April 17, 2015

Wolf Hall television adaptation undressed

One character in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall suggests we can learn about a person by what they wear under their clothes. The Duke of Norfolk, for instance, is an antique and suspicious character in the book; he covers his body with the medals and relics of saints.

In the BBC’s "Wolf Hall," an adaptation of the published two thirds of Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy (Wolf Hall with Bring Up the Bodies), that piece of advice is used. Though the show also covers the much-travelled ground of Henry VIII and some of his six wives, "Wolf Hall" is not a bodice ripper. Since characters in the show do not get naked and we do not see under their clothes, the advice is less useful. But Norfolk, uncommented upon, still jingles when he moves.

That is to say that the adaptation, which is now being broadcast as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, is a remarkably careful and faithful representation. The candle lit corridors of power feels just right.

Some decisions in the television adaption seem to address common complaints about the book. Viewers who could not track Mantel’s political machinations can note the title cards at the beginning of every episode, which position it in the flow of events. In a rare script defect, this same context is sometimes repeated again in dialogue later on. For delivering exposition, I prefer the dialogue. Much of it comes straight from Mantel, and all of it is wonderful. It is clever and full-bodied. Her slightly askew turns of phrase suggest antiquity without using antiquated language.

This all touches only fleetingly upon the most important element of Mantel’s narrative and the central criteria by which any adaptation of Wolf Hall must be measured: the depiction of Thomas Cromwell, a Tudor-era power-broker and Mantel’s omni-capable, omnipresent protagonist. Mark Rylance’s Cromwell is perfect—engagingly wry and cautious. It’s worthwhile to spend a scene just watching his face.

Mantel’s great project in her trilogy is to rehabilitate Cromwell, who has gained a bad reputation in the 475 years since his death. This is at the expense of (St.) Thomas More, a political enemy who opposed Henry’s divorce for religious reasons. At the king’s request, Cromwell arranged More’s martyrdom. Cromwell goes down as a ruthless and ambitious villain and More as a hero of freedom of conscience. Robert Bolt’s mid-century play "A Man For All Seasons," the other great Cromwell-More story in popular culture, pushes this view.

Catholic critics have complained about Mantel’s depiction of More and the Church more broadly. I would note that in some cases in Mantel’s books, devotion to Mother Church is an admirable show of backbone; beyond this, their argument is plausible, and I’ll leave them to it.

Whatever we conclude about his final stand, More remains a strange champion of freedom of conscience: Heretics were burned during his time in power. In Mantel’s telling, More is a monster. She suggests that he is dogmatic and cruel. Mantel seems to be as disturbed by his self-denial. In the book version of Wolf Hall, we learn that More wears a hairshirt beneath his clothes.

For Cromwell’s part, he does not understand the question; he had always assumed that beneath people’s clothes you find their skin. The Cromwell of the books and of the show is overwhelmingly sympathetic. He is a modern man, a freethinker and a capitalist who educates his daughter. (More famously did the same, but gets little credit from Mantel). He seems to be capable of anything except cruelty or caprice. Most importantly, in Mantel’s telling Cromwell is fleshy, kind, and self-indulgent—that is to say, he is human.

The show captures the crucial contrast between Cromwell and More well in its condensed time frame—we learn that More does not sleep with his wife, who he seems to hate, not long before we see Cromwell singing in carefree Italian through an ebullient morning-after.

Mantel likes this contrast between admirable self-acceptance and destructive self-denial. Her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, has a similar pairing—the hideously ugly Danton and the handsome and austere Robespierre both have bloody hands—but Danton’s appetites redeem him.

The risk is that when Cromwell’s rehabilitation is complete, we are left with the story of a clever man doing wonderfully. This can be enjoyable to read or watch, but there is a risk that the story of a decent man ultimately rising to the top will obscure Wolf Hall’s otherwise nuanced consideration of power and its implications. But history suggests that it will be otherwise.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies each track the process of someone from the heights of power to their execution. Cromwell arranges their deaths. One book—and, it seems reasonable to suspect—one execution remains. This is a carefully constructed historical fiction, so we know that Cromwell dies at the end. The final fall and death will be Cromwell’s own, which will presumably put everything in perspective.