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Books-Into-Film Commentary – Birdsong (Part Two) May 2, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Birdsong, book synopsis, books, books compared to film, books compared to television, films based on books, historical fiction, movies based on books, Sebastian Faulks, television based on books, television commentary, World War I.
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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.)

This is part of two of my “Books-into-Film/Books-into-Television” post on “Birdsong,” based on the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong(Part One was posted a week ago.) My comments here will address events from the second half of the production, and end with a synopsis of the book.

First, as I indicated in my post on Part One, the basic story of the novel, and the mood of the novel, are present. The two big conceptual changes I mentioned in my first post remain:

  • The television production focuses on the events of World War I period. The storyline set during the 1970s and involving Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter Elizabeth Benson is not depicted at all.
  • The television production flashes back and forth constantly between Stephen’s experiences during World War I and his relationship with Isabelle. In the book, we do shift from period to period, but with much longer story sections between shifts. 

I’ll add to this a third larger conceptual variation between the book and the television production—Isabelle’s post Stephen-relationship story is seriously reduced and simplified. In the book, after the war begins (well after she leaves Stephen) she starts a relationship with a German officer during the German occupation of Amiens, and ends up moving to Germany with him (and with Stephen’s and her daughter). When Isabelle dies in the influenza epidemic just after the war, the German officer sends back Isabelle’s daughter to Jeanne, who marries Stephen. Another part of this is Stephen and Jeanne coming together, before the end of World War I, before Stephen’s final experiences in the tunnels. They get married, move to England, and raise Isabelle’s and Stephen’s daughter as their own. In the book, we meet a grown Francoise as part of the storyline involving Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter (and get this story information as part of that storyline).

Other selected observations comparing the book to Part Two of the television production:

  • Stephen Wraysford’s decision to decline the opportunity to leave combat after he survives his time among corpses is directly from the book.
  • Jack Firebrace’s son dying of diphtheria back home is also from the book.
  • Stephen’s leave in Amiens, and his encounter with Jeanne, is from the book. But the story is slightly different. His meeting with Isabelle is slower to develop, and much less emotional. The chemistry between them seems obviously in the past. Also, Isabelle’s disfigurement as depicted in the book seemed to me to be more severe—showing this on-screen might have presented serious makeup challenges.
  • The story of the fate of René Azaire is brushed over in the television version. There is actually a twinge of nobility in the way he leaves the story. (See the synopsis later in this post for details.)
  • The overconfidence of Stephen’s superiors after the pre-assault bombardment, the confidence that the bombardment will have Germans coming out trying to surrender, is directly from the book. In fact, Stephen’s actions during this assault are largely consistent with the story told in the book.
  • There is a scene in the book when a horribly wounded soldier begs Stephen to kill him, as in the television production. In the book, Stephen steps on the poor man, partially buried in a trench, and in even grislier circumstances than in the television production. Stephen also kills the soldier in the book, an apparent act of mercy.
  • The final sequence of events in the tunnels toward the end of the war, when Stephen is at a listening post, is very close to events depicted in the book. Stephen is trapped in the tunnel with Jack Firebrace. In the book, they are trapped for days, with diminishing air pockets and a sense that they are doomed. Jack Firebrace has broken both his legs, and dies in the tunnel before it Stephen gets out—this is also in the book. There is one fairly significant variation. When Stephen sets off the charge in an attempt to break free, he kills some Germans nearby. The brother of one of those Germans helps dig him out. But, as in the television production, the war is virtually over, and the Germans embrace Stephen before letting him return to his own lines. 

“Birdsong” the television two-part miniseries adopts the main tone of the book. The war is the real enemy. The war diminishes Stephen. Contentiousness between enemies, between the English and the Germans, and the French and the Germans, seems minimal compared to the adversity created for the main characters by the war itself. I will add, however, that in the book, Stephen is hostile to Germans in his interior character passages. This finally fades at the end when the Germans rescue him and allow him to return to his unit. I am left to wonder whether or not the people living during that era held such magnanimity toward their enemies.

Birdsong synopsis (prepared before watching the mini-series):

Note: This synopsis summarizes the novel, but does not capture the atmosphere conveyed by Sebastian Faulks, and in the interests of time and space, leaves out all but the key events in the book, and key characters. Readers should NOT consider this to be anything but a reminder of the basic outline of the plot, and should not substitute this synopsis for the experience of reading Birdsong.

Part One – France 1910
Twenty year-old Stephen Wraysford visits France from England to learn the textile business in France. He stays with the Azaire family. They have two childre n, a young boy Gregoire and a sixteen-year-old daughter Lisette. But Stephen is attracted to Madame Isabele Azaire, about ten years older than he is, but considerably younger than Monsieur René Azaire. Madame Azaire is a younger daughter married by her family to Monsieur Azaire after his wife’s untimely death. Her parents are aloof; her older sister Jeanne is the closest to her from her immediate family. The Azaire marriage appears to be passionless, but Madame Azaire seems to accept her role, and offers little obvious encouragement to Stephen that she might return his infatuation, though Stephen suspects she does.

