5 Things I Love About the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall

As I noted in my books by women roundup, I loved Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I had grown very skeptical about historical fiction, because I’ve read very little of it that had writing chops necessary to sell the historical research. Mantel’s books work for me because they are so well written and carefully observed; it’s an interpretation of history, but it’s also a really absorbing narrative. And while there is certainly plenty of the sex, poison, and political intrigue that make long-dead royalty so fascinating to us now, the conflict in these stories go much deeper than greed or sexual jealousy. England under Henry VIII is on the verge of its Renaissance, but half the country is still wild, muddy, and savage. The protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, spent his young adulthood overseas, learning the art of war from the Italians, the science of memory, and the craft of good business in Italian and Dutch counting-houses. His Continental education makes him a rich and influential man in England,  while England’s court is torn apart by terribly primal, carnal matters of husbandry and breeding.

The character of Cromwell as drawn by Mantel fascinates me because he does nothing without a purpose, and yet it’s not clear what drives him. He accumulates wealth, but gives much of it away, so greed  isn’t his motive. He cultivates safe spaces for Protestant religious practice but retains a lifelong loyalty to a Catholic cardinal. He rises in court and in authority, but doesn’t get drunk on power; his inner monologue reveals a man who never believes he is completely safe. But he likes good things and an orderly home; he likes for jobs to be well done and for a kