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The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Final Episode August 28, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth.
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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.)

“The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series came to an end this week; yes, with one villain dangling from a noose choking to death and another spitting blood rather than accepting an absolution of sins from a victorious hero. But fittingly, the final scene featured the dedication of the completed cathedral, white, bright, with colored windows and light flooding into the huge structure. In this post, as has been my custom, I will comment on how this episode matches with the book; also, where I think it succeeds and where I have quibbles. Next week, I’ll offer a final post, with broader impressions and observations, and a wider perspective. But for now—some discussion of the specifics of this week’s episode.

I’ll discuss one issue immediately. I wondered how the producers would fit all the story into the time left. Simple. They skipped Part Six, Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen! There is no murder of Thomas Beckett (no hanging of William Hamleigh for his part in that crime), no procession led by Philip to dramatize Beckett’s martyrdom, and no dramatic concluding scene with King Henry II symbolically flogged as penance for his role in inspiring the murder.

But was that enough of a change to give them time to tell this story? I don’t think so. An impression that seeps in over and over when viewing the final episode is the sense of a lack of time to tell the whole story. The producers follow the book up to a point, but they just don’t have the time to fill out this big story the way Follette does with 400,000-plus words. I’ll mention this lack of time issue as it comes up, and it will come up often in these comments:

The Relic that Revitalizes Kingsbridge: Jack is a more active participant in this part of the story, using the stone that’s “no good” for building in France, but that Jack sees has potential for other uses. Jack actually creates the relic himself in the mini-series. I liked this addition to the story. But, the lack-of-time theme already applies here. In the book, Jack uses the relic to gather builders and money as he makes his way from France to Kingsbridge. He arrives with just about all they will need to make a great start on the cathedral, instead of just popping up with the relic. But in a television series, there is not enough time to let that kind of storyline develop.

Jack and Aliena: The reunion in France, with Aliena following the trail of Jack’s work assignments, is right from the book, and offers the same satisfaction, though for my taste, it takes Jack a long time to ask about the baby! The lack-of-time component? We do see Aliena, at the beginning of the second hour, getting testy with Jack. In the book, this testiness comes from years of being unable to live with Jack as man and wife, because she cannot get a request for annulment of her marriage to Alfred past Waleran Bigod. In fact, she is actually on the verge of leaving Jack at one point. In the series, we have the stock “my husband/boyfriend/male-significant-other loves his work more than me” whining, with Jack lashing out in response. They depict the friction, but don’t have time to develop it with more richness and specificity to these characters. Hey, well, Jack and Aliena do end up married at the end—widowhood took care of the annulment problem, as it did in the book, though in a different way.

The Secret of Jack’s Father/The Ring: I think this is great storytelling, added to the series, not in the original book. The Cherbourg scenes give Jack more information to use when it will count at the end. The threads of this secret tie together. These additional details on the secret of the death of Jack’s father tie into the building of the cathedral, also improving the story. We knew the ring would come into play, and it did, at the dramatic moment when “little” Martha (now a grown young woman) comes to the rescue. She had stolen the ring, not her brother, because she secretly loves Jack. There is no ring in the book. The ring is a nice addition for a visual storytelling medium.

Prior Philip: He gets his position back pretty quickly, and returns to his pious nature as featured more consistently in the book. The first part of the episode, during which Philip refuses to work with Waleran Bigod, contrasts well with Philip at the beginning of the mini-series, when he compromises with Waleran Bigod to become prior of Kingsbridge. This creates a powerful internal journey for Philip, learning not to compromise with evil, evil personified in the form of Waleran Bigod. Philip is less of a direct actor at this point in the mini-series. As I will discuss later under another heading, Philip in the book is able to be manipulative while retaining his sense of holiness, coming up with his most inventive solution of all in settling a dilemma facing the folks on the good-guy side of the ledger. Philip does deliver the series’ closing sermon—“a cathedral is never finished because it is never perfect.” In the book, we also experience what appears to be the closing theme through Philip’s eyes, that good can still triumph over evil eventually even when at times the savage brutes of the world can for a time hold the dominant positions.