Stephen Wraysford witnesses labor strife, and himself becomes a target of some nationalistic hostility as tensions rise between Monsieur Azaire and his employees as a result of his reductions of compensation for them. Wraysford gets into an altercation with one of the laborers and injures his hand. Monsieur Azaire asks him to stay away from the production facility for a week. While staying at the Azaire house during working hours, Stephen makes his move toward Isabelle. After a little resistance, she gives into her own infatuation with Stephen and they start a passionate affair. We find out that René Azaire is largely impotent and unable to do much sexually with Isabelle. He strikes her out of frustration. (Stephen has heard the sounds of this during his stay.) We also find out Stephen Wraysford is from very humble origins, largely abandoned by his parents, but taken in by a benefactor who sees to his education and helps get him his opportunities. They carry out their affair in secret, using various stealthy schemes to find private time. No one suspects except Lisette, who during a family fishing trip that includes Stephen tells him what she knows and tries to get Stephen to do the same things with her that he does with Isabelle. Lisette has apparently developed feelings for Stephen and is a lot more adult at seventeen than anyone realizes.

The labor dispute finally comes to an end. Monsieur Azaire is pleased, but then confronts his wife with rumors she aided the strikers’ families with food. (Stephen has known about this activity.) She admits this. He then confronts her with the rumor that she has been unfaithful to him with a key labor leader, “little” Lucien Lebrun. Isabelle Azaire admits there has been an affair—with Stephen. Isabelle and Stephen leave the household and move fromAmiensto St.- Rèmy-de-Provence (a long distance away). Stephen gets a job as an assistant to a furniture maker. They live together in what seems to be a quiet tranquility. But Isabelle seems unsettled, maybe feeling guilty about what her actions have done to her family. She corresponds with her sister Jeanne. Her period stops and she believes she is pregnant. She almost loses the baby, but appears to pass through that crisis. At the end of this section, she leaves Stephen. Stephen believes: “She had returned because she felt she could save her soul. She had gone home because she was frightened of the future and felt sure a natural order could yet be resumed.” Stephen does not seem inclined to pursue her.

Part Two – France 1916
Stephen Wraysford serves as a lieutenant in the British army in a unit on the front lines of the trenches of World War I in France. He serves with tunnellers, men experienced with mining who dig tunnels under the trenches attempting to gain advantages on the battlefield. The Germans have their own tunnellers, and the tunnels sometimes cross. The section starts with Jack Firebrace, one of those tunnellers. He falls asleep on sentry duty, and fears he will be shot. He is brought before Wraysford who takes no action. Jack Firebrace is grateful for the reprieve.

We find out Stephen Wraysford has no new information about Isabelle Azaire. He did not decide to pursue her. He describes his loss of her as if “someone had died.” He also describes his move to Paris a year after Isabelle leaves, and his friendship with an eighteen-year-old girl, Mathilde. When the war breaks out, Stephen decides to join the British army to fight alongside Englishmen.

Stephen leads a fight in the tunnels. Stephen gets hit with an explosion that feels as if he has been “hit by a falling house.” His wounds, not severe on their own, result in a fever, and he is placed with corpses, given up for dead. Jack Firebrace spots him in a “row of dumped flesh” and extricates Stephen Wraysford who sees Firebrace and says “get me out.”

Wraysford recovers, and though he is offered the option of going home, he chooses to stay with his unit. Jack Firebrace gets word that his eight year old son back home has died from diphtheria. The Army prepares for a huge offensive against the Germans, an offensive that is supposed to end the war. The commanders are certain a huge bombardment, as well as a tunnel that will be exploded, will end German resistance before the attack. But the Germans seem barely phased, and the exploded tunnel simply opens up another battlefield obstacle. Soldiers are mowed down as the offensive seems nearly suicidal. Stephen Wraysford goes down—“some force had blown down.” He ends up in a shell-hole, then stands to walk again. He sees the German wire ahead that should have been cut by the bombardment but hasn’t been. Wraysford goes through a gap and ends up in an empty trench. Stephen and others who have advanced this far suspect they will be trapped when the counterattack occurs. Stephen kills a wounded soldier he steps on in the trench, after the soldier begs to be put out of his misery. Jack Firebrace looks on in horror at the slaughter, wondering if it can go on. In the confusion of the continued fighting, including grisly events of death and mutilation, Stephen races toward a nearby river and ends up carried by the river’s current. He is surrounded by Germans in the water. Stephen ends up on a bridge, then in “the marshy grass.” He is walking toward German lines when “an impact took his head as though a brick thrown at great speed had struck his temple, and he fell to the ground.” The next face he sees is one of the tunnellers he has been fighting with.

With the guns silent, Stephen hears a low sound of continuous moaning. The sound overcomes Michael Weir, one of the leaders of the tunnellers, and Stephen, with emotion.

Part Three – England 1978
Elizabeth Benson, Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter (we do not learn this right away) becomes interested in researching her grandfather’s story. Elizabeth works for fashion designers in England. She’s the mistress of a man who lives in France, a man who is supposed to leave his wife but never can find the right time. Elizabeth seems to suspect that deep down he never will, and it appears she likes her independence. But also, Elizabeth is thirty-eight, and feels a strong drive to have children. Elizabeth visits a battle memorial were she’s astounded at how many names are listed who were “the lost, the ones they did not find.” She says “my God, nobody told me.” Elizabeth visits her mother were she finds some of Stephen Wraysford’s papers apparently written in Greek. Her mother seems to have kept only a small part of Wraysford’s papers, and also seems uninterested in them. One of her bosses, Bob, tells her the script is Greek, but the words are not Greek. It appears to be some sort of code. Bob agrees to help Elizabeth unravel the coded papers.

