I have just finished watching the six-part BBC series, Wolf Hall, based on the two novels by Hilary Mantel. I am also about halfway through my reading of the first of the two, Wolf Hall (with Bring up the Bodies waiting in the bedside pile).
The series conflates the two novels into six one-hour episodes. Given the length of the novels (Wolf Hall is 650 pages itself), compacting them and retaining clarity, plot and drama is quite a feat.
Normally, I would argue for the written word over the adaptation. Any adaptation. As good as they may be, it is rare that a film or TV production can match the richness of any book. But in this instance, I find myself siding with the BBC’s version when recommending a choice to others. It is beautiful, well-crafted production, and visually stunning. But in truth, the two are synergistic.
(digression: the exacting approach of the BBC to history, to production, to costume and sets puts to shame the risible, American TV series, The Tudors).
For me, the period of the Tudors is the most intriguing, exciting, entertaining period of English history. In part it’s because the Renaissance bursts upon European consciousness and radically changes everything – politics, art, philosophy, literature, music, technology et al. And on its heels comes the Protestant Reformation, which rocks the very foundation of everything it touches. Everything was in flux.
It’s also in part because the Tudors themselves are larger-than-life characters in a giant, swirling drama that reaches into the nations and courts across Europe.
Unlike earlier periods, the Tudor era is remarkably well documented – the first period to benefit from the new printing technology that swept the continent. We know much more about the daily lives of the time than we do about previous eras. So it helps make the characters live in our imagination. Plus it is the era of Shakespeare, albeit a generation later than this series portrays.
And then there’s the story itself. Or rather, the many stories – plots and subplots, twists and turns – that arise. Henry VII’s rise from Bosworth to end the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s unexpected ascension to the throne, and his marital adventures. Elizabeth I and her reign against all odds. Mary. Edward. Five monarchs in all. It’s just such rich stuff, compressed into a mere 120 years. You can’t fail to be drawn in.
Who among us doesn’t know at least the outline of the story of Henry VIII’s wives? Or the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Elizabeth? Mary Queen of Scots? The beheading of Anne?
Little wonder I continue to read and watch stories about them. They are endlessly entertaining.