He, Cromwell: Mantel on page and screen, by Ali Bacon

Montacute House
aka Wolf Hall 
The media love to feed off each other. Over the winter the Daily Telegraph ran a news item every Monday (yes news, not features!) relating to Downton Abbey, and in the last few weeks I've notices something similar with the BBC's Wolf Hall, except for a small snag: viewing figures weren’t as brilliant as expected. Still, even that became news of the non-news kind (Wolf Hall fails to grip the nation) and they hedged their bets by finding a photo of Mark Rylance for the front page.

The Beeb of course cashes in with spin-off programmes and Rylance (surprise!) popped up right on cue on Desert Island Discs. Do I mind? 

Not in the least, because fickle creature that I am, I’d rather watch or listen to Mark Rylance than the sadly overexposed High Bonneville any day. Oh what a circus. The media have me down to a T.

But it’s still worth thinking about Wolf Hall on TV and its impact or lack of. For me the books do require patience and a willingness on the part of the reader to be immersed by thoughts as much as action, not to mention sorting out a pretty big cast of characters many of whom are called Thomas. (Such is the fate of the historical novelist – you can’t change the names!) I actually nearly gave up on Wolf Hall but once I was in there (for some reason the death of his wife that was the turning point for me) it was engrossing and compelling.  

But despite my enjoyment of it I didn’t get around to reading the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, until the TV series loomed into view, I think because I felt I already knew how it would feel as a read, and, as a friend pointed out, let’s face it we know what happens in the end. In fact I think I enjoyed it more than WH, although I still can’t believe that the ‘pronoun problem’ (digression alert) didn’t get sorted out.

"He, Cromwell"
(in case you were wondering)
He = Cromwell
Rant/digression! In Wolf Hall Mantel  opted for a style where ‘he’ nearly always referred to Cromwell even if someone else had been referred to more recently (there's an example and discussion here) . I for one found this unnecessarily confusing until I got used to it (and sometimes even then).  In BUTB either Mantel or her editors decided to give the reader a break by using ‘he, Cromwell’ where there was any ambiguity. Sorry, but this struck me as clunky in the extreme, and anyway why do we need a pronoun and a name, surely ‘Cromwell’ on its own would have been less jarring?  

So, going back to the TV version, complaints have mostly been that it’s too slow with too many long looks and ‘significant’ silences.  And these have come from both fans of the books and those who don’t know them at all.

But you see, there’s the thing.  As my writing teacher – who was an actress before she was a novelist – pointed out, of all the arts, only writing allows us inside people’s heads. Pace the artificiality of a soliloquy (or voice-over), actors reveal thoughts only through expression and action. Writers actually put these thoughts on the page. 

I actually think the BBC dramatization is very faithful to the subtle and detailed style of Mantel’s writing. It’s just that the director faces more limitations in giving us Cromwell’s inner thoughts. The Rylance eyebrows, however eloquent, have their limitations.

As an afterthought, and with apologies to Ali for the liberty, here's an Authors Electric review of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

Photo credit: Montacute House by Paul McCoubrie on Flickr


Nick Green said…
These books are my absolute favourite books of all time. And in my view Wolf Hall is not just the best thing on TV... I think it's the best thing that's EVER been on TV. Am overjoyed to see so much hype finally for something that deserves every ounce of it and more. 😃
Nick Green said…
P.S. I also love the curious use of 'he' as a point-of-view. I think it's very rarely confusing and certainly needs no 'sorting out'. What Mantel has done is no less than invent a new pov. No mean feat. It's the 'first/third' person. Told as if in first person, but using a third person pronoun. Which somehow nails Cromwell's personality to a T. Read 'I' for 'he' every time and it suddenly becomes clear.
Mari Biella said…
I loved Wolf Hall though sadly, since I'm not currently in Britain, I haven't had the chance to see the TV series. I've always been interested, though, in the relationship between novels and TV/film adaptations. It's true that the one thing the novel can do, and film and TV cannot, is to tease out a character's emotions, motives, and feelings. On the screen, you have to find ways to visually represent them - and you can only do that with partial success! Interesting post.
Jan Needle said…
haven't read wolf hall yet because i was told it would too hard for me. (sauce!) But the tv version is WONDERFUL. so there
Chris Longmuir said…
Moving away from the topic of Wolf Hall, I was intrigued by your opening where Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey are treated as news rather than features. I've noticed this a lot over the years, particularly with Soaps. the plots of these are often reported as news, such as the recent murder in Eastenders (I think I've got the programme right because I don't watch Soaps). I've always thought this odd, surely if a reporter wants to write about the plot of a TV show, it should be a feature rather than news.
AliB said…
I've also enjoyed books and TV (superb casting and I had no problem with the lighting) but can see why some people wouldn't. And I take your point about the pov Nick. Mantel obviously did want to do something new. Third person 'close' has always been an option and I think she wanted to make it 'ultra-close' as someone has called it. But I also think there is a trade-off with clarity, and for me clarity is paramount. Why make it harder for the reader? Well this reader anyway! A.
AliB said…
Chris, I absolutely agree. No wonder people confuse soaps with real life! Or you could argue that what happens on the screen is now part of our national life? and each newspaper will choose what it 'follows' - with DT sticking to historical drama and the Archers ;)
Jan Needle said…
do you mean ruth on the archers isn't real? oooooooooooooh noooooooooooo
Lee said…
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Lee said…
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Lee said…
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AliB said…
Thanks for your comments, Maria.
Jan - there are exceptions, obviously - especially after the latest Archers episode!
Susan Price said…
Nick, I challenge you to exceed my admiration for Mantel and her achievement in these books. A friend I met recently said, "'A Place of Greater Safety' is even better." Dunno about that - but I've never come across any writing by Mantel that I didn't love.
elizabeth said…
I need to get 'A Place of Greater Safety ' on Kindle. I kept losing my place in my 'real' book. I couldn't remember who was who. I lent it to a friend a couple of weeks ago who loved Wolf Hall and she struggled too. It's much harder than the Cromwell books so read them first Jan - they're even better than the tv. - You're much cleverer than me, but I don't want you to be put off by the French Revolution. I'm waiting for the third book but I'll be devastated when Thomas dies.
Lee said…
I too am a great admirer of Hilary Mantel's work, but I'm not convinced that she's invented a new POV in Wolf Hall, Nick. She's using a very limited third-person POV (subjective), and though it mostly works, there are times when the reliance on 'he' is simply confusing - to no real purpose, as far as I can see. Here's an early example:

'Gregory is coming up thirteen. He’s at Cambridge, with his tutor. He’s [italics mine] sent his nephews, his sister Bet’s sons, to school with him; it’s something he is glad to do for the family.'

Sure, we can figure out who is meant by the italicised 'he's' -- Cromwell himself, not the tutor -- with some effort, but a bit of rewriting could have maintained the same effect without the awkwardness and lack of clarity.

Lydia Bennet said…
I've avoided these books up to now as I feel all Tudor'd out and have done for years. But I find it annoying that the press, especially the BBC, fill up pages/airtime with 'news' which consists of bits of plot from soaps and dramas, too. it's bread and circuses to take our minds off the misdeeds of our 'betters' perhaps - the non-reporting of various demos etc bears that out.

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