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BBC’s Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall is the BBC’s new adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, chronicling the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s merchant-born advisor, Thomas Cromwell.

I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t want to watch this show. I am not a fan of Cromwell (to the extent that you can be “not a fan” of a real historical figure) and I was incredibly reluctant to watch something that seemed likely to paint him as a wonderful, sympathetic hero while villainising those he destroyed, like Anne Boleyn. And the show does make him into a compelling and sympathetic character, as it must to be even vaguely successful. But that doesn’t mean moral complexity is overlooked, and, after an initial adjustment period, I discovered that the show is actually incredibly fulfilling to watch.

Wolf Hall is a very male-centered show, especially in its first episode. In part, of course, this is because the story is focussed on Thomas Cromwell, and his political dealings are mostly with other men. But the show does also miss opportunities to explore its female characters and their motivations more deeply. Every one of them (minus a brief appearance from Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor) is considered in a somewhat sexual manner, even if they’re not sexualized as they are in shows like The Tudors, and clashes between Cromwell and Anne take a backseat compared to other tumultuous relationship, like the one between Cromwell and Thomas More.

But the show is incredibly historically accurate. The actors look remarkably like the historical figures’ portraits, and I noticed at least two instances where the show used real speeches, slightly updated for modern ears. Even common small inaccuracies, like Catherine of Aragon and Mary having dark hair instead of their actual red hair, are corrected. The show seems determined to be as faithful to known historical events as physically possible, and that’s admirable, and incredibly enjoyable to watch, at least from this Tudor history nerd’s perspective.

And although important female characters often take a back seat, their political influence isn’t downplayed. We see Catherine give a stirring speech in her own defence, and are told that she fought Scotland, giving an impression of a fierce, strong, capable queen that is often overlooked in retellings of “Catherine vs Anne Boleyn.” Similarly, Anne is incredibly ambitious here, but it is not just personal ambition to marry Henry. We learn that Anne has read heretical Protestant literature and has many of her own opinions about it, and although she and Cromwell are constantly at odds, we also see how their similar political leanings unite them and their goals. We even see a lot of Elizabeth Barton and her visions, and the huge influence she has, and this often overlooked but important figure is characterized with great strength of character and intelligence.

Unfortunately, these female characters are rarer in the show than they should be. Catherine and Mary barely appear, and Catherine and Anne do not, as far as I can recall, ever speak to one another, or even appear in a scene together. Anne is certainly ambitious and political, but her portrayal as the show goes on makes her start to seem irrational, without much exploration of how desperate her situation becomes and how that affects her. Perhaps most disappointingly, the show marks Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, as a vindictive traitor — a common narrative about these events, but one that isn’t really supported by evidence and would be so easy to subvert. If the show can bring a lot of depth and sympathy to a man like Thomas Cromwell, it can spare a few moments to explore what might compel Jane Boleyn to give evidence against her husband and his sister, beyond “well she was just a horrible person.” But the show takes the easy way out, which is disappointing considering the depth it brings to other difficult historical figures.

In another strike against it, the show is not always easy to follow. I’m pretty obsessed with this time period, but sometimes I found myself wondering who that person was supposed to be again, or confused about where the narrative had jumped to. I imagine it’s not the friendliest exploration of this time period to anyone who hasn’t seen it all before. But it is sumptuous to watch.

Wolf Hall is gorgeously shot, with some brilliant acting and great lines, and it is the first show I’ve seen that manages to bring history to life, in the sense that it’s both incredibly accurate (at least, as accurate as anything can come based on a few documents 600 years later) and yet still compelling. It doesn’t reinterpret a few threads of history in order to make a dramatic TV show. It uses the medium of television give one possible version of that history.

And that, I think, is really worth watching. Just be warned that the female characters don’t always get the screen time and focus they might deserve.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

6 thoughts on “BBC’s Wolf Hall

  1. Woo! I totally agree with your review. I’d be very interested to compare it to Wolf Hall the book, and see if it is reducing or adding to the women screen time as compared to Mantel’s work.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is Mary Boleyn, since I love her in this adaptation, and I couldn’t exactly figure out why. But I think it largely has to do with the fact that it plays with the idea that she was kind of like an Anne 1.0 — someone who tried to play the game the way she thought it should be (gettin’ with that sexy beast Henry VIII) and failing where her sister succeeded. Then when Mary tries to become a player by cozying up to Cromwell, she fails again miserably – first because she doesn’t think about just how bad this rebellion would be, and of course Cromwell rejects her advances. So we get to see her try to play the political game like her sister, but where Anne really uses strategy and succeeds (for a while, at least), Mary is never as clever as her sister. So we both get to see Mary as more of a character than these adaptations usually show (barring The Other Boleyn Girl) while also highlighting just how good Anne is at being Anne.