Part Four – France 1917
Stephen Wraysford gets reacquainted with Michael Weir, a commander of the tunneling soldiers. Weir has returned from a strange, emotionless leave with his parents inEngland. Stephen Wraysford and Michael Weir are trapped in a tunnel. Weir is disabled with a broken arm. Wraysford helps get him rescued.

Wraysford gets permission to take leave in Amiens, a city he knows well, a city where Isabelle could be. Wraysford goes with a man named Ellis, but tires of the bars were his fellow servicemen are going. He goes to an out of the way bar and runs into Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne. The contact is awkward at first, with Jeanne not pleased by the reunion and its potential to disrupt her family. Eventually, after contacting Isabelle, Jeanne agrees to take Stephen to meet with his pre-World War I lover. He learns she has given birth to a daughter he fathered. She has been disfigured by a shell. Isabelle had gone back with her husband, René, who took her back, and seemed surprisingly repentant himself as opposed to being angry with her, offering to change his ways. But Isabelle is still not happy going back. When Amiens is occupied by the Germans, René Azaire is taken as a hostage and eventually deported to Germany with other prisoners. German officers of the occupation are described as “punctilious and good-humored.” Isabelle falls in love with one of them, Max. Max is attentive to Isabelle’s daughter. Max is now posted elsewhere, but they maintain their contact, and their feelings for each other. Stephen also finds out out Lisette has married Lucien Lebrun. Stephen is satisfied with the update, content that any relationship with Isabelle is over.

When Wraysford returns from leave, he finds out he will be reassigned to a staff job. Colonel Gray remarks that he has looked into Wraysford’s eyes and has seen a “perfect blankness.” Wraysford has seen the same “great void” in Gray’s eyes.

Stephen and Isabelle’s older sister Jeanne begin a correspondence, and a growing mutual affection, though Stephen’s apparent disillusionment, his emptiness of soul, colors the relationship. Stephen goes on leave to England, but seems disconnected from anything there. And people seem disconnected from him—an incident of Stephen buying shirts implies someone sees the emptiness in him, finds him unsettling, and encourages him to move along. He goes back to France early and visits Jeanne in Amiens.

Stephen leads a reconnaissance raid before his new assignment. After nearly getting cut off by a German counterattack, reinforcements push the Germans back and Stephen is able to withdraw safely. He loses more of the soldiers he is familiar with, including Ellis, the man who had gone on leave with him toAmiens. Stephen writes the letter to Ellis’s family, a task he finds difficult, because he finds the action difficult to describe to non-soldiers. He ends up offering “only formal words of condolence.” Stephen gets word Michael Weir has been killed.  He sees Jeanne. She is “worried by his listlessness.”

Part Five – England 1978-79
Elizabeth’s boss Bob tells her he has still not figured out her grandfather’s notebooks. She tries to find living associates of her grandfather during World War I. She finds Colonel Gray, but he is grouchy about the contact, and offers little of use, just that her grandfather was a “strange man.” She makes contact with another man, Brennan, whom she visits more than once. She gets little real information from, but feels compassion for Brennan’s apparent sacrifice of his life as a result of World War I. Elizabeth’s mother finds twenty more of her grandfather’s notebooks. Elizabeth, preoccupied with research for information about her grandfather, forgets about what she thought of as a casual date with an associate from her work. He ends up making an awkward marriage proposal, which she turns down. Elizabeth then that discovers she’s pregnant. She tells her lover, who reacts tepidly, but says he is happy—for her. Bob, her boss, now has decoded Elizabeth’s grandfather’s notebooks. They offer a detailed journal of his World War I experience. She reads and begins to absorb what her grandfather went through.

Part Six – France 1918
Stephen is set to go back into the lines for another operation. He visits Jeanne before he goes. He finds out Isabelle has moved to Germany to join Max, who has been terribly wounded. It appears she will stay there for good. Jeanne and Stephen become intimate, though Stephen still seems distant, disconnected, disillusioned—and calls out Isabelle’s name as they embrace.

Stephen goes on the operation, another one in a tunnel. They go to a listening post and realize too late there is a German tunnel right near them. As they hear Germans running, Stephen realizes the Germans are about to blow their tunnel. The explosion closes off the tunnel, trapping and burying the men. Stephen is aware of only himself and badly injured Jack Firebrace (two broken legs) as possible survivors. They are trapped in the tunnel for days, trying to find a way out, and more and more certain they will not be able to. Stephen considers using his revolver to end his ordeal more quickly. He finds some explosives and tries to blow a hole in the tunnel to free them. Without knowing it, he kills some Germans in the vicinity. Jack Firebrace dies before rescue, but Stephen is eventually rescued by one of the dead German’s brothers. Though his rescuer knows Stephen was likely responsible for his brother’s death, he makes no issue of it, and the men embrace at Stephen’s rescue. Stephen leaves to join his battalion after helping with a joint grave for Jack Firebrace and his rescuer’s brother. The war ends, but Stephen Wraysford finds that “nothing could check the low exultation of his soul.”

