LOS ANGELES – When Harvey Weinstein was 12 years old, an eye injury sustained while playing cowboys and Indians kept him temporarily sidelined from neighborhood games and school. He filled the time by tackling a neighbor’s copy of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the Ironman of novels, a self-imposed assignment that accelerated his passion for Russian literature and storytelling in general.
The anecdote could have just developed into a pickup line at a book club, except that Weinstein grew up to be one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, a position he has used to put his considerable weight behind a new take on the novel, to be aired over four weeks simultaneously on three networks.
“It was a great triumph for me to get through ‘War and Peace’ at such a young age and love it,” said Weinstein, taking a breather last week from flogging his company’s Oscar contenders, “Carol” and “The Hateful Eight.” “That’s why I pursued this.”
Weinstein and the international cast, which includes Paul Dano, Gillian Anderson and Jim Broadbent, have their work cut out for them.
There have been several attempts to adapt the epic classic, most notably a 1956 film starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. That project, like others, failed to capture the essence of the book that, on the surface, is about how cocky Russia in the early 19th century underestimated the Tao of Napoleon. But even a first-year literature student can tell you the work doesn’t follow anything close to a standard story line, with so many dead ends and unanswered questions that even die-hard “Lost” fans would cry foul. Tolstoy himself refused to call his masterpiece a novel, opting instead for the term “philosophy discussion.”
Tom Harper, who directed the entire miniseries, said screenwriter Andrew Davies (“Bleak House”) cracked the code by not succumbing to the pressure to cram every one of Tolstoy’s 1,125 pages into the script.
“Andrew has a phenomenal instinct for finding the things that interest him and putting them together in a way that’s quite amazing,” said Harper, who shot the film in Lithuania, Latvia and Russia over the course of six months. “Once you take out these big chunks of philosophy and military strategy, it becomes a love story, a search for meaning.”
Not that the cast didn’t go back to school. Dano, who plays head-in-the-clouds aristocrat Pierre, owns several copies of the book, including a first edition of the initial English.
“There is trepidation to doing ‘War and Peace,’ ” said Dano, who earned rave reviews last year for his portrayal of another legendary dreamer, Brian Wilson, in “Love & Mercy.” “But Andrew did such a good job of instilling the human elements, and that’s what I found most interesting in the book as well. My first copy looks like hell, but I’m glad it was there with me.”
More war than peace
The miniseries’ other daunting challenge is attracting TV viewers whose idea of classic literature is “The Bridges of Madison County.” Don’t let the novel’s beard-stroking reputation deter you. There are enough battle scenes, bedroom shenanigans and gallows humor that, if you squint your eyes, the show could pass for a brand-new season of “Game of Thrones” or, at the very least, a PG-13 version of “Downton Abbey.”
Lily James, who plays lovesick Natasha, said she could relate to the book’s very first reference to her character — in which Tolstoy describes the way she played with her skirt and flashed her wild, animated eyes.
“It was a girl who felt so similar to me,” said James, who has experience playing such ingénues as Lady Rose in “Downton Abbey” and the title character in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 take on “Cinderella.” “It felt so modern and true. She’s intoxicating.”
Harper calls it a timeless story.
Audiences in England, where it has aired, appear to agree. More than 6 million people tuned in for the first episode last month on the BBC, which coproduced the project with the Weinstein Co.
And perhaps the film will inspire a generation of young viewers to follow in the footsteps of Weinstein and read the original — as soon as they’re done watching his latest Oscar-nominated flicks, of course.
“Our movies always help sell books. I think you’re going to see kids and schools and everything putting this on the curriculum,” said Weinstein, who was probably heading out after interviews to sell ice to the Eskimos. “I think this will inspire a whole new generation.”