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The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Episode Two July 31, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth, Uncategorized.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Sometimes, you just gotta love television. Ending a fairly tame, you could even say tepid episode, with a king in convulsions, foaming at the mouth, blood dripping from a hallucination’s head… that’s what you do when you have the resources of a visual medium, and you want to bring people back for next week’s episode.

Leaving aside the end-of-the-episode histrionics, what were the high points and low points of “The Pillars of the Earth” episode this week, and does anyone care if they are staying close to the book? (I do—when things work especially well, and when things don’t work well at all.)

  • High Point/Improvement: The public execution scene of the former earl of Shiring (played by Donald Sutherland) was more dramatic than his fate in the book, where he just fades into death after a bittersweet meeting with his children in prison. The exchange between Aliena and the king felt contrived, but overall, this scene took advantage of the visual opportunities of television.
  • Low Point: Yes, they’re continuing the creepy, incestuous scenes between William of Hamleigh and his mother. I’ve commented on this previously—I just don’t think this is necessary. It seems unsettling for no real discernable purpose. Actually, I can think of a purpose, but it involves psychoanalyzing the writers and producers, in fact, a whole general class of writers and producers, so I’ll save that for later.
  • High Point: Right out of the book—the monks surround the Shiring quarry with chants and candles and take possession of the quarry in a beautiful looking and sounding scene.

But maybe the biggest overall divergence from the book is the emergence of Jack as a key character even now in the story, when he is still not much more than a boy:

  • Jack duels Walter (William’s brutal sidekick) to try to take possession of the quarry. This scene doesn’t exist in the book, and could have lifted right out of the mini-series, but serves to make Jack a key participant in the story.
  • A vision of King Stephen’s implies that Jack, like his father, could have information and influence over who has the just claim to the English throne, implying Jack could be some kind of kingmaker (or king-breaker).
  • Jack’s sculpture of St. Adolphus climaxes the successful rallying of the townspeople to show King Stephen the progress on the cathedral at Kingsbridge. The sculpture also seems to throw King Stephen into a hallucinating, foaming-at-the-mouth fit. (In the book, the king is not involved in this scene. Waleran Bigod brings the kings’s brother, an influential bishop, to the cathedral. This is a character not introduced into the mini-series.)
  • Aliena and Jack have more contacts, much earlier. (In the book at this point, Jack admires Aliena from afar, who is barely aware of his existence.)
  • In the coming attractions, Jack’s status as a key player seems elevated further as we see a clip of King Stephen demanding “that red-haired boy’s” death.

Knowing the book, I am aware some key scenes are coming up, and I am curious to see how they will be addressed in the next few episodes:

  • How will we bring Ellen back into this? She’s relegated to hiding in the woods for occasional hot trysts with Tom Builder, and rightly figures she will have trouble coming back, even if she and Tom are married.
  • Richard’s development trails behind right now—he should have been at the Battle of Lincoln with William of Hamleigh and King Stephen. Instead, Stephen finds out about the battle while he’s at Kingsbridge. (Finding out about the defeat of his forces also leads to his fit at the end of the episode.)

My dominant impression? I am enjoying this production of one of the most successful historical novels of the last two decades. But I also find myself hoping they don’t go too much farther off the book.

See you next week!


(Synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth novel.)

The Pillars of the Earth (paperback)

The Pillars of the Earth (paperback)

The Pillars of the Earth (deluxe edition/Oprah’s Book Club)

The Pillars of the Earth (deluxe edition/Oprah’s Book Club)

The Pillars of the Earth (hardcover)

The Pillars of the Earth (hardcover)


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