Part Seven – England 1979
Elizabeth’s mother takes her pregnancy well, surprising Elizabeth. After all her mother says, her parents weren’t married either. Elizabeth discovers, almost casually from her mother, that the woman she knew her whole life as “Grand-mère Jeanne” was not her mother’s blood mother. Elizabeth had suspected something was wrong because the age numbers did not tally. Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire. Jeanne had adopted her and moved to England with Stephen where they married. Isabelle had been killed by the flu epidemic right after the war, and Max was in no position to care for a little girl he was not even related to. The book ends with Elizabeth’s baby coming a few days early, with her giving birth to her new son John—her lover Robert assists with the birth.

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Books-Into-Film Commentary – Birdsong (Part One) April 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Birdsong, books, books compared to film, books compared to television, films based on books, historical fiction, movies based on books, Sebastian Faulks, television based on books, television commentary, World War I.
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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.)

Birdsong is Sebastian Faulks’ novel set during World War I. It is being offered as a two-part mini-series on “Masterpiece Theatre.” This struck me as an obvious opportunity for another “Books-into-Movies/Books-into-Film/Books-into-Television” post(s) here at my blog. With this post, I’ll address Part One, broadcast locally for me in southern California the evening of April 22nd. I’ll post on Part Two in a week, and offer a synopsis of the novel in that second post.

The basic tone and shape of the novel Birdsong is still recognizable in the miniseries “Birdsong,” but the story is presented with major conceptual adjustments, leading to many divergences between the book and the miniseries, at least at the halfway point. The two big conceptual changes?

  • The focus of the miniseries has been entirely on Part One, set in 1910, and Part Two set in 1916. These two parts make up just under half of the novel Birdsong, a seven part novel. And we are not near to the resolution points of Part One and Part Two of the novel. There has been no hint at all that the miniseries will include the 1970s parts of the novel involving Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson.
  • The miniseries moves back and forth constantly between 1910 and 1916. The novel tells the 1910 story in an unbroken flow, then moves on to 1916 after the resolution of the events of 1910. Faulks uses flash-forward/flashbacks, but this is after much longer story sections, and runs between the 1910s and the 1970s.

These divergences allow the filmmakers to build the Part One/1910 and Part Two/1916 stories in parallel, simultaneously taking us to cliffhanger points in both stories at the end of Part One of the miniseries. We have Stephen Wraysford taking René Azaire’s wife away from him in 1910, with all the uncertainty that implies. And we have Stephen Wraysford found among corpses in 1916.

The filmmakers’ choice to approach the story this way has led to many discrepancies between the novel and the miniseries, some dictated by the changes in approach, and some changes less essential, selected for other aesthetic/creative reasons. Here is a list of observations of where the novel has been followed, and where it has not been followed:

  • The tunneling under enemy lines, under the trenches, is a key element of the novel Birdsong (as it is in the miniseries).
  • The novel starts in 1910. The miniseries starts with the quick look at World War I in 1916, then flashes back and forth from there.
  • Bérard’s obnoxious singing is directly from the book.
  • Stephen Wraysford hearing crying or pleading and walking to investigate, then hiding when René Azaire emerges from his bedroom and asks that if anyone is there, is directly from the book. Stephen also confronts Isabelle Azaire about what he has heard, and she shuts down his inquiry, asking him to respect her position.
  • The book depicts a lot more of the activities at the René Azaire textile production facility, including the issues of the labor strife.
  • Stephen Wraysford does see Isabel Azaire delivering food to children of laborers as in the book (and she offers Stephen her explanation).
  • The way Stephen and Isabelle come together is different in the book. Stephen gets involved in an altercation as a result of the labor unrest. He injures his hand. René Azaire suggests he stay away from the production facility, at the Azaire home, for a week. Stephen himself has become an issue for Azaire’s labor force, because he is from England. During that period, Stephen and Isabelle become intimate.
  • Stephen Wraysford uses cards, and rat guts, to predict the future of fellow soldiers in the novel.
  • Jeanne, Isabelle’s older sister, does not appear until later in the novel. She is mentioned early in the narrative, but does not participate in any 1910 scenes. There is no scene in the novel where Stephen mistakes Jeanne for Isabelle at the piano.
  • Stephen Wraysford is wounded during action in a tunnel, and mistaken for dead. He is put with the corpses, but this is not interspersed with scenes of Isabelle leaving René in the novel as it is in the miniseries.
  • Isabelle is more circumspect and careful in the novel, with elaborate precautions to hide their affair from everyone. Lisette does discover the affair, and does ask Stephen to do the same things with her that he’s doing with Isabelle, as in the miniseries. But Lisette’s discovery of the affair seems less likely in the book, and more surprising, with all the precautions taken by Isabelle.
  • And, Lisette’s actions do not trigger the breakup. The breakup in the novel occurs after the labor dispute is resolved, and René confronts Isabelle about rumors of her taking food to the families of workers—and rumors she has had an affair with one of the labor leaders. She admits to an affair—with Stephen.
  • “Forgive me,” followed by “I do forgive you as I ask you to forgive me” is directly from the novel. Stephen and Isabelle leave, as they are preparing to do at the end of Part One of the miniseries.

