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Wolf Hall from page to screen

Wolf Hall from page to screen

The reasons why a book can capture the public's imagination are far from rational. It would seem that there is not a lot that links Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey and Zoella’s Girl Online yet through marketing, synchronicity, the Zeitgeist and a host of other indefinables, all have taken off to an extraordinary degree. The reasons behind the success of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are perhaps more clear-cut: they tell a story of human complexity and drama with unparalleled insight and a preternatural feel for a distant time and place. They remind us that the past is not just a foreign country but one in many ways infinitely more sophisticated than our own. And they touch a nerve too because unlike today, the downside of power in Tudor times was death.

Mantel's 2009 and 2012 Man Booker-winning novels have nevertheless surpassed all expectations. Winning the prize invariably leads to a huge boost in sales because readers trust the prize's imprimatur. Both books have sold (and continue to sell) in their thousands, indeed their hundreds of thousands. Although many Man Booker winners have been made into successful films (The English Patient, The Remains of the Day, Schindler's Ark among them) the afterlife of most Man Booker winners does not usually include stage and television adaptations. Mantel and her books though have become a phenomenon.

The author herself has been made a dame and the books made into highly successful stage plays that sold out their runs at both Stratford and London and they are now preparing to move to Broadway. The greatest buzz, however, has been stirred by the six-part BBC Two series that opened on Wednesday night, with Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Jonathan Price as Cardinal Wolsey. But even the top-notch cast doesn't explain why for months already there have been press stories about everything from plans to film in Belgium (rejected) and the number of National Trust properties used as locations (six) to 'Why isn't Henry VIII fat and other Wolf Hall mysteries explained' and the new camera technology that has allowed filming by candlelight. Rylance, Mantel and Lewis have all spoken widely about the programmes and their hopes for them. The series has taken on a life of its own.

So, now that the first episode has been aired, was the buzz justified and rewarded? In short, yes – and in spades. The Guardian's Sam Wollaston said ‘this is event television, sumptuous, intelligent and serious, meticulous in the detail, but not humourless or po-faced. History, as seen by a novelist with an eye and an ear for a human story and a character, then condensed with sensitivity and brought back to life again for the small screen.’ Christopher Stevens at the Daily Mail praised pretty much every aspect of the production and noted that ‘Unlike BBC2’s earlier effort The Tudors – the lusty beds-and-beheadings version with Natalie Dormer as Anne – Wolf Hall expects its audience to be educated.’ The Independent's Will Dean drew a similar parallel: ‘This is a taut, gloomy production, one that’s (obviously) a leap away from the aesthetics of the most recent Henry TV drama, the glossy The Tudors.’

Rachel Cooke at the New Statesman was simply bowled over: ‘Wolf Hall is mostly unnervingly quiet, tamped down, the better, perhaps, to emphasise the high stakes involved for its players. Also, the fear in their hearts. In the context of cartoony 21st-century television, this is quite dazzlingly restrained. What a palate cleanser. There’s nothing else like it right now and it deserves to win a tonne of awards.’ James Walton at the Telegraph meanwhile was most taken by the production's pace: ‘its willingness to allow a slow build; its defiant refusal to get overexcited by either its own material or its own hype; and, above all, its vivid sense that what we now regard as history (and therefore as somehow inevitable) is something that once unfolded — and unfolded uncertainly — in real time’.

As befitting a professor of English literature, John Sutherland, chair of the 2005 Man Booker judges (not a Mantel year), made a series of subtle points in the Guardian about the differences between writing a book and filming a screenplay: ‘Peter Kosminsky hasn’t adapted Wolf Hall, he’s televised it. Those coming to the TV version from Hilary Mantel’s novel will relish the clash of artistries. Mantel has the novelist’s advantage of limitless space . . . Kosminsky, with a mere six hours and 60,000 words of dialogue at his disposal, has pace, flashback and visual impact.’

More than one critic has also pointed out the seemingly paradoxical: far from discouraging anyone who hasn't yet read the novels from reading them, the series will in fact send them to the originals. Hilary Mantel was adamant that the series would not dumb down the books and, on the evidence so far, she has been absolutely as good as her word. The next five Wednesday nights have become staying in nights.


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