Writing Portfolio

5.3.15

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel wrote the excellent Wolf Hall as the first part of a trilogy about the rise and fall of the Tudor-era politician Thomas Cromwell; it and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies, both won the Booker Prize so the pressure is really on for Mantel to deliver a belter for the final instalment which will, if the historical record is anything to go by, portray the downfall of the King’s most faithful servant.

In the meantime, while Mantel has been courting publicity by publishing a short story about murdering Mrs Thatcher, fans of Wolf Hall have been treated to a theatre adaptation (which I didn’t go and see) and now a TV adaptation with Mark Rylance as Cromwell and the brainwashed Marine from Homeland as Henry VIII.

Turning books into TV shows can be a tricky business; with this one, the writers had to take the action from two not particularly short novels (between them, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies top 1000 pages) and condense that into six one-hour episodes (although, this being a BBC drama, an hour really did mean an hour). The result was damned good – a slow-burner of a series that refused to treat the viewer like an imbecile while taking a story we thought we all knew, and retelling it from the perspective of someone who is usually a supporting character.

The son of a blacksmith who rose to become one of the most powerful men in England, Thomas Cromwell’s a fascinating character; in TV dramas about Henry VIII he’s usually portrayed as an unprincipled politician on the make, the man behind the scenes who’s overseeing all those confessions obtained through torture. This is in contrast to the apparently saintly Thomas More (indeed, Cromwell is very much the villain of that classic play-turned-film A Man for All Seasons).

One thing I really like about Wolf Hall is how Mantel did a spectacular piece of revisionism and turned this on its head, with More being shown in a more villainous light than is usual and Cromwell getting the sympathetic treatment. Perhaps a more neutral way of putting it would be to say that the two were contrasting politicians – More was an idealist, whereby Cromwell was a pragmatist (and, as is so often the case, pragmatism won out over idealism). Allowing Cromwell to shine may have upset the historians – David Starkey is not a fan – but it does make for a really good political story (I hesitate to use the word ‘thriller’, what with the ending being widely known), especially at a time when the third series of the American remake of House of Cards has just come out on the Netflix. And especially with a quality actor like Rylance in the lead.

But then, all this debate about Cromwell versus More obscures who the real villain of the piece is – the man who, ultimately, would send both of them to the block. Claire Foy may have stolen the limelight as Anne Boleyn – always the most fascinating of Henry VIII’s wives – in the final episode, but the power was always with the King, portrayed superbly in this series by Damian Lewis (the sinister man-hug at the end was particularly well done and summed things up brilliantly without any need for dialogue). The whole thing played out like the best sort of political thriller, even though everyone (well, everyone who went to school in this country) knows how this story was going to end. Turns out that it’s still possible to make an old story exciting.

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