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The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Episode Five August 21, 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.)

Episode Five leaves us in place for the series-concluding Episode Six. The final scene in France, with Jack smiling as he gazes at a glorious church, hints at actions to come. But the inspirational tone of that scene, across the English Channel from the main action of the story, offers a wonderful dissonance with where the plot is now. Because back in England, all the villains appear to be ascendant, or at least more comfortable than our heroes. The folks on the bad side of the good-bad ledger appear to be in command. In a sense, Jack has had to flee his world to reach the inspirational image that brings an awe-inspired smile to his face. Will he be able to import that feeling back to our story in England? We suspect so! And this means the general shape of Follette’s novel remains intact, though with some big variations! For the most part, the changes create a more hyper, dramatic edge. As I’ve been doing throughout these commentaries, I’ll discuss in-synch and out-of-synch with the book, along with my own opinions, ripe for comments if you wish!

Aliena/Jack/Alfred: This plot line is largely preserved, complete with Ellen sneaking Jack out of his cell so he can make love to Aliena. The reasons Aliena feels obligated to marry Alfred also remain the same—Richard needs resources to keep fighting for King Stephen so they can remain in contention to take back the earldom of Shiring and fulfill their vow to their father. Ellen’s curse of the wedding is also right out of the book, with Ellen making crystal clear the curse of impotence. Ellen’s encouragement of Aliena to find Jack in France is also direct from Follette’s original novel.

There are a few variations worth commenting on: 1) Jack is confined to his cell in the priory because of his loud protest to the Alfred/Aliena marriage. (His opposition in the book is more quiet and passive). This change makes him a more active character, and in that way strengthens the story. 2) The food given to Jack in his cell is poisoned (not in the book) which adds a nice little dramatic edge to the expository/back-story scene as Ellen tells Jack more about his father, with the poisoned food sitting right next to him throughout the scene. We wonder as Ellen tells the story—will Jack eat this stuff? Then, just when we think he may ignore the food, his own mother insists he eat it, obviously unaware of what is in it!

The in-synch situation remains through what I considered an awkward part of the novel, maintained in the series, that Aliena somehow hides her pregnancy from Alfred, who has been unable to consummate their marriage. This leads to the contrived coincidence of her giving birth in the middle of the cathedral collapse. Awkward in the book—still awkward in the series. This does lead to a similar result, though in the book Alfred leaves Aliena; Aliena is not ordered to leave by Alfred.

Prior Philip: Just as his storyline looked like it would remain almost entirely in synch with the book, we go on a huge detour at the end, when Philip is removed as prior. (He never loses that position in the book.) This sets up some wonderful possibilities, putting Philip in a serious underdog position. I like the potential here. Even those of us who know the book will be guessing about a number of directions this could go.

Waleran Bigod: My goodness, he gets more evil and twisted as we go. His self-flagellation has now graduated to self-mutilation. Does this make him sympathetic because we know he feels remorse for the horrible things he keeps doing? No. It makes him look more twisted, and self-obsessed at the expense of others. In this episode, he commissions the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury by Regan Hamleigh! And it almost works for him, though those of us who know history, and know the book, suspected that Waleran Bigod would not be able to keep this position.

He also gets a little of his own back when William Hamleigh holds a sword to his throat, insisting the bishop make sure that William is confirmed as earl of Shiring. The Hamleighs are in charge this time. I wonder if the series producers are trying to reposition Waleran Bigod more toward his characterization in the book, as we move toward the ending. We’ll see about that next week.

I still like Waleran Bigod as the more nuanced character he was in the book. But I have to admit that this plot-line leads to one of my favorite individual scenes of the whole mini-series—the Regan Hamleigh murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As the scene starts out, we think Regan Hamleigh is going to betray Waleran Bigod. But just when it looks like she will complete the betrayal, she follows through with the deed, complete with a well-placed scream. Great dramatic television!

A Mysterious Ring: I have to admit I missed this earlier. It’s not in the book. I recall the early incidents—a ring stolen from Jack, in the possession of Martha, who hides it behind a stone in a wall. But this ring is obviously going to have a dramatic role in the final scenes. The set-up has been effective. The dramatic question has been posed—how is this ring going to figure in the final revelations on the secret involved with the death of Jack’s father?

Stephen and the Royals: Stephen remains on the bad-guy side of the ledger, though not as a major player in this part of the story (similar to the low profile of the royals in the book). He seems to have become a little demented, saying he now talks directly to God. We also see Maud/Matilda briefly, training her son Henry to take the crown, setting up the future resolution of the story.

William and Regan: Still the twisted implied-incest relationship… Still my least favorite variation on the story in the original book.

A few other isolated comments on this week’s episode:
• They added a dual marriage scene, reminiscent of the dual birth scene in episode one, with the Alfred/Aliena and William/Elizabeth marriages, and wedding nights, juxtaposed. This is effective story-telling, important for later developments, showing the two troubled matches getting off to horrible starts. These relationships will have consequences, so this is important set-up material offered in a creative, intriguing way.
• Ellen in the mini-series is more clearly anti-church than in the book. In the book, she does become hostile to the church at times, but almost always as a reaction to church actions that affect her—pertaining to her relationship with Tom Builder earlier, and pertaining to the relationship of her son Jack and Aliena later. In the mini-series, she is hostile to the church right away, and with more venom. It is ironic that her beloved son is developing into a potential designer/builder of glorious churches.
• I thought for a moment Philip would tell Jonathan that Tom Builder was his father, spilling the beans earlier than in the book (as it looked like Tom Builder himself was going to do during the previous episode). But though Philip walks Jonathan right up to it, he stops short, just saying that Tom Builder knew his mother.


I expect a lot of surprises next week, and a long post. For one thing, even though this will be a two hour concluding episode, it doesn’t seem possible they will get to all the story that is left in The Pillars of the Earth. It looks to me like we are about up to Chapter Twelve, of eighteen chapters. That’s two thirds of the book. But we have completed three fourths of the mini-series. (See my synopsis of the novel at my website.) This will give me a lot to comment about next week, not just about what the mini-series producers include, but what they condense or leave out. Come and stop by at this blog next Saturday!

(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)


1. kasi jennings - January 2, 2011

Very nice and informative. Thanks!

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