It’s been said that “Comparison is the thief of all joy”. Well who ever said that never thought to compare how well a musical and a TV series pull off adapting the same source material. I’m primarily interested in, what can a TV adaption do well that may have not be possible for a musical and vice-versa. Also, how well does the original source material translate to another medium? Well, let’s find out.
To bring in some context, I found myself one day aimlessly watching YouTube videos, being guided by the loving hand of YouTube Auto-play. This led me to watch an animatic version of the Duel in the musical Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (or Great Comet for short). This musical is an adaption of a short section of the classic novel War and Peace written by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. A few moments later, which video should roll on next, but the Duel scene as portrayed in the BBC’s War and Peace Mini Series. Watching the two adaptations back to back was fascinating.
But before we go any further you should probably watch the two videos now, you know for academic purposes.
Some important caveats before I begin: I’ve sadly not seen the Great Comet live and can only hope that it is one day transferred to the West End. But I am more than well acquainted with the brilliant cast recording. Therefore, I am strictly only comparing the adaptations of the duel scene from these two videos. The original source material which it is based on, is available at the links below:
Of course, seeing an animatic video is not the same as experiencing a show live. In the staged version of Great Comet, the director Rachel Chavkin received critical praise for the immersive staging which encouraged greater audience interaction. But sadly, the animatic will have to do.
Tolstoy is known for the extraordinary detail he goes into when describing his characters. In this duel, the book does a lot to establish the worry of our protagonist Pierre and how troubled he is by the rumour that his wife has been unfaithful with Dolokhov. The text mentions three times how something ‘terrible and monstrous’ is stirring inside of him which builds to the climax of Pierre challenging Dolokhov to a duel. Although Pierre has no prior experience with a gun, compared to the experienced Dolokhov, he is the unlikely victor. This scene is tense. In duels, there’s a high likelihood that someone won’t make it out alive.
The television adaptation successfully brings the text to life by paying close attention to detail. From the costumes to the setting you do feel as if you are in 19th century Russia. (Although I believe this particular scene was filmed in Lithuania). Not much is said, but in the absence of words you are treated to multiple moments which play out well cinematically: the worry in Pierre’s face; the cold click as the gun is loaded; the subtle movement of Dolokhov’s lips as he almost smirks and the crunch of snow as they pace towards one another. This along with the eerie music effectively heightens the tension and makes for a chilling experience.
In contrast, the scene in the musical is set in a Russian Supper Club (like your average bar but with lots more vodka). In a staged production, it’s not possible to zoom in on as many details as it is in on screen. For pacing reasons, it makes sense that events have escalated so quickly that the duel is held in the Supper Club rather than jump to a different location.
An interesting dimension which distinguishes this version from the TV adaptation is its use of music. The Indie-rock-Russian Folk music by composer Dave Malloy is punchy and the whole time you feel like you are in for a ride. The scene begins with the bar in full swing, but as Pierre erupts and challenges Dolokhov to a duel the syncopated techno music slows and the tension between our two duellists build. In setting the scene in a bar, it becomes somewhat of an orderly drunken brawl. One character comments on it being ‘horribly stupid’, Pierre played by Josh Groban screams ‘So I shall be killed what is it to you’ (in his delicious Groban voice), and the crowd chimes in with the duel countdown. Although this is not what you would expect from reading the source material, I don’t think it matters as it is still successfully captures that tense dynamic between Pierre and Dolokhov.
One specific harrowing moment is when Pierre decides not to cover himself as Dolokhov attempts to shoot.
“Pierre, with a gentle smile of pity and remorse, his arms and legs helplessly spread out, stood with his broad chest directly facing Dolokhov looked sorrowfully at him. Denisov, Rostov, and Nesvitski closed their eyes.”
Pierre at this stage of the book is a tortured and anxious soul. Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, Okja) was brilliantly cast in the television adaptation as Pierre and conveys this anxiety well. In this moment, he trembles as he raises his arms and closes his eyes and there’s something so sincere and heart-breaking about it. Josh Groban in contrast characterises Pierre well through the use of his voice. He sings ‘my turn’ as he bares his chest for Dolokhov to fire. Those low notes are menacing as if to say he’s ready for death. It all happens so quickly and it’s a terrifying moment.
In comparing the two versions, I respect anyone who attempts to tackle something as daunting as an adaption of a text as well-loved as War and Peace. I think if you directly compare the two mediums in these two scenes, the TV adaptation is more faithful to the text. If you’re someone that is familiar with the small details, it is a satisfying experience to see the scene play out on screen.
However, it’s clear that in the stage version, the musical seeks to shake up the way the story is told to make for a more immersive experience. That scream from Helene at the end of the scene is blood-curdling. This adaptation as a whole might not be to everyone’s taste but I would say it’s a lot more creative and daring. Overall both scenes build the tension well up until that moment when the gun is shot. So, who wins?
*drum roll please*
Art, because art always wins win creative people seek to make something fascinating for our perusal. Is that a cop out answer? Why yes, yes it is.
If you managed to read up to here, many thanks and please do let me know what you think in the comments below!
 War and Peace (1867), Leo Tolstoy – Book IV, Chapter IV http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/war_and_peace/72/