Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wolf Hall

One of the most annoying criticisms directed towards films and TV shows is to say ‘the book was better’. Bookworms passionate about a particular novel are often reluctant to concede that any adaptation could ever hope to be as good as the original, especially if it so much as dares to change key details of the plot, and their suspicions are backed up by the long and still widely-held prejudice that written works are inherently superior to visual forms of entertainment. Such a view overlooks how much filmed versions can add to a story, and how intelligent cinematography, acting and editing can be just as powerful as any well-crafted sentence.

Thomas Cromwell
But sometimes the qualities that make a certain novel so good is very difficult to translate to the screen, and in these cases the book simply is better than the filmed version. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, for instance, brilliantly exploits all of the unique advantages of its novelistic form - the ability to express the protagonist (Thomas Cromwell)’s internal thoughts and feelings, the space to go into rich detail to build the world the characters inhabit, and the scope to go at its own pace and not be compromised by a limited length.

As fine an adaptation the BBC’s six-part series Wolf Hall appears to be based on last week’s opening episode, it will inevitably be limited by its form. Tom Rylance’s brilliantly understated and muted performance hints at the depth of Cromwell’s thoughts, but will never be as intimate as the access granted in the novel, while although writer Peter Straughan has paced proceedings at an admirably unhurried pace, there is too much to fit in in too small a time to replicate the gradual unfolding of diplomatic processes that made the novels so tense and gripping.

What the material really needs is more episodes. The golden age of television currently being enjoyed over in the US has been based on dramas that contain 12/13 hour-long episodes, and are commissioned for multiple seasons. Such a form retains the advantages of on-screen entertainment while relating far more closely to the pacing of a novel, with more room to fully develop characters and with each episode translating to a chapter. Just look at the success of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, which are all among the most popular and acclaimed works of art of the past few decades.

There aren’t any 6-part single-series TV shows that can claim such success, as the form itself is a sort of unhappy medium between the longer serialised drama and the shorter feature film. Rather than cover one chapter, each episode of Wolf Hall will have to squeeze in a whole third of one of the novels, and although the authentic use of candlelight makes for impressively gloomy look, the production is still no-where near the level of a film adaptation. As such moments like the death of Cromwell’s family does not carry as much dramatic weight as it should, and there isn’t enough going on in the cinematography to raise the show to anything more than a rushed, straightforward retelling of the novels.

So long as British television remains reluctant to commission more long-term, ambitious serialised drama, it will continue to lag behind the US. Wolf Hall certainly looks like one of the best BBC dramas in a while, but the nagging suspicion remains that the bulging potential of the novels would have been better realised in the hands of the US networks. 

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