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The Pillars of the Earth – A Few Final Words September 4, 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.)

One more post on “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series before I move my blog on to other topics… In the previous posts, I have been very specific about plot-lines, and discrepancies between the book and the series, and what I thought worked in a specific episode, and what I thought did not work. I’ve done that to death—no more of that here. My final comments will be general, separated into two sections. First, I’ll make general comments on the entire mini-series, like a review, a compact review. Second, I’ll comment on what “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series says about our times. (What?) Actually, the comments will be even narrower, about how two of the biggest differences between the book and the mini-series seem to have been shaped by larger issues in our own world. I’ll explain more when I get to that.

“The Pillars of the Earth” Mini-Series Reviewed.
“The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series is great entertainment, with action, romance and intrigue set against the exotic, unfamiliar time and place of the Middle Ages in England. It is well-acted and beautifully filmed, including the effort made to place us inside one of the main characters of the production, the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral. Viewers who enjoy historical dramas will enjoy this one, as they are transported to a world utterly different than the 21st Century. Those familiar with the book will wish there was more time to tell the story. But they will certainly recognize the book in the mini-series.

Casting was nearly flawless. Matthew Mcfadyen as the pious Prior Philip brought his mellifluous voice to the portrayal, setting the tone effectively for this character. Ian McShane plays that slippery, slimy villain so well that we willingly choose to ignore the fact that he starts old and never ages. It would be hard to imagine a more effective Waleran Bigod, so we sit back and enjoy his great work. Natalia Wörner plays Ellen with the boldness and daring the character demands, a nonconformist at a time when a single woman in the forest would need a lot of strength and courage to do what she does. As Jack’s mother, and as the curse of the villains, literally, Wörner carries the part effectively. I would have liked to have seen as much Ellen in the mini-series as there was in the original novel. Eddie Redmayne as Jack has a wide stretch as a character, and he pulls it off pretty well. He may be a tad more convincing as the quiet, mysterious creative savant of the first part of the series than he is in the later stages as the dynamic leader, commander of the huge building project. But he makes this huge evolution of Jack work.

I have only a few criticisms. First, great liberties are taken with the actual history. No one watching should mistake this lavish, engaging entertainment for an accurate portrayal of the English succession conflict that eventually ended with Henry II of England on the throne, starting the Plantagenet line of English monarchs. Second, sometimes in the interests of “cliff-hangers,” or high drama, some silly over-the-top sections suddenly sprang out of the mostly dignified, credible drama. I am thinking particularly of King Stephen foaming at the mouth at the end of Episode Two, and every scene with the weird incest-hinting between William Hamleigh and his mother. People who like these types of dramas are generally adverse to campiness, and at times the series flirted with the line dividing sharply set conflict and drama from campiness.

What the Production of “The Pillars of the Earth” Mini-Series Says About Our Times
This will be the most opinion-laden, contemplative, personal writing I will do on “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series. In mid June, I wrote about what Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman said about his times, and what my own novel, just published, The Swords of Faith, says about our times. I do believe that two big changes between Follett’s novel and the mini-series reflect our own society’s grappling with two wider issues of today. The two changes between the novel and the mini-series? 1) The different portrayals of the church and church characters and 2) the different approach to the character of villain William Hamleigh.

The Church and Church Characters in “The Pillar of the Earth” Mini-Series. “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series portrays the church characters much less sympathetically than The Pillars of the Earth novel. Prior Philip is more scheming and less principled in the mini-series (and he is the most principled of the church characters in the mini-series). Waleran Bigod is completely unredeemable and evil in the series; in the book he is more nuanced. Bigod is the main villain of the mini-series—William Hamleigh is the main villain of the book. Even Philip’s ally in the mini-series becomes a potential assassin of an innocent person (Jack) to gain proper burial for his deceased prostitute sister, a clear lesson offered by the mini-series on what religious fanaticism can do to good people. The mini-series omits the concluding chapters of the book when church triumphs over royalty after the murder of Thomas Beckett. Ellen in the series acts as the chief anti-church character to the extent that her character becomes more one-dimensional and less featured because she is ostracized from Kingsbridge due to her provocative anti-church behavior. King Stephen is portrayed as a little demented because he says he speaks directly to God (Episode Five). For this time in history, such a sentiment might well have been considered normal for a king, but it is not depicted as normal, or even sane. After Richard returns from the crusade, he comments negatively about the crusade, and the anti-semitism of the crusades, though this has really nothing to do with the plot. Waleran Bigod in the book becomes a repentant monk at the end. In the mini-series, his evil is unredeemable as he “climbs high to fall.”

So, the church appears to be portrayed more negatively for a television audience, presumably a mass audience. What does that choice say about our current society? Right now, the world struggles with secular versus sacred, with organized religion and religious fanatics, with a search for the proper place of spirituality in our world. Muslim religious fanatics launched a terror attack on the United States that triggered two wars. There is a real concern that organized religion produces dangerous fanatics, and so is a potential evil. (In 1999, I wrote my own essay on this: “Leave Organized Religions—And Find God!”) The comparison is made—fanatic Muslims of today launch terror attacks the way fanatic Christians launched the crusades during the Middle Ages, the way fanatic Christians launched the Inquisition a few hundred years later. This acts as an influence on how organized religion is portrayed in today’s mass entertainment. We have Waleran Bigod torturing his own prior and supporting other atrocities to advance his nefarious ends couched in the guise of the church. The Ellen character further advances this perspective with her not-so-subtle hints at spirituality without organized religion. (This theme gets only slight development—after all, this story is about building a huge, elegant church for the glory of God, God very much worshipped within an organized religious context!)

So I am asserting, consciously or subconsciously, that organized religion gets a less favorable treatment in the television series, because religious fanaticism in the service of organized religion is a pervasive fear in our society. Fanaticism is a theme of my own novel, The Swords of Faith. When the main characters behave less fanatically, they are more successful securing what they are looking for. The idea is that good people of different faiths can thrive together during times of confrontation if they can accept the idea that good people can have different paths to God, that there may be more than one path to God.

As we moved through the “Enlightenment,” the “Age of Reason,” the “scientific revolution,” we toyed with the idea of doing away with God. But this has not worked as well as those enlightened, well-reasoned, scientifically logical intellectuals had imagined a world without God would function. Governments acting in the name of the anti-religious political/economic system of “Communism,” inspired by Karl “religion-is-the-opiate-of-the-people” Marx, are responsible for the slaughter of more innocent people than any religiously inspired slaughters. The Nazis, religiously ambivalent, inspired in part by a misapplication of the philosophy of Frederich Nietszche (the philosopher who said “God is dead”), were responsible for millions more innocent deaths. So do we look for God again, recognizing that humanity has a natural desire to seek the Divine? Or do we recognize that the Divine is present in some way and as intelligent creatures, seek to uncover its mysteries? Do we look back to religion, and God? We grapple with these questions, and worry that established religions are insufficient, maybe even destructive as we seek the answers. So the established Christian church of the Middle Ages becomes a target of that present-day concern.

We find ourselves challenging ingrained assumptions—was monotheism truly the huge advance most western civilization classes describe it as? Monotheism led to the Chosen People, and to the prosthelytizing religions of Christianity and Islam. Before monotheism, conquerors did not worry about the deities worshipped by their subjects. They just added the gods of the conquered to their own gods. There are so many recognized gods in Hinduism that there is no one accepted accurate count of the number. But the moment we went to one god, this raised the issue of who or what is the correct god. To survive monotheism, I believe we need to adopt a “more-than-one-path-to-God” approach. I think society is headed in the same direction on this point, so our entertainment reflects this. “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series reflects this, as does my own novel, The Swords of Faith.

William Hamleigh in “The Pillars of the Earth” Mini-Series. William Hamleigh is a different villain in “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series than he is in The Pillars of the Earth novel. In the book, he is an evil stalker from the beginning, obsessed with Aliena, but not really loving her—more obsessed with possessing her. When she rejects him, his obsession multiplies, as if this is a contest he must win. His desire to possess now grows into a desire not just to possess, but also to humiliate. William is simply a horrible human being, with no apparent real conscience. The only real curb on his malevolent behavior is his fear of hell. But again, this stems more from his own selfishness, his desire to avoid the searing agony of hell. William Hamleigh is simply evil. No further explanation is offered.

In the mini-series, William Hamleigh seems to be more of a manipulated victim—manipulated by his twisted mother, who has a strange, incestuous obsession with her son, and manipulated by Waleran Bigod, that dastardly autocrat of the church, that symbol of organized religion at its worst. It is as if the mini-series producers needed to offer a reason for William to be so evil. There had to be an explanation—just being evil wasn’t enough. (Of course, this can be an endless regression, because we then need to know why William’s mother was so evil and twisted. With Waleran Bigod, we can accept his evil as generating from the so-called evils of organized religion.)

This dramatizes another issue that confronts our society—in a more secular world, without organized religion to circumscribe good and evil, how do we deal with evil? Are those who perpetrate evil acts, who inflict barbarity on their fellow humans with little remorse, always inspired by some other evil done to them, or are some people bad simply right from the start? Clearly the mini-series producers felt it would be easier to accept William as a villain if his evil acts were a result of his victimization by others. Follette seems to have been less concerned with this idea.

I grew up during the 1960s. (I turned 16 in 1970.) I went through my phase of believing that if we just brought enough love and understanding to everyone, all humans would live in harmony. After all, wasn’t that the real message of Jesus? But I learned fairly young, that there are bad people in the world. There are people who will take earnest attempts to approach them with love and understanding and snicker as they devise ways to exploit the charitable person making the unselfish effort. There are truly bad people in the world; they’re just bad with no explanation, like William Hamleigh in the book.

