I recently finished Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and felt utterly frustrated. A historical novel, the book covers 35 years in the life of Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer who became chief minister to King Henry VIII in the mid-1500s. We are introduced to vivid descriptions of Cromwell, his family, the King and everybody who played a vital role in their lives. The novel has been lauded by critics and won prizes. What I appreciate about it is how cleverly Mantel brings us to the sights, sounds and smells of 16th century England; there were times when I read this that I got a truly realistic sense of how Christmas was celebrated in those days, for instance. Ultimately, though, the book is a failure. After 700 pages, I felt like I had learned absolutely nothing and derived very little pleasure from the power games in the court of Henry VIII; focus lies on Cromwell and not the oft-told story of Henry and all his wives, but the British power player remains an enigma. I can only agree with Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick, who had the following to say about the novel:
High on my list of Really Bad Books are two best-sellers: Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’, both of which I rate as dreadfully badly written. Brown wrote to a computer game formula: solve one level and move on to the next, whereas Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have yet to meet anyone outside the Booker panel who managed to get to the end of this tedious tome. God forbid there might be a sequel, which I fear is on the horizon.
Oh, there was a sequel. “Bring Up the Bodies” was published in 2012 and there will be a third part, which I assume, will follow Cromwell to his grave. And next year we’ll see both novels turned into a BBC miniseries, with stage star Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Homeland’s Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. One can’t help but hope for the best; maybe writer Peter Straughan has found a way of condensing Mantel’s babbling approach to the story into a coherent script… but he’d better find a way to make it stand out from The Tudors, and not turn it into an experience as dull as the book. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Apart from The Tudors (2007-2010), Cromwell hasn’t played a major role in previous films and TV projects. After all, it wasn’t until the 1950s when historian Sir Geoffrey Elton began an intense debate regarding Cromwell’s role in government during Henry’s reign that the chief minister came out of obscurity. He did play a role in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), one of the most classic films about the king. Leo McKern did him in A Man for All Seasons (1966), obviously as a man of some importance considering his relationship with the film’s protagonist, Thomas More (Paul Scofield). Donald Pleasence also played Cromwell in the British film Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972).
We have yet to truly get under the skin of the 1st Earl of Essex. Will Rylance and Straughan do the job?
The clip above shows an introduction to “Wolf Hall” produced by the BBC and uploaded to YouTube by the Man Booker Prize folks; the novel won that award in 2009.