*******

So Part One of the miniseries “Birdsong” leaves us with a double cliffhanger, at key dramatic points in Part One/1910 and Part Two/1916 of the novel. At this point, it does not appear to me the miniseries will address the 1970s storyline from the novel at all. There is still a significant amount of story in both Part One and Part Two, as well as in the rest of Birdsong. It will be interesting to see what the filmmakers choose to dramatize, and what they choose to leave out. It is clear to me they will have to leave out something.

At the end of my post next week, I will offer a synopsis of the novel, and readers of these blog posts have another way to compare the basic storyline of the book with the basic storyline of the miniseries. However, even that synopsis leaves out much of the detail in the novel, and at this point, the novel would still offer people interested in this story some surprises even if they have seen the miniseries. So we will pick up with Stephen on the run with Isabelle in 1910, and Stephen emerging from the dead in 1916, next week.

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)

 

 

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.
Tags: , , , , ,
6 comments

(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)

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.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

(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)

The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Episode Four August 14, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Not such an on-the-edge cliffhanger for this episode. But let’s be honest—it would have been hard to top last week’s intense ending. Immediately, within the first five minutes, the cliffhanger elements resolve: 1) Philip’s brother Francis gets the rope from around Philip’s neck just in time, and 2) Jack finds his way out of the pile of corpses. That allowed us to move quickly into this week’s drama.

Where did they leave us this week? Without Tom Builder. Just as in the book, Tom Builder dies in the raid on the Kingsbridge Fleece Fair. This was as much a shock in the book as it was in the mini-series, because it is hard to imagine Kingsbridge Cathedral without Tom Builder. I wondered if the mini-series producers would decide to keep him around longer. But Tom Builder himself says the cathedral would not be finished until he had passed on. In The Pillars of the Earth, the cathedral is the main character that cannot die; the human Tom Builder is the more expendable character.

We’re also left with a ruined Kingsbridge village, including Aliena’s fortune in wool, destroyed in the fire, and with an ongoing civil war rendering loyalties flexible and allowing bullies to enforce their will without limitations, bullies like William “my-market-or-no-market” Hamleigh. The good guys seem prostrate and defeated. Not really a cliff-hanger—more like already gone over the cliff and landed hard on craggy rocks.

For this week, the true cliff-hangers may have been offered in the previews of next week’s episode. Aliena marrying Alfred? Kingsbridge church collapsing? William declared the earl of Shiring? Yipes; given the events of this week’s episodes, we are left wondering. (All right, if you know the book, you know how we get to those points—that is, if they follow the book.)

So to continue the basic pattern of these commentaries, I’ll again discuss how the series is in synch or out of synch with the book, and how I think it works with the story:

Waleran Bigod and the Hamleighs. This is well out of synch with the book. Waleran Bigod remains the key evil character of the book, and I do not expect that to change. He expresses his clear ambition to gain the highest position in the Church, the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, and implies he does not care how this is accomplished. He instigates the attack on Kingsbridge; in the book, this is a William of Hamleigh operation. Bigod manipulates a prisoner exchange in a way that gets an innocent farm-boy hostage killed—there is no such hostage exchange in the book. He is almost completely unredeemable. The only moment that hints of remorse is when he puts spikes in his shoes to atone for the death of the innocent boy. But this is a private moment, all too easy; it isn’t much to give him any sympathetic qualities.

William of Hamleigh remains more of a pawn than an actor for his own purposes. We see him showing an attraction to a pretty young twelve year old girl (she doesn’t look twelve, but she’ll have to play older later in the story). In this scene, he almost seems like a courtly gentleman until his mother gives him a disapproving look. This storyline is in the book, but it’s just a hint now, so we’ll wait to see where they take it. I suspect there will be some variation, as we have the mother’s weird obsession with her son, present in the series and not in the book, as a factor to deal with.

Jack and Aliena. This largely synchs up with the book in what I believe are effective ways. We get a hint of their courtship in the book in the scene where Jack plays with the yarn, and in a second scene where he tells stories to her and demonstrates his ability to read. That scene ends with Jack getting familiar in a way that reminds Aliena of her rape by William. I think this is more effective than in the book, where Aliena’s rejection of Jack is vague. The series tracks more logically. And it does leave us in the same place as in the book—Jack is rejected, but we know there is something between these two, and we want them to get together.

Jack and Alfred. This also synchs up with the book, but with some different details that I do not believe track as well as in the original novel. In the book, Alfred taunts Jack about his criminal father, executed on the gallows. This leads to a fight that causes major damages to the cathedral. In the mini-series, Alfred’s vandalism of Jack’s work on the church causes the fight. It is hard to believe Alfred would have been able to defend his actions, and that his vandalism wouldn’t have even been considered in the aftermath of the fight. But we do end up with the “brothers” (only because they share Tom Builder as a father figure) at odds with each other, as they are in the book.