The Royals: This definitely belongs in the category of the lack-of-time issue. After initially focusing more on the royals, for the final episode we get condensed, and questionable, history. I certainly invite those with more familiarity with the history to comment, but I am certain Robert of Gloucester did not die on the battlefield, with his head displayed on a pike. We also have the strange dream scene where young Henry says “pleased to meet you” and kills Stephen’s son Eustace. It’s a funny scene, reflecting the coming aggressive vitality of future king Henry II. And this is depicted as a dream.

The correct history would probably be considered less dramatic. Young Henry Plantagenet, son of Maud/Matilda, crosses from France to England, looking to take the throne from Stephen, in essence, pursuing his mother’s claim. A peace agreement is reached. Henry is to become king after Stephen’s death. That is exactly what happened. Henry Plantagenet became Henry II of England, father of Richard the Lionheart (and King John, signer of the Magna Carta). Another part of the peace agreement was that all titles would revert to what they were before Stephen took the throne. This affects Richard and Aliena, as I’ll discuss later. Because of the lack-of-time element pervading the series, the royals slip from view. The series climaxes with dramatic revelations about a murder committed to tamper with the succession to the English throne, but none of this seems to have any consequences beyond the scaffold where the revelations come out.

Ellen: I’ve been complaining about her lack of presence in the mini-series—in this episode, she’s back. The more detailed curse, an improvement on the book as I mentioned in an earlier post, plays out in detail. In fact, maybe a bit melodramatically at the end (but fun, I have to admit) when Waleran Bigod lives out his curse literally—“will climb high to fall.”

She plays a big part in the resolution at the end, as she also does in the book, at a trial, though in a different way. (That is part of those two chapters they did not use in the mini-series—see my synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth for more details.)

Alfred: This character really suffers from the “lack-of-time” aspect that permeates the mini-series, especially when compared to the book. In the book, he leaves Aliena, moves into town, and makes a good living building homes. He does come back and beg Jack for a job at the cathedral, but only after the civil war and William Hamleigh’s exploitation of his subjects at Shiring cause an economic downturn in the area. In the mini-series, Alfred is a pathetic creature, not much to him at all.

Alfred’s death is entirely different in the book, with different ramifications. He does try to rape Aliena, but in the book, he breaks into Aliena’s home—she has not given up her home—and it is Richard who interrupts and kills him. William is sheriff of Shiring at this point, and with Waleran Bigod’s encouragement, arrests Richard, the newly installed earl of Shiring, for murder. There is no such thing as a married man raping his wife at this time in English Law, and since no annulment has been obtained, Alfred is still married to Aliena. So Richard cannot claim he was defending his sister. It is a clever twist, threatening to undo all of the victories claimed by the folks on the good-guy side of the ledger. It is Prior Philip who finds the way out of the dilemma with perhaps his best solution to a problem in the entire book. Richard will go on crusade to do penance for the sin, and receive absolution. This thwarts William’s desire to hang Richard, and it keeps the earldom in the control of Aliena’s family. In the book, Richard is not a good earl, failing to run the earldom productively. With him off on crusade, Aliena can step in and administrate the area more prosperously. All of that evolves out of the death of Alfred in the book. In the mini-series, Alfred’s death is part of one of Waleran Bigod’s evil schemes, an attempt to frame Jack for a murder that Waleran Bigod manages to indirectly commit himself.

Richard, Jack and the Wall: This is a fun scene in the book, as it is in the mini-series, and the essential shape of the storyline from the book is intact. But the lack-of-time component creeps in again. In the series, the wall is up, William’s men are driven off when they cannot penetrate the wall, and Jack slings a stone that catches William in the head. Jack’s the hero, for the wall, and for the stone. That’s fine, even fun, as far as it goes. In the book, William’s exploitive rule of Shiring has created legions of dispossessed, roaming the countryside as outlaws. Richard and Aliena decide to mobilize them, and with the battle-cry “the rightful earl,” Richard leads them on raids against William’s holdings, in almost Robin Hood style operations. Those militarized victims of William’s policies functioning as agents for Richard and Aliena regaining the earldom adds additional depth, and satisfaction, to the coming victories over William.

