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13 April 2015

WOLF HALL -- From the Page to the Stage -- and Screen

I was an early adapter (as they say in the tech world) of WOLF HALL, In fact, back in 2010, Hilary Mantel's publicist sent me a letter asking if I would review the novel for my blog. I rarely posted to my blog at the time, being a busy author myself, and I told Ms. Mantel's publicist that as a fellow author I felt uncomfortable about giving a review of a colleague's work. However, because I had indeed written about Henry VIII and his many love affairs and marriages in my nonfiction books ROYAL AFFAIRS  and NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (which is why they wanted me to review WOLF HALL in the first place, I told the publicist that I would be delighted to read the novel and if I loved it, I would be certain to write about why I loved it, and let all my readers and colleagues know that.

P.S.: I loved it and did end up writing a blog post that was more or less in the form of a rave review. I adore voice-y fiction and Mantel has one helluvan author's voice. Many like it; many don't, but I'm one who does. I'm not personally fond of Thomas Cromwell the man, but as someone who writes about history's "bad girls" -- women who have gotten a bad reputation most often from centuries of propaganda delivered to us as truth instead, I'm fascinated by the choice of Cromwell as protagonist and grateful to see the Tudors through eyes other than one of Anne Boleyn's handmaidens for a change.

The prose is meaty and muscular, gristly at times, but delicious.

And I enjoyed Ms. Mantel's second novel in the trilogy, BRING UP THE BODIES as well. By then I found it a quicker read than WOLF HALL and the minor quibble I'd had about the first novel (the same minor quibble shared by hundreds of others, evidently -- namely that of applying the pronoun "him" every time she referred to Thomas Cromwell when there were so many other males in the room often created confusion) had been pretty much resolved.

So, what would happen, I wondered, when Ms. Mantel's novels, which for the most part are faithful to the historical record -- except for my other minor quibble -- when she does not need to stray into Philippa Gregory territory to make things up (like attributing Henry's sons to Mary Boleyn, which (a) is not true and (b) he got a perfectly good one off another royal mistress Bessie Blount) were translated to the stage--and then be transformed into a BBC miniseries? Would the author's voice get lost as is so often the case with that other oft-adapted author Jane Austen?

I am SO glad to have seen the Broadway plays before I saw the first part of the bloated and miscast miniseries. Oh, did I tip my hand too much just now? For the Broadway/Royal Shakespeare Company production (presented in 2 parts as 2 separate plays: Part 1 is WOLF HALL and Part 2 is BRING UP THE BODIES -- both titled for ease of comprehension as WOLF HALL) is everything the miniseries should be. It is brilliantly cast. The pacing is swift and sure. Each play is nearly 3 hours with an intermission. And the first play, in particular speeds by. There are pacing issues with the lumbering first act of the second play. Too much exposition. Replacing the author's voice on the page (in the stage play) are humor and wit. Just enough. In the right places. The plays are by no means comedies. But life is a human comedy. And we are witnessing whip-smart people.

Many of the same lines in the mouths of the miscast actors in the miniseries fall flat. I found the teleplay to be utterly humorless. The first episode flatlined for me. While I sat in my seat at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and couldn't wait for more, and leapt to my feet for each curtain call in what is truly an ensemble cast, I nearly fell asleep during the droning delivery of the actors on television.

How could the same material be presented in two such different iterations -- one so lively and one so dull? The stage set for the theatrical event is big and gray. The miniseries takes you into a zillion Tudor-esque locations, so faithful to what we imagine the originals must have been -- and yet that version is the least interesting!  On Broadway, even though the actor playing Henry (Nathaniel Parker) has a dark beard, he is a tall man (and his costume is increasingly padded as time goes on). When he thunders, you quake in your boots. When he smiles you melt. When he dances (as in the opening of the play), you want to take your clothes off and throw yourself at him. THAT is Henry VIII in his prime. Not the small voiced, mewling guy, redbearded though he is, in the miniseries. A small performance that wouldn't frighten (nor seduce) anyone, nor is he, like the Broadway Henry -- a worthy adversary for Cromwell, who on Broadway has every other line, and is probably way too charismatic -- but that's Ms. Mantell's Cromwell, and she co-wrote the plays, so it's her prerogative.

Perhaps therein lies the vast discrepancy between the stage and screen versions. Ms. Mantel ultimately had a vast deal of input into the scripts for the stage. Whoever wrote the teleplays was trying so hard to be earnest and faithful to the novels that the production became a crashing bore.

And the novels -- and the stage adaptations -- are anything but boring.

As I saw the Broadway plays in previews. Ms. Mantel herself was there. She signed my Playbill. I congratulated her on another great success but afterwards I wished I could have given her a note: I would have liked to have seen more of Anne Boleyn's vulnerability. I felt she was a little too one-note shrewish throughout the 2 plays. I wanted to see more of what made Henry fall in love with her and be willing to wait 7 precious years for her.

Have you read WOLF HALL and/or BRING UP THE BODIES? What was your impression? Have you seen either the Broadway/RSC productions or the miniseries? Care to compare and contrast your opinon of them to the novels?




3 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Leslie! I haven't read the books, seen the play, or seen the tv adaption, though I did hear a wonderful interview with Hilary Mantel on Fresh Air and the books are on my TBR list (a very long list with a toddler; these days my reading often doesn't get farther than Disney Princess Tales of Adventure). So interesting how adaptations compare to novels, often emphasizing different parts of the story,

5:12 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I haven't seen the Broadways plays yet, but I'm recapping the PBS series for Masterpiece Theatre. I'm actually enjoying it although the Anne in the TV series is just as shrill and annoying as it seems the Broadway Anne is. I too wished that we saw a softer side of Anne, the side that wrote love letters to Henry, the woman that he waited 7 long years for. There also has to be something in her for Cromwell to admire since they were allies for a time as well.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I agree, Elizabeth. As she and Cromwell are indeed allies, the cinematoc and stage adapters (and Mantel is one of the stage adapters) have to give us more colors on stage and screen because the visual presentation is a very different animal than a book, where the reader can supply his/her own, fuller portrait. On the screen or the stage, what you see is all you get. And for those of us who know the history, when we read the novels we can fill in the missing pieces to round out what we know should be on the page, but when it's not there on the stage, it's just missing entirely. The Broadway Anne at least looks (and sounds) like I imagine Anne did -- the physical casting of the younger women in the RSC production is uncanny.

Tracy, I can't wait for your opion on Mantel's novels once you get through your TBR pile!

4:43 PM  

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