Maud/Matilda, Philip and the Kingsbridge Market License. This gets back in synch now that Maud/Matilda takes the power of the throne. (The series takes major liberties with history here. We have a young Henry II at her side, not present in the book and I don’t believe present in England at this point. She also implies she has just taken the title of “empress.” She had that title years before, as a result of her previous marriage to the now deceased Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.) She grants Philip the market license, but then charges him an exorbitant fee! This is straight from the book and the history. When Maud/Matilda ruled briefly during the civil war, she was known for exploiting her subjects for all the money she could squeeze from them. Here, we are in complete synch with the book, with Philip going to Aliena for next year’s wool payment this year in order to pay the market license fee. In the book, Aliena recalls Philip’s assistance to her at the beginning of her business when she was struggling, and is happy to help him. Of course, this puts everything she owns into that wool, setting up devastating consequences of the raid for Aliena, and potentially for her brother Richard as well.

Aliena and William. In the book, William is obsessed with Aliena—he stalks her and seems unable to find satisfaction with any other woman. Having him call her a witch and trying to burn her seemed to me to be sadism without clear motivation. In the book, Aliena catches on fire trying to save her wool, as she desperately tries to prevent her entire fortune going up in flames; Jack saves her. In the mini-series, Alfred saves her. He also stalks her earlier, alluding more to William’s behavior in the book. The series in this area seems muddled to me—the book is clearer.

Ellen. I remain disappointed with the treatment of this character in “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series. Her relationship with Tom Builder is relegated to near insignificance, when in the book, it is an important part of the early story. Her appearances seem awkward because of her exclusion from much of the story. Jack returns to Kingsbridge before he finds his mother and tells her he is alive? She has to come into town to see him? Later in the episode, Ellen asks Jack some weird questions we cannot imagine a normal mother discussing with her son. Is she taking lessons from William of Hamleigh’s mother? In the confrontation with Philip about Jack joining the monastery as a monk, she mouths some anti-organized religion ideas that seem out of place in the 12th Century, and hint of story-telling agenda. I stand by my episode one comments, that the “witch” storyline would paint the producers into a corner. I think this has proven true. But I also think they have a way out, and will use it soon, to bring Ellen back into the mainstream of the story. She is a much stronger character, more nuanced and multi-dimensional, more powerful, in the book.

Tom Builder and His Son Jonathan. I loved these scenes between Tom Builder and Jonathan just before the raid, scenes invented for the mini-series that offered some real poignant and even suspenseful moments for their relationship. First, as Tom Builder pulls his son away from a bear-dog fight, he tells his son that it isn’t so bad for the bear or the dogs to die with honor fighting for something worth defending. (This turns out to be prophetic, though it would have been stronger if Tom had died while more actively fighting Willliam Hamleigh.) Then, Tom is about to tell Jonathan what their relationship really is. We are hanging on his words. Frankly, I was thinking of what a huge departure this would be from the book, and that this would have major significance for later plot occurrences. Then William shows up. No, Jonathan would not learn this secret—not yet, anyway. This was great story-telling!

Prior Philip and Jack. Prior Philip’s maneuvers to bring Jack into the church are completely in synch with the novel. The monk ceremony brings us into this development powerfully—it is a great scene in the miniseries as it shows us the profound nature of Jack’s new commitment, and has us wondering how this will affect his future, particularly with respect to Aliena.

___________________

So the series has moved much more in synch with the book, with the two major exceptions of the character development of Waleran Bigod and Ellen. And the preview of next week’s episode indicates to me we will remain largely in synch. That’s good news, because this is a great story!

 I’ll be back with another “The Pillars of the Earth” post next Saturday. I have an unusual guest blog appearance set for this coming Wednesday; I am still working out the details. No, it’s not “The Pillars of the Earth” related in any way…

(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)

The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Episode Three August 7, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Let’s acknowledge it right now—the people who have adapted The Pillars of the Earth for television are masters of the cliff-hanger! Two major heroes of the story end this episode in serious jeopardy. They tried to lead us to believe that we should give Jack up for dead. (But we didn’t believe it, did we?) At the end, we see his eyes flicker open as he nestles among a heap of corpses in a mass grave, so we have a hint he’ll get out of his apparent jeopardy. But Prior Philip is on his way to the gallows. That’s where they’ve left us—brilliant mini-series television, the kind of television that drives viewers nuts but brings them back for more! How did they get us to this point, and do we have any semblance of the original novel still present?

The second question/short answer—yes. The mini-series moves in and out of synch with the novel, with a major step back in synch, as I will comment below. The novel remains changed in some material ways, with the mini-series struggling to maintain the original shape of the novel after various detours. I’ll answer that first question, how we got to this point, with some comments on developments this week, sprinkled with my own views on how well I believe the deviations from the original novel are working.

