Lessons in War & Peace: the miniseries review


A little late, I know…


Television has been a problem for me lately. Not that I watch too much, but that I cannot decide what to watch. It may be the number of great works I read, but the moment a character or a scene lets me down with its flatness, its lifelessness, its crudeness, my interest dissipates.

Someone recommended, War & Peace (2015) starring Lily James (aka Cinderella, aka from Downtown Abbey). The book, by Leo Tolstoy, is a whopping 1300 pages of classic Russian literature, a triumph for the most ambitious of readers.

I cannot speak to the faithfulness to the original, but this miniseries amazed me. Like all these period dramas coming out, it presents beautiful costumes, beautiful scenery, beautiful leads, etc. Better than all the rest I have seen lately it possesses multi-layered sweeping landscapes, a process for sharing the interior disposition of the character, growth, change, the descent into vice, the struggle into virtue, remorse, hate and forgiveness acted on the stage with startling depth.


Paul Dano, James Norton, and Lily James in War & Peace (2016)


As I watched the penultimate episode, I considered the title and its themes. “War & Peace” is set in Russia beginning in 1805 with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Two more wars follow, but the war that really matters to the story is during the supposed peace, the armistice, between Russia and France in which all the characters fall.

We track these movements of the characters and their search for the possibility of happiness, despair in the sight of losing it and the final revelation of its realness, its existence, because of love.

It is during the final war of the drama, in 1812 when Moscow burns and thousands die to slow Napoleon’s march, that the characters find peace in themselves and with others. It is in the face of fear of certain death that the characters begin to seek forgiveness.

Dubbed Post-traumatic Growth, researchers and therapists sought to define this phenomenon of the sense of goodness, peace, fulfillment and even joy that occurs after terrible tragedy. This ancient theme seen throughout literature, myth, and religion is only recently given space in modern psychological research through the realm of positive psychology. It occurs in five general areas: new opportunities that would not otherwise exist, closer relationships or increased connection with those who have suffered, an increased sense of personal strength, greater appreciation for life in general, and a deepening or evolution in one’s spiritual life.

Those who have not suffered greatly might be tempted to say to those who have, “I can’t imagine how you did that” or “I couldn’t get through it like you” or ask “how did you manage?”

When people appear to come out the other side of suffering, it is very likely because they found meaning in it in one of these five dimensions. They found a motivation making it worth enduring, rather than giving up in despair, numbing through self-medication or hardening their hearts.

War can be an external and an internal affair. The external are matters of state fought by soldiers on the ground. The internal is self against self, a new self fighting to free oneself from the old habits, a search for happiness, a search for love.

The external trials can become a vehicle for resolving the battle within to find peace. Fr. Jacques Philippe explains peace, without trial, when untested, is fragile and fails easily. But when tried in the fire, it strengthens. The peaceful person is the one we see who can maintain peace even as life’s circumstances change.

The person trying to imagine suffering or simply saying they cannot without trying, may be looking at from the perspective of his or her present abilities. As one moves through the trial, those abilities widen, deepen and grow roots. What one survives at the end is not what one could have survived at the beginning. Those heroes of suffering did not begin as heroes. They became heroes in their perseverance, in their willingness to see what the moment has for them and their choice to open their heart to receive it.


Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

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