The greatest story ever told

It's been 100 years since Leo Tolstoy's death and his work is still being rediscovered and revered by readers.

If you like books, it is very possible that at some point you will have taken a deep breath and begun reading War and Peace. As the Booker Prize-winning author AS Byatt once said: "Everybody who reads books reads it." Leo Tolstoy's famously lengthy Napoleonic epic, as seen through the eyes of the Russian aristocracy, sits on the bookshelves of expectant readers around the world. Woe betide the well-meaning schoolchild who attempts it too early and is scared off by the time he's got through the list of characters at the beginning.

But there is more to Tolstoy than his admittedly fabulous doorstop of a book - or his other masterpiece, Anna Karenina - and if there was ever a year to find out why, it's 2010. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy's death. In 1910, he famously left his family and the wealth of his country estate outside Moscow and resolved to embark upon a simpler life, renouncing all worldly pleasures. He made it as far as Astapovo Station (300km from home), dying of pneumonia three weeks later. This fascinating period of his life is chronicled in the new film The Last Station.

Christopher Plummer (replete with the writer's remarkable beard) plays Tolstoy, and Helen Mirren is his suitably impassioned wife. James McAvoy plays his private secretary, through whom we witness the ideological arguments that characterised the relationships in the later part of Tolstoy's life. Directed by Michael Hoffman, the film was nominated for two Golden Globe awards. In November, The Last Station's co-producer, Andrey Deryabin, will release his own film, coinciding with the date of Tolstoy's death. Genius Alive is a documentary that uses footage from the Russian State Archives, and should do much to underline that the story of The Last Station is not a myth ripe for exaggeration in a star-laden film. (Tolstoy did indeed renounce his considerable wealth.)

There are also the inevitable new translations of Tolstoy's work this year, and an eagerly awaited operatic collaboration among the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Scottish Opera and the Rachmaninov State Conservatoire. This version of War and Peace will be a world premiere: Sergei Prokofiev's original 1941 score never made it past the Communist Party censors, and it has taken some serious academic work to uncover the composer's original intentions.

It's all exciting stuff, although it is tempting to suggest that every year since Tolstoy's death has in some way underlined and celebrated what a brilliant writer he was. Six months ago, Newsweek called War and Peace the best novel of all time. After a nod from Oprah Winfrey, Anna Karenina hit the top of the book charts in 2004. Tolstoy is rediscovered and revered by generation after generation, not just because of his prose but because he had the kind of intriguing personality that could carry a film such as The Last Station. This was a man who was born into well-heeled Russian nobility and yet, by the end of his life, after he'd experienced first-hand the inequalities of class, became a Christian anarchist prepared to give away the copyright to his books in his quest for lasting happiness.

This paradox defined his life. It also made him a great author. As the Irish novelist Colm Toibin said in his literary introduction to Tolstoy's final work, Hadji Murad, there was "a tension between his need to preach and his prodigious talents as a storyteller and scene setter". That tension is the key to Tolstoy's enduring popularity. The pacifism that characterises his non-fiction opus about a new society, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, had a huge effect throughout the 20th century (Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr both cited Tolstoy). And yet he remains the classic storyteller because of the way he meticulously involved the reader in every nuance of his characters' lives.

His influence is such that you have read Tolstoy even if you haven't. The stream-of-consciousness style that is so key to Anna Karenina has been deferentially used by everyone from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Safran Foer. The books, the films and the opera in 2010 are all very well. But, like all classic authors, Tolstoy remains timeless. Hadji Murad was about a Chechen separatist who terrorised the Russian army in the 19th century. Two centuries later, a separatist war still rumbles on.

His 1886 fable How Much Land Does a Man Need?, about a man hungry for property, can easily be transposed to modern, money-grabbing times. And his penultimate novel, Resurrection, with its themes of social justice, is as relevant today as it was in 1899. But, in the end, it will all come back to War and Peace. As the 100 years of literature since his death have proved, it almost always does.