  • Right at the top of the episode, set four years later, Richard’s character development is brought up-to-date with the original novel. He is now a brave, effective fighter for King Stephen, a threat to William’s desire to gain the earldom of Shiring for himself. Richard’s emergence as a worthy knight is a key element of the story, and the update proceeds seamlessly. In my last post, I wondered about this issue—as far as I’m concerned, problem solved.
  • To sharpen this conflict between William and Richard, we have the death of William’s father. In the novel, he dies of an illness. In the mini-series, the twisted, weird mother of William bleeds her ill husband to death, deliberately killing him to improve William’s prospects to inherit the earldom. So this incest-tinged relationship between William and his mother continues. My distaste for this deviation from the book also continues. It seems pointless, almost cartoonish in its execution. But the death of the earl of Shiring does leave open who will inherit the earldom, and as in the novel, King Stephen states he has not decided which of his worthy warriors he will choose. This is a nice juicy conflict, driving the story.
  • In my last post, I commented how Stephen was at Kingsbridge when he was supposed to be at the Battle of Lincoln. The creators of the mini-series have solved this by inserting what is in effect a second Battle of Lincoln, bringing this part of the plot of the mini-series back in synch with the novel. This second battle stems from an effort to relieve King Stephen’s siege of Maud at the castle at Lincoln. The relief force is commanded by Maud’s brother. Richard distinguishes himself by capturing Maude’s brother, but King Stephen is also captured, leading to a planned prisoner exchange. Maud’s forces win, with Maud retaining her position at the castle, and with the prospect that she will now become the reigning queen. This outcome could also bring the mini-series back in synch with the novel, depending on how the story evolves next week.
  • And Waleran Bigod continues his unambiguously evil actions. In the novel, William of Hamleigh is by far the most despicable villain. Waleran Bigod is a schemer and a conniver, lusting for power. But there still remains a hint that he is, in essence, loyal to the church and its teachings—he simply thinks that his advancement is in the best interests of the church. In the mini-series, William Hamleigh is more of a hapless clown, manipulated by Bigod and his creepy mother, maybe even a victim of his mother’s twisted nature. Bigod is truly an evil man, orchestrating the torture and confession, and sentence to execution, of his subordinate monk, Prior Philip. Bigod presides over the torture, seeming to enjoy Philip’s torment. I suspect his fate in the mini-series will be different than in the book. We are about half way through the mini-series, so my opinion on this change in Bigod’s character should be considered preliminary. But I prefer the book’s less heavy-handed, more nuanced approach to Bigod.
  • The mini-series also sets up the rivalry between Jack and Alfred for Aliena, but with key aspects changed. I miss the way Jack wins Aliena’s heart with subtle, simple actions that first build friendship, then slip into love. But that was probably not a plausible alternative for a mini-series. So I think the different approach to Jack and Aliena was needed, and will be effective, with strong dramatic and visual potential. If there is interest in a more subtle story-line for these two, the book is the place to go! As for the mini-series, we have Alfred informing Aliena of Jack’s death. This will probably lead to the same basic events that occur in the book, but with variations that will keep those of us familiar with the novel guessing.
  • Tom Builder tells Ellen about Jack’s death, though she declares she doesn’t believe it. This is the only scene involving this strong character, marginalized by the decision to ostracize her from the story as a result of the witch accusation and her response during the first episode.
  • The Kingsbridge license is handled differently than in the mini-series up to this point, largely because of the out-of-synch situation caused by the repositioning of the Battle of Lincoln in the mini-series. I suspect the conflicts surrounding the license will now resynchronize, and we’ll wait for next week’s episode to see how that plays out. The license is a key issue in the book, as I suspect it will be in the mini-series.
  • King Stephen orders Jack killed, as he remains haunted by Jack’s apparent resemblance to a potentially damaging actor in the vision King Stephen experiences at the end of last week’s episode. (There is nothing like this in the book.) This keeps Jack front-and-center as part of the succession controversy pertaining to the English throne, with this episode tangling William’s mother into those events as well.
  • Waleran Bigod switches sides to Maud, and convinces William and his mother to do the same. This also occurs in the novel. Bigod seems to be playing a very dangerous game, and I’m not sure if this successful switch of allegiances is particularly credible. But, he switches sides at the same time in almost the same way in the book. And in the book, King Stephen’s own brother, Bigod’s superior, also switches sides to Maud!

So, Philip is about to be hanged. The clues to his potential reprieve were in episode one, and hinted at in an instant in this episode. And if the reprieve goes as I think it will, much of the plot of this great novel will be back in synch. But I don’t count on it to stay that way. We are fools if we don’t expect another cliffhanger a week from now!

I’ll be back with more comments 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)

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)

The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Episode One July 24, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Viewers of “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series: consider that the lines have been drawn—the good versus the bad—immediately, sharply, and more quickly and decisively than in The Pillars of the Earth novel. Prior Philip, Tom Builder, Ellen, Jack, Aliena and her brother Richard all line up on the good side of the ledger. Waleran Bigod, William Hamleigh and his parents, Remigius, and Alfred (Tom Builder’s son) line up on the bad side. Also, put Maud/Matilda and her faction on the good side of that ledger, and Stephen on the bad one. The lines are drawn for the remaining episodes, with conflict and subconflicts bubbling among and between these characters. The stage is set for six more hours of rollicking entertainment. 

The first episode appears to be largely faithful to the novel (see my synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth at my website), with some notable exceptions which I will discuss below. It appeared to me that the changes were made for the obvious aims of either sharpening conflicts, heightening suspense, and/or increasing visual interest. (In my opinion, most of these changes worked well.)

