” he says. “Instead of being a generic period drama, we were able to lift it into something very special.”

The miniseries began its run in the U.K. earlier this month, and so far ratings have been high and viewer response strongly positive.

Norton says he hopes it captures imaginations the same way in the States.

“Every 30 or 40 years, there’s another adaptation of War and Peace,” he says. “There’s a reason we keep returning to it. It’s timeless and still relevant. That’s what defines a masterpiece.

“Maybe it will remind people [of] and re-introduce people to Tolstoy. Maybe it will even motivate some people to read it. It would be lovely if it inspires people to read the book on the back of our show.”

War and Peace

  • 8 p.m. Mondays (through Feb. 8)
  • Lifetime, A&E and History