Hilary Mantel's trilogy of novels, still incomplete, has already conquered all media. The two novels published so far, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were both bestsellers and Booker Prize winners. A two-part, six-hour stage adaptation currently reigns on Broadway and has been nominated for Tony awards. The BBC's six-part, six-hour TV adaptation has just finished its run on PBS in the U.S. People who've seen both the stage and tele plays say the TV version is better. Playing on PBS, it probably got less ratings than it could have elsewhere on American TV. The ratings were definitely strong for PBS, but I don't know how they compare to Downton Abbey or Sherlock. There's definitely a big audience for this sort of thing. The Thomas Cromwell trilogy, for want of a better label, is, after all, a revisionist fairy tale, with the added kick of being revisionist history.
The fairy tale it revises is Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons, best known as Fred Zinnemann's Oscar-winning film from 1966. In Peter Straughan's teleplay for Wolf Hall, Cromwell (Mark Rylance), the chief minister of Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), practically prophesies the Bolt play. He imagines Thomas More (Anton Lesser) writing a play ensuring that More will have the better of their disputes, not to mention the best lines, forever after. On the evidence of the teleplay, Mantel may once have believed in the More legend, as propagated by Bolt, only to learn later that it was a big lie. Her portrayal of More, predictably, is the most controversial aspect of Wolf Hall in all media. Bolt's More, a hero for the Cold War era, takes his stand against absolute, arbitrary power and dies a martyr. Mantel's More is virtually an English Torquemada, a Catholic fanatic dedicated to the destruction and torture of heresy, who dies for a point of fanaticism rather than a point of conscience. Like much revisionism, Mantel's revisionist take on More has provoked a backlash, as well of charges of anti-Catholic bigotry. I can't comment on claims that Mantel's account is historically inaccurate, but the charge of bias seems unfair given how sympathetically she portrays Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), Cromwell's mentor, who is hounded to death for failing to facilitate Henry's first change of wives to the king's satisfaction. Mantel's More is presumably more a portrait of generic fanaticism than particular Catholic evil. It's the sort of thing we should expect to see in a revisionist fairy tale, the debunking of a hero who may have seemed all along to some too good to be true.
In a revisionist fairy tale we should also expect to see a villain rehabilitated, or at least explained, since our age rebels against the monotonous depiction of some figures, at least, as irredeemably evil. Thomas Cromwell is a villain when More is a hero, and some would dub him a historical villain for his role in consolidating Henry's despotic absolutism. Mantel's Cromwell is the protagonist, if not a hero, and so he must have his reasons. He is a man abruptly detached from most of the joys of life following the sudden death from illness of his wife and two daughters in one day. Estranged from his brutish blacksmith father, he sees Wolsey as more of a father figure, arguably, and resents the suffering inflicted on him by Henry and his cronies. He seems to resent the most a petty satire staged after Wolsey's death in which noblemen play demons dragging the cardinal to Hell. The king may be as much to blame as anyone for Wolsey's fall, but if Cromwell truly seeks vengeance against Wolsey's tormenters, he must leave Henry standing as the instrument to destroy the others. Until the end of the miniseries, when he most explicitly orchestrates the fall of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), for whose sake Wolsey fell, Cromwell is less conspirator than facilitator. He is most often shown modestly observing the story's grotesque egomaniacs, letting them rage and insult him yet keeping score for the future. Everyone confides in him, to their peril, presumably because they find him too contemptible, due to his common birth, to be taken seriously as anything but a stooge of the king or the Boleyn family. He takes their abuse stoically and hardly revels in his revenge. He grows passionate only twice, once raging against More both for his onetime friend's atrocities of thought and deed and for his foolhardy refusal to save his life with mere words, then waxing retributive as he compels the young men who mocked Wolsey in death to denounce Anne and themselves.
Toward Anne Cromwell is more ambivalent. I really haven't seen many Tudor tales -- I missed the more salacious Showtime series entirely -- so I can't say if Anne Boleyn has ever been portrayed as such a vicious bitch as Claire Foy portrays her. For much of the series she looks like the main villain, spitting contempt at the man whose name she insists on pronouncing with what I assume is a French accent ("Crum-weycch" is my best approximation) while reminding him that he is but a creature made by the king (or by her) and thus can be unmade in an instant. Near the end, after another such reminder, phrased in general terms about any arriviste, Cromwell says, "I entirely agree," thinking of Anne herself. Yet he seems to take no satisfaction in her ruin as she goes the way of Henry's first wife, only more violently, for the same offense of failing to give the king a son. In fact, the teleplay ends with awful emphasis on how hollow a victory, if he even sees it as one, Cromwell's is over Anne. We linger over the execution scene as Anne makes a pathetic speech blessing the king, some observers assuming she still expects a last-minute reprieve. We see her blindfolded, trembling and struggling to suppress sobs as the executioner makes his eccentric preparations and Cromwell asks whether she'll suffer from the swordstroke. We hear him stage-whispering to her not to move her head so the end will come quickly and painlessly. We're spared the actual blow -- a great thing about Wolf Hall is that it gives us all the intensity and intrigue of today's great TV shows with very little of the violence -- but we see her ladies-in-waiting, who've never been afraid to talk back to her and gossip about her, collect her head and body like valkyries while warning the crowd that they'll not let male hands touch her anymore. There's too little, or rather too much, to gloat over here; miraculously the show has left us pitying Anne. And from that scene Cromwell has to go to the king, who waits for him arms outstretched for a celebratory hug, as if he's won another jousting tournament, that Cromwell accepts as if it's a devil taking him to Hell, and that's the end ... for now. History tells us, of course, that Cromwell's turn is coming.
Rylance and Foy are extraordinary, while Damian Lewis deserves a lot of credit for a more thankless role playing the king as a bit of a jock and a bit of a twit with the power of life and death over people. Lesser's More (was he cast so reviewers could write that?) gives a repellently effective performance that has no doubt exacerbated the controversy over Mantel's accuracy of bias. I also should acknowledge Bernard Hill of Lord of the Rings fame for his relatively small but showy role as Anne's thuggish uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. The six hours are a slow burn that breaks out on schedule into a purging fire, after an early crescendo during the fall of More, but after delivering what we expect it leaves us with a gut punch that reminds us of the truth of the era, that there was no justice then, only arbitrary power. That's a theme that appeals to us today -- and it's worth noting here that George R. R. Martin has said that his Game of Thrones novels owe more to historical fiction of this grim sort than they do to generic fantasy. Wolf Hall may be as close to Game of Thrones as PBS gets -- and it's actually pretty close.