I recently read a book that addresses this issue: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. The book explains that an estimated four per cent of humans basically have no conscience at all. The normal empathy humans usually feel for each other, that little flicker in the back of the mind that says “you’re wrong/what you’re doing is bad/you need to stop”—it doesn’t exist for the sociopath. Sure, there could still be some kind of victimization component involved. But though she is not able to offer with certainty the causes of this lack of conscience, she implies there is a genetic component involved—some people are born at least with the tendency to be bad. She gives riveting, chilling case studies of the conscienceless, acting in normal, familiar settings, inflicting damages on people, some who trust them, some who will never suspect what has been done to them, with no second thoughts, like cats torturing prey before dispatching it.

Yes, fellow idealists, there are bad people in the world. What shall we do with them? Shall we search for how they were victimized, and then treat them not as wrongdoers to be punished, but as victims to be helped? Are we wrong to fight them with all our resources if they truly are victims? Or do we need to destroy them before they destroy others, and protect the good from the bad first, before worrying about the victimization element? If we had rescued William from the clutches of his mother, and the evil churchman Waleran Bigod, would Shiring and Kingsbridge have been spared from his brutalities? In the book, no. In the mini-series, maybe. Or should we forget about helping William and just get him out of the way, for the protection of everyone else? The issue of how to deal with evil does arise as we look at the discrepancies between the book and the mini-series. The answer seems a shade different in the two versions of this story.


I hope you have enjoyed my commentaries on “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series, and will pop in with some comments of your own—agreements or dissents. Also, I hope you will sample some of my other writing, at this blog, as well as my recently released novel, The Swords of Faith, and at my internet column.

I’ll be off of posts for a little over a week when I’ll come in with a book review. Magic the Cat will guest blog again, probably about a week from now, with what he says is some serious news.

(Synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth novel.)


The Sociopath Next Door

The Sociopath Next Door

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. Thorough Research and Vivid Description – That’s How Ken Follet Has Always Been | - September 16, 2010

[…] The Pillars of the Earth – A Few Final Words « Richard Warren … This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged England, Pillars Earth. Bookmark the permalink. ← Last Night an iPod Cost My Life Classic Shaving With A Wet Face → […]

2. A Mosque at Ground Zero? A Gandhi-esque Idea « Richard Warren Field's Blog - September 19, 2010

[…] have written in more detail about monotheism (see the tenth paragraph of my post “‘The Pillars of Earth’ – A Few Final Words”) and organized religions (my essay “Leave Organized Religions—And Find God!”). I will say […]

3. Lisa Yarde - October 2, 2010

Hi Richard, I agree with your points raised in your comments on the series. When Ken Follett was interviewed as part of a Starz production, he commented on what I call living the dream for every author, seeing your work on a grand scale. Part of his comments implied that it was okay that there were a few liberties that departed from his novel.

I suppose the reason I disagree is because of “the Braveheart effect”, as I term it. Whatever is presented in an authentic way is often deemed true by those who watch television. I don’t doubt the ability to reason and discover the facts independently, but I don’t think most people run off to research the truth behind something they watch. TV is much more invasive as compared to books. The 4.6 million who tune in to watch a Pillars episode dwarfs the number of people who could potentially have been reading the book at the same time. The visuals are immediate, their impact far-reaching beyond the effect of reading the book.

It’s why I feel that we, as writers, have a duty to get it right MOST of the time. For the key points that matter, we owe it to our readers to give them accurate information, wherever possible. I say “most of the time” because it isn’t every detail we can include in a sequence of events. If we did that, we’d be historians instead of storytellers. I think it’s our job to lay out the history and provide plausible motivations for why things happened. As long as it’s in the realm of possibility, we’ve done our jobs. Unfortunately, dramatic series aren’t focused on getting it right; typically it’s all about the entertainment, the cliffhanger. As much as I enjoyed both the Pillars book and series, I don’t doubt average people will believe the history of Plantagent England began in the way the series shows it.

rwf1954 - October 2, 2010

Lisa, thanks for stopping by!

I agree with you about “getting it right.” In THE SWORDS OF FAITH, I tried to stay very close to the history. Especially when history has present-day ramifications, we need to “get it right.”

4. Lamar Matthis - March 10, 2012

WOW! This really is intense! Cheers! 🙂

5. Jinho Choi - January 11, 2013

Hello, Richard. Thank you for your insight. The mini-series was funded by the German production company Tandem Communications, the Canadian film company Muse Entertainment Enterprises, and the UK-US based Scott Free Productions. The producers and writers are secularists, who presented a postmodern perspective of the Catholic Church and, by extension, religion as a whole. This perspective appeals to a mass audience that is trained to ignore the concept of god in its entertainment content.

This training is the germane point of the mini-series. We did away with god long ago. When Waleran Bigod schemes and manipulates his way to become a Prince of the Church, we nod. When Waleran Cardinal Bigod gets his just deserts, we cheer. We are godless and we like it.

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