    Since I’ve only seen the first 3 episodes, I’m looking forward to the rest of the season to see how it sways my opinion!

  2. I am totally loving the show.
    The book is brilliant and does explore Jane Boleyn’s motivation to betray her husband and sister-in-law.
    I think Show!Cromwell’s sexualisation of Anne does actually help him dehumanise her, and therefore destroy her.
    Book!Cromwell does like Mary Boleyn more-he finds her sexual openness much more appealing then Anne Boleyn’s withholding frigidity.
    In an interview, Hilary Mantel mentioned that people often say to her that she is highly unsympathetic to Anne, but she points out that this is not how *she* feels about Anne Boleyn, but how a man like Cromwell would feel about a woman like Anne Boleyn.

  3. Interesting! It’s great to hear that it’s so accurate to the time period. I might have to check out the show now. From what I’ve heard, the book is also very hard to follow, so that might not be entirely the show’s fault.

  4. This post helped me think more kindly about this adaptation, which I have found really disappointing. It’s always good to see something positively through someone else’s eyes and so reappraise my own view.

    I’m a huge fan of the books – I’ve read Wolf Hall five times, annually since it came out. And for me Mark Rylance is just all wrong as Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell is brutish in his brilliance, witty, sentimental, fiercely protective. In comparison I find Rylance blank and bland. I think this probably has to do with how poorly the second person narrative can be transferred to screen. Hard to convey the ‘you, Thomas’ intimacy of being in Cromwell’s skin. That and the complexity of the narrative structure in the books, with all the flash backs, asides, foreshadowings. Which is probably a sign that I should stop comparing the two, and enjoy the show for what it is rather than what it can’t be. Hard though.

    Oh, btw I never realised you were in York! My partner and I lived there until last year, when we moved out near Malton. I still work for the libraries there. :)

    1. I actually didn’t know it was written in second person. That’s an interesting choice — I’m going to have to pick up the book now and see how they compare.

      And wow, that’s really cool! I’ve only lived in York for just over a year, but it’s a fantastic city.

  5. Nice post! I’d like to point out about Jane Rochford is that, in the book Bring Up the Bodies she is somewhat more sympathetic. Although the show was very faithful to the book, in so much that it recycled character lines from it, it missed bits and pieces (obviously), or cut some lines short. It also yoked two characters (Anne and Rochford) in a scene, changed it a little so it was just Rochford and Jane Seymour talking. In the book, from what I remember Rochford never says to Jane “I wish you’d gone to Wiltshire” and “It’s like baiting a fieldmouse.” Those were Anne’s lines, as well as a few others. The show also made that scene one where the ladies discover Anne bleeding.

    Further, there was a bit in the book during her scene with Crom where she delivers the evidence against Anne and whatnot, and it gives you an indication on why might do that. [MINOR SPOILER] It’s a bit to do with George; with them already being unhappily wed, he apparently, on their wedding night said that her breasts were pathetic, that he’d seen and felt better. He has also cheated on her (supposedly). It’s all kind of littered throughout the books. Certainly not on the same level as The Tudors, but you can see the (veiled) reason.

    It also mentions that as a young (unhappily) married gentlewoman, she is rather powerless since pretty much back then you were the wife of a courtier; in Cromwell’s mind he briefly compared her to other imagined women in similar situations and concluded that they would have some more sense of power that Rochford. And on top of that, being barren (allegedly) – Cromwell notes that it is always the women who gets the blame for it; if the women bears a son then somehow the husband gets the praise. On top of that, people would never say “[the husband’s] seed is bad”. Even Cromwell directly says to her “do not think I am without sympathy for you.”

    Of course Lady Rochford isn’t a saint; she wasn’t the nicest person around, but you did sympathise for her. I watched the show while I was reading the book, finished the show before but somehow I still liked Jane Rochford. Maybe because I’m a horrible person, or because I liked the actress. I still widely enjoyed the TV show, however; it’s certainly up there in one of my top favourites.

    On a side note, as for the book being written in second-person: it is and it isn’t. What I mean to say is that, technically it is written in third-person, but all from Crom’s perspective and that Hilary Mantel had a way of doing this so that is almost seemed like first-person, if that makes sense. Cromwell would sometimes entire an inner monologue, or simply remember something and some of these were in “second-person” since he was talking to himself. It’s hard to pin down Hilary Mantel’s prose, but it’s unique and I really enjoyed it. Her books are a door-stopper, and since we’re all still waiting on the third one, I heartily recommend it.

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