 Notes on changes to the novel:

  • The old prior of Kingsbridge confesses his complicity in the death of an innocent man to Philip instead of Remigius. I suspect this will have significant implications for the story down the line. Philip does not have this information in the novel.
  • Agnes gives birth to her son in the forest at the same time Maud/Matilda gives birth to her son Henry at or close to the court of Henry I, with vivid cross-cutting between the birth scenes. (In fact, Henry was born in France in 1133, five years before this scene is set.)
  • The scene with Tom Builder abandoning his just-born son has some slight differences which I found very effective. Tom Builder appears to believe the boy will join his mother in Heaven, and figures that the cold night will be an easier death than slow starvation with his destitute family; Tom figures the baby boy will drift off to sleep, and off to Heaven. This emphasizes how religious faith dominated lives during this period of history, and makes Tom a little more sympathetic for what seems to be a callous, heinous act.
  • Ellen seems drawn to Tom Builder, and seeks him out, because he is a master builder, and she believes her son could excel in that discipline with the right tutelage.
  • Ellen and Jack also do not jump into a quick marriage (as they do in the novel), right after Agnes dies giving birth. This is another good choice, since Tom is supposed to be a sympathetic character, and marrying another woman twenty-four hours after his wife dies seems a cold deed, though in the novel it is understandable, given the desperate circumstances.
  • Waleran Bigod presents a problem. He is supposed to be just a little older than Philip. But a much older actor, the great Ian McShane, plays him. This makes Bigod seem to be an aging figure, already close to power.
  • In the novel, Waleran Bigod starts off almost as if he might be an ally of Philip’s, and we see him as a schemer, but aren’t sure on which side of the good/bad ledger he will settle. In the mini-series, his basic nature is apparent immediately. There is a clear implication that he poisons the presiding bishop, clearing the way for his succession to the bishop’s post, showing his nature clearly and immediately.
  • The biggest departure from the plot in the first episode, and the one that I think works the least effectively, is the accusation that Ellen is a witch. She seems to delight in this, antagonizing the powers-that-be, even when on the verge of execution. She stabs Waleran Bigod with a smuggled weapon and flees the priory, all in apparent collaboration with Prior Philip (which is at odds with his pious nature). This line of plot development tracks roughly, and could provide problems later in the mini-series. Peeing in front of the bishop, then stabbing him, are not actions that can be easily excused. This will make it difficult for Ellen to return to the priory with any credibility. It is not realistic that such actions will be forgiven.
  • There is also more dramatic information given about the secret surrounding Jack’s father’s death, with flashbacks dramatizing the circumstances and bringing in this element in more quickly and with more intensity than in the novel. Also, the curse Ellen delivers at Jack’s father’s execution, to “a knight, a monk and a priest,”—unidentified in the mini-series, as well as in the novel, heightening the mystery—is more specific for each one, making the curse more dramatic and intriguing. There is nothing like a secret, and an ominous devastating prophecy for the future for unknown parties, to drive interest. I found this deviation to be perhaps the most effective adjustment to the story.
  • In a brief scene, there is a weird implication of some sort of incestuous obsession between William Hamleigh and his mother. This is downright creepy, and not necessary. William and his parents are evil enough without this weirdness thrown in.

On the history, the mini-series is clearly unsympathetic to Stephen, more sympathetic to Maud/Matilda. Stephen is depicted as an insincere conniver, usurping a position he has previously promised not to claim. Follette’s handling of the history, it seems to me, was more balanced between these two contenders. There is also an implication in the mini-series that the birth Maud/Matilda’s son Henry motivated Henry I to name Maud/Matilda as his heir. In fact, he had obtained a commitment to Maud from his barons a decade earlier, before she even married her son Henry’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet.

I welcome comments from any readers more familiar with the history (an on anything else on “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series).

I’ll be back commenting on Episode Two next Saturday.

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)

The Pillars of the Earth is Coming – Comments and Observations July 21, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, medieval period, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth.
Tags: , , , , ,
2 comments

(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

The mini-series based on Ken Follette’s The Pillars of Earth starts on July 23rd. For those fascinated with this time period in history (Follette’s epic novel takes place between 1123 and 1174), this offers us a chance to experience great entertainment based on a best-selling book, produced by top-flight film-makers and performers. For those of us who write about this period, “The Pillars of Earth” mini-series is not only entertainment, but a chance to analyze and comment, to praise and quibble, to immerse ourselves in this period from a fresh angle, with the popular culture joining us while the mini-series takes center stage.

I will post my comments at this blog, Saturday morning after each of the six Friday broadcasts. My familiarity with the history of this period starts just after this novel ends. (My novel, just released earlier this month is The Swords of Faith, about the Third Crusade, the confrontation between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin). I will offer only passing comments on the history as depicted in the book and mini-series. The history depicted in the book, as I understand it,  appears to be accurate. (I enthusiastically invite more detailed comments from those more familiar with the history.) Most of the story revolves around fictional characters, and fictional characters are the main characters. My comments will discuss the story, how the mini-series depicts the book, and anything else that occurs to me!

The book is divided into six parts, eighteen chapters. The chapters are lengthy—the book is lengthy, just over 400,000 words. (I will refer to the chapters, not the page numbers as I comment on the book, as different readers will have different editions of The Pillars of Earth.) I have completed a detailed synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth, now posted at my website.

Next post will be the morning of the 24th!

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)