Wolf Hall televised

30 Jan

The medium is the message, said Marshall McLuhan. Silly to judge screenplay by ‘fidelity’ to book. The latter may be as well crafted (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), better crafted (Bridget Jones) or just ill advised (Gormenghast) but fidelity is not a useful metric. How could Francis Coppola’s screen direction possibly match the ironic justaposing of word and intent which, alongside masterful story-telling, had Mario Puzo’s Godfather transcend its specificity as a crime novel? Introspection is not cinema’s forte but Coppola substitutes juxtapositions equally effective. As Godfather One reaches its climax we cut back and forth between Michael Corleone swearing at the font to raise his son in the ways of Christ, and bloody scenes in which lieutenants not yet sure of Michael’s greatness nevertheless execute his will to cement the Family’s supremacy over America’s criminal underworld.

Henry VII’s triumph at Bosworth was more fragile. With the Tudor claim slim to laughable, questions of legitimacy would shadow both his own reign and his son’s. Wolf Hall the book puts that insecurity centre stage, but seen through other eyes. A world of power and precarity is reflected on and in no small way shaped by Thomas Cromwell, an enigma of low birth whose scant attention by historians gave Hilary Mantel the broadest possible canvas. She used every inch of it. A style not fully developed in Place of Greater Safety comes to fruition in Wolf Hall. In the former, Desmoulins and Danton are brought, prior to their own tumbril ride, vividly to life as cutting edge prose is played, sometimes falteringly, against high drama. In Wolf Hall the mix is perfected. Literary estrangement on the one hand, story on the other, no longer compromise but enhance one another. For once the Booker judges got it right. Wolf Hall the book is a masterpiece.

(Whether Bring Up the Bodies should also have won the Booker is debatable. The second book, tilting in the direction of an equally gripping story, is a lesser achievement not because story doesn’t matter but because Wolf Hall’s linguistic estrangement made us think, and where necessary re-read, with no dilution of its page-turning narrative. That was its signal achievement.)

And Wolf Hall the screenplay? From a critical perspective it looks ill advised. The literary sophistication of a book big in every sense makes reduction to six hours of telly a recipe for over-simplification. Cromwell, who could have taught the Borgias a thing or two, is air brushed into the usual moral anachronism. Virile but virtuous, cunning but kind; this is a man who’d support gay rights and oppose fracking. Bah.

Then there’s an even more familiar avoidance of complexity in the form of Tudor fears amplified by Henry VIII’s lack of a male heir. (Much as Tito and Mao were disobedient Stalinists rather than principled opponents of the man, Henry VIII – driven as much by the old Tudor ghosts as by a sexy lady who knew how to play her cards – was more disobedient Catholic than committed Protestant.) Henry’s and Cromwell’s world knew no separation between theology and politics, lust and seductive ambition, succession and stability. The dangers of easy reductionism, of over-psychologising Henry’s moves – and under psychologising a nation fearful with good reason of power contested – seldom trouble fiction makers of the period. Wolf Hall the screenplay looks to be no exception.

So, bottom line: worth watching? But of course! It’s the beeb, innit? Enjoy. But to find out why Wolf Hall won the Booker, you just have to read it.


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