How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:
1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.
2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.
3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.
4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.
5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.
April 19th, 2015 at 11:03 am
Ok, ok. You convinced me. I’ll start watching it. . . . .(Thanks).
April 19th, 2015 at 3:00 pm
This is one of the few things I miss about TV, historical dramas. My weakness. I loved these books too and have read them three times already.(And I am a voracious reader, I have 100’s of books and a whole book shelf dedicated to my favourite RE reads). Did Mantel ever write the third one? I always thought there should have been another but I cannot find it here. c
April 19th, 2015 at 3:32 pm
The third book is being written as we write here: it is to be called The Mirror and the Light.
Thank you for this post, I feel exactly as you do about the TV series. Love the production and am in love with Mark Rylance! But i love the book too, I would not be without either.
April 19th, 2015 at 5:46 pm
Well sadly Cromwell will have to be killed off in this last book: it will be interesting to read his perspective on his own end game.
April 19th, 2015 at 6:12 pm
Absolutely agree with your comments, especially on spareness. I like the music too that accompanies the episodes.
We read both Mantel books in my bookgroup and later I bought the audiobooks. The audiobooks are really superb. The temporal changes in the narrative, the asides, and observations, especially in the first volume, are so well conveyed by voice tone and emphasis.
I think the second volume, Bring up the Bodies, starts to set up a change in character in Cromwell, with the men he entraps (guilty even if not guilty of adultery–in any case guilty!) and I can’t wait to see how Mantel plays that out — where she takes Cromwell — in the final volume.
Even though we know the outcome, and where and how, there’s still a lot of space there for development!
April 20th, 2015 at 9:33 am
I couldn’t agree more, Donna. It’s a masterful retelling of a story we all thought we knew. So well done. And Mark Rylance is a genius!
April 20th, 2015 at 11:20 am
I agree with you – both more and less with the TV reinterpretation of the books, but also different as you would expect. From this side of the pond (England) all I can say is the best is yet to come! I hope you enjoy it all as much as we have.
April 21st, 2015 at 11:46 pm
Those are the precise things I admire about this series—-plus, the characters are presented as complex, not types. I was prepared to see stereotypes, and having spent my life teaching this period in literature, I was not prepared to sit through that.. But from the first scenes, I could not take my eyes off Cromwell/Rylander. I cannot imagine Cromwell’s role being played better by anyone else. He gets the Renaissance merchant/new man perfectly, I think. That speech when he tells someone that courts are not run by politicians anymore, but by bankers located all over the European world—so right. And yet without raising his voice. This is the best television production I’ve seen in years and years. More substance, more quiet, more truth.
April 22nd, 2015 at 7:02 am
Very well stated, Gaye. Here’s hoping this production raises the standard for other period dramas….