Richard: Richard is a huge player in this final episode, a dashing warrior taking back the earldom and striking down William’s evil sidekick. A lot of his actions are similar to what he does in the book, but not quite the same:

  • As pointed out earlier, in the book Richard goes on crusade as a penance for killing Alfred. In the series, he goes on crusade for no clear reason—something vague about serving the king. In the scene about his return, he makes a few cryptic comments about how the crusade didn’t accomplish anything, and that Jews didn’t seem to be the enemies to him. This allows the producers to take some politically-correct slaps at the crusades, and more firmly ensconce Richard on the good-guy side of the ledger, with King Stephen, almost drooling anxiously to hear about murdered Jews, on the bad-guy side.
  • Richard is awarded Shiring but must enforce possession himself; this is the same in the book. But in the book, this comes as a result of the terms of the negotiated peace for the civil war. Richard has title to the earldom, but he will not be able to get King Stephen to enforce the decision while he reigns. So Richard needs to enforce it. In the mini-series, this is part of a decision by Stephen’s ineffectual son Eustace, with Waleran Bigod pointing out the decision will be unenforceable.

Richard and Aliena Take Back Shiring: This occurs similarly, with Elizabeth bringing a smile to our faces by selling out her brutal, abusive husband. But the “lack-of-time” component creeps in again. The conspiracy to take back the castle requires more scheming, more timing, and has more precarious aspects to it in the book. In the series, Elizabeth just hands over the castle while William is away, and after Richard kills William’s brutal sidekick in a dramatic duel, Richard and Aliena simply take the castle back, and the earldom.

The Monks: In the book, Remigius never takes over running the priory. Through a different set of events (described in my synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth), he ends up begging in the streets. He comes back to the priory as a repentant monk and helps defeat Waleran Bigod in the trial scene at the end of the book, a trial that deals with issues not raised in the mini-series. There is also no scandal like the one Remigius discusses with Ellen, where Remigius admits he was “in love once” with another man, and has been fixed “so I can never sin that way again.” (Oooh… I don’t like the sound of that—ouch!)

In the book, Philip’s key ally at the priory does not have a prostitute sister; she is not a character in the book. He never becomes a spy for Waleran Bigod, and so is not involved in any plot to kill Jack.

William: The surviving (well, at least to the final scenes) villains of the mini-series, William Hamleigh and Waleran Bigod, deviate in significant ways from the book, in ways that I found much less satisfying than the story Follette told. The Hamleigh mother-son weirdness finally climaxes with William’s suffocation of his mother using a small doll. So was William a victim of his mother’s pseudo-sexual overtures, and finally snapped? Is that what makes William so evil? This seems to be the implication. He tosses his mother into the moat. This seemed ridiculous to me (and is not in the book). She’s the lady of the castle, mother of the earl. For her just to disappear, or for William to risk having someone see her body down in the moat, did not make sense to me.

Much of the rest of the William storyline remains intact; losing the earldom, becoming the sheriff, trying to use his position against our heroes—in the mini-series, Jack; in the book, Richard. As I indicated earlier, he is hanged in the book, but not until later. Simply put, I found his downfall more satisfying in the book, with Richard turning his exploited subjects against him. And instead of William dying from what was in effect a lynching, the book has him executed legally by the authorities, drawn out with the ceremony of justice, with William forced to anticpiate his demise, in front of those he had victimized, humiliated in front of them for all to see.

Waleran Bigod: I have lamented before that I enjoyed the more nuanced Waleran Bigod in the book. That sentiment has not changed. In the book, Bigod also ends the story as a repentant monk, like Remigius. In the mini-series, he is so unredeemable, so unrepentant, so despicably obsessed with his own aims, that he spits his blood into the face of Philip, who is trying to grant the obviously dying Waleran Bigod absolution for his many sins. Waleran Bigod has no redeeming qualities at all as he continues scheming murders and other manipulations right up to the end. And we learn that he was directly involved in the murders of the successors to the English throne! This is one bad guy, nearly to the point of cartoonishness. But, I will admit, it was fun to watch Ian McShane, with that silky smooth voice, that slippery slimy manner, swaggering through the trial scene with his condescending put-downs of anyone opposing him and his immediate objective of hanging Jack as soon as possible. If we’re going to have an over-the-top villain, let’s have Ian McShane play him!

The Final Scenes: The mini-series conflicts end with the trial scene; the real action starts as Jack stands with a noose around his neck. This is high drama, death-on-the-line, with both villains trying to cause a death (Jack’s) and ending up dead themselves by the end of the scene. This is a characteristic ending for this form of entertainment. The book is much subtler. The trial scene takes place many years later, with Waleran Bigod trying to discredit Philip by accusing him of being Jonathan’s father. (We leave that issue on the table in the mini-series—I thought when Tom Builder and Philip almost told Jonathan who his real father was, that they were saving it for the last episode. This was a key part of the final trial scene in the book. But they never went to the issue again.) Ellen comes to the trial with evidence of Waleran Bigod’s complicity in the death of Jack’s father, and he ends up discredited, fleeing the trial in embarrassment, eventually losing his position to become a repentant monk like Remigius. But a bigger ending is needed for a big film/television epic mini-series. “Climbing high to fall” was that big ending—the most evil character goes down last and goes down hardest.


So the concluding episode is over, all loose ends pretty well tied up. (Well, would somebody please tell Jonathan who his real father is?) The main character, the cathedral, stands tall, triumphant. I have used this blog to offer comparisons between the book and the mini-series, and made comments on what I liked and did not like. As always, I invite your comments.

I do think there are some broader points to make about this mini-series. Next Saturday I will check in with one last blog entry about “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series with what I am sure will be a shorter, more compact post!

(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. jocelyne deslauriers - August 31, 2010

I read Pillars many times so I was looking forward to a miniseries. Overall I liked it a lot. Like you I missed some storylines but it could have used an additionnal hour. And wasn’t it Mr Follett himself at the table in Cherbourg? He just couldn’t resist being part of such an event: good for him

2. Daphne - August 31, 2010

I haven’t read the book but enjoyed watching the series. I’m glad I”m not the only one who realised they forgot to tell that poor little boy about his real father!! Having not read the book, it was interesting to read your comparison of the two. Maybe I’ll have to read it some day…

3. Bob - September 2, 2010

I want to applaud your blog posting comparing the mini-series to the novel. Your observations are spot on, and I couldn’t agree more. Like you’ve said in the posting, elements of the mini-series I did like better than the book. Such as Richards revenge over Walter. There was a fight in the book between Richard, and his outlaw band, against William and his men that I had hoped would have ended with revenge against Walter or William. In my opinion William Hamleigh had the upper hand to much in the book, and not enough in mini-series. I kept hoping William would run across one of the people he victimized at an unexpected time. Like maybe the man William tortured over an open fire, could show up on a battle field, and surprise William or Walter. But nothing like that materialized in either the novel or the mini-series. As the years and the victims piled up William and Walter should have had a harder time moving about. This is an issue Follett didn’t address enough in the novel, and very little in the mini-series. I think it would have added an element of tension to the villain side of the story. Other than his eventual death, which was wrapped up way to fast in the mini-series, I felt that William never really suffered enough along the way. Over all, I think the novel is much better than the mini-series. The Mini-series suffered mostly due to the lack of time. But I really enjoyed both. The Pillars of the Earth is one of the best novels ever written, with so much tension it almost wears you out at times.

4. rwf1954 - September 11, 2010

Thanks for the two links at your blog. In the comment at your blog, you indicate Ken Follette “himself has somewhat negative belief[s] about Christianity.” A little of that comes through. He certainly does not portray church characters as infallible, or as paragons of any kind. But as I mentioned in my last post about “Pillars,” “A Few Final Words,” I think the producers of the series were much more negative about the church and church characters. (I spend a LONG paragraph supporting that opinion!)

5. Monq - November 6, 2010

I thoroughly enjoyed it and the actors’ performances are really just great!

I loved how the story changed in the series however I would be glad to see more of Alfred and Ellen.

6. Terry - August 24, 2011

I read the book.. three times over the years, and enjoyed it every time.. I believe it earned a place in the “best modern book” list.
I have just finished watching the mini series, and what a disappointment it was. It bears little resemblance to My Follett’s epic, in fact is was difficult to follow, and in a word **** (take your pick).
I believe Mr Follett must have been very angry at what was done to his book, and rightly so.

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