It is almost always the case that the film or TV series is never as good as the books or books on which they are based. I fully expected that to be the case when Wolf Hall the latest BBC historic series was broadcast. In fact I was so sure of it that I almost didn’t watch – which would have been a great error. The books, Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel are wonderful. The elegance of the writing, the detail of the history and the wonderful way in which Mantel takes you into another age, another era, and yet makes it believable, is something that makes these books a delight to read.
The dramatization however was just as good. If the BBC keep producing material as good as this I might even be tempted to renew my licence! The direction by Peter Kosminsky and the adaptation of the books by Peter Straughan, more than did justice to Mantel’s magisterial works. It is very difficult to dramatise a world in which so much is about the mind, internal politics and lusts. The only way to do it is to have a strong cast with superb acting. Anton Lesser as Thomas More (a Catholic ‘saint’, but rightly portrayed as a cruel and calculating man), Damian Lewis as Henry the 8th, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and above all Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, all enabled us to believe in them as the real characters. The portrayal of Cromwell in particular was brilliant. It was all greatly helped that this was done in six unrushed episodes, which did not have a great deal of ‘action’ but nonetheless was so gripping that it left you on the edge of your seat demanding more.
What intrigued me just as much was the background, and sometimes the foreground, of much of this political and domestic intrigue-taking place in the context of the English Reformation. Mantel gets a really good grasp of this in her books and whilst the TV dramas did not have as much, I don’t think they underplayed it. It is a sad fact that modern British people have little idea of where Britain (and British ‘values’) came from. Perhaps we should encourage more people to watch Wolf Hall and read Mantel’s books. (You can still see it on the BBC Iplayer and I believe it is coming to PBS in the US this week). If they did they would come across gems such as:
Tyndale says a boy washing dishes in the kitchen is as pleasing to the eye of God as a preacher in the pulpit or the apostle on the Galilee shore. Perhaps, he thinks, I won’t mention Tyndale’s opinion
But I wonder,’ Cranmer says, almost to himself. ‘I wonder what you think the gospel is. Do you think it is a book of blank sheets on which Thomas Cromwell imprints his desires?’
These are days of brutal truth from Tyndale. Saints are not your friends and they will not protect you. They cannot help you to salvation. You cannot engage them to your service with prayers and candles, as you might hire a man for the harvest. Christ’s sacrifice was done on Calvary; it is not done in the Mass. Priests cannot help you to Heaven; you need no priest to stand between you and your God. No merits of yours can save you: only the merits of the living Christ
‘I once had every hope,’ he says. ‘The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain – the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man’s eye and the light of learning too
Scriptura sola. Only the gospel will guide and console you. No use praying to a carved post or lighting a candle to a painted face. Tyndale says ‘gospel’ means good news, it means singing, it means dancing: within limits, of course