“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes’ quipped Woody Allen. “It involves Russia.”
So hats off to screenwriter Andrew Davies who has managed to abridge Leo Tolstoy’s four-volume novel (which runs to 1,440 pages in my Penguin edition) into just six hour-long episodes.
It’s some years since I read Tolstoy’s masterpiece pondering the Russian soul, with a list of the major characters close to hand. So I was somewhat daunted by this new BBC production, wondering if I would be able to follow the plot.
But I can – and we look forward to watching episode 5 this Sunday. And so relieved to see that Paul Dano’s Pierre Bezukhov has found some backbone. Like Woody, I have no idea what happens next.
It seems that Davies has decided to focus on the central plot of this multi-layered novel – and simply ignore the rest. And in doing so he has managed to maintain a composed and steady pace without any sense of rush.
In total contrast to the redoubtable Professor Hugh Turner, one of my lecturers at Durham. He decided to retire that Christmas and solved the problem of how to condense three terms of lectures into one by delivering them at three times the speed.
It didn’t work.
So we watch as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, on hearing of the supposed death of his son slowly moves from stunned silence to dreadful weeping. The camera lingers – as if the production has all the time in the world. Brilliant.
It reminds me of the throwaway remark by John at the very end of his Gospel. “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
John is explaining why, in contrast to the other Gospel writers, he recounts just seven of Jesus’ miracles – eight, if you include the great catch of fish following his resurrection.
There must have been hundreds, thousands even, of miracles wrought by Jesus. Mark gives us a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary ministry. “And wherever Jesus went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed those who were ill in the market-places. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:56)
But John has decided to focus on just seven. Moreover, his pace is slower, more measured, than the other evangelists, particularly Mark who always seems to be in a hurry.
And more than this, John goes into much greater detail, even taking us into the minds of the central characters. Sometimes we are not sure whether it is Jesus speaking or John reflecting.
John goes for depth and like screenwriter Davies, he wants us to pause and ponder, to deliberate the moment, unlike the frenetic pace of today’s media. I for one always expect a car chase.
And such is our obsession with portable devices that our attention span is now less than that of a goldfish, one Microsoft study finds.: now just eight seconds.
But John the evangelist wants us to ponder, to mull, to reflect. As his colleague Peter writes “God’s giving everyone space and time to change.” (Peter 3:9).
Clearly there is an urgency to the Gospel message, our equivalent to Napoleon will soon be storming the gates. We can’t keep putting God on hold.
But some things just take time and cannot be hurried. As Diana Ross reflects
“I need love, love to ease my mind
I need to find, find someone to call mine
But mama said you can’t hurry love
No you just have to wait.”
So decide now to wait for God this Lent in a way that works for you. In the attached notices you will read of using LENT for everyone by Bishop Tom Wright as a resource.
As Tolstoy himself declares: “In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”