George R. R. Martin says that the secret ingredient that has made his "Song of Ice and Fire" novels and their Game of Thrones TV adaptation so compelling is the influence of historical fiction. He has dubbed Maurice Druon's novels, set in 13th century France, as "the original Game of Thrones," but you can find similar qualities in many novels about the vicious intrigues of kings and queens. Philippa Gregory's "Cousins Wars" novels were written after Martin got his fantasy series under way, but they illustrate his point as well as any historical fiction. The BBC adapted three of the novels into The White Queen's ten episodes, and Starz premiere's a sequel, The White Princess, this weekend. By a coincidence only comic book fans can appreciate, the head writer for The White Queen was Emma Frost, who resumes that role for Princess. Her team took three Gregory novels, each of which apparently retraces the same historical ground from a different character's point of view, and made them one chronological narrative with three protagonists. The setting is 15th century England during the Wars of the Roses pitting the usurping house of York against loyalists of the house of Lancaster. The title character is the young widow Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), whose family, the Rivers, are Lancastrians. So naturally she falls in love, after some initial difficulties, with Edward IV (Max Irons) the Yorkist king of England. Edward's insistence on marrying Elizabeth angers his mentor, the Earl of Warwick (James Frain), who had been arranging his marriage to a French princess. Warwick's family, the Nevilles, and Edward's family, particularly his brother George (David Oakes) deeply distrust the Rivers family -- and not without reason. One of Gregory/Frost's conceits is that Elizabeth, at times accused of witchcraft, is guilty, learning various folk magics from her mother and later handing them down to her daughter, the title character of the sequel. Running parallel to Elizabeth's rise are the travails of Warwick's daughter Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), who becomes queen as wife to Edward's baby brother Richard (Aneurin Barnard) after her sister Isabel marries George (David Oakes), the treacherous and ultimately mad middle York brother, and the conspiracies of Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), whose son Henry Tudor has a distant claim to the English throne.
Edward's marriage to Elizabeth drives Warwick to an ill-fated rebellion in which George briefly participates. Forgiven, George seethes in peacetime, his hopes for land, wealth and power thwarted when Richard's marriage to Anne denies him control over the Warwick estate and Edward aborts an invasion of France. Finally, with his wife dying, George snaps, accusing witches of conspiring against him while retaining a sorcerer himself. Something that will surprise many viewers is the way George irredeemably plays the villain role usually reserved for Richard II, who in Gregory/Frost's revisionist scenario is a sometimes ruthless but relatively well-meaning prince and king, not to mention young, in a historically appropriate way, and handsome, which I write off to genre requirements. But if the popular image of Richard III is still largely shaped by Shakespeare's Tudor propaganda, which portrays him as a singular monster, he looks good by comparison on White Queen because just about everyone on the show is a monster.
The show may look superficially like shoulders-and-sheets romantic history, and offers a fair amount of female nudity to satisfy the market for that sort of thing, but its main virtue is its refusal to romanticize any of its queens or princesses. Elizabeth is all too conscious of the enmity of the Nevilles and is willing to use witchcraft against them; Anne, at first the most innocent of the girls, descends into paranoia about Elizabeth after her father and sister die; Margaret is a relentless fanatic out to destroy anyone in her (that is, Henry's) path to the throne. Informed by her supremely cynical later husband Stanley (Rupert Graves) that Henry will have to walk past five corpses -- Edward and his two sons, Richard and his -- Margaret puts her trust in God and gets to work sowing mutual distrust between the two households and particularly the two wives. She's probably the most hateful (and Hale the plainest) of the principal women, but by the end none of them are really likable. "Men go to battle; women wage war" was this show's motto, underscoring their common ruthlessness for family's sake, while the York tragedy shows that families all too readily could turn on themselves. With so much power and wealth so tantalizingly close, the characters have no other center of gravity. Morals are sacrificed to family interests, and family ties are sacrificed to personal ambition.
White Queen may not really be a "Game of Thrones," since our title character makes it all the way through, and will be played by a new, older actress on Princess, and it had nothing like the HBO blockbuster's budget, but a similar spirit of fascinating hopelessness prevails, embodied by a terrific ensemble cast -- and there's magic! I steered clear of Queen until Starz started advertising Princess, mainly because I took it to be no more than historical soap-opera, despite the arresting poster image of Ferguson grabbing a sword by its blade. Now, thanks to Queen, while I can't help wondering how Princess won't seem uneventful by comparison, I won't be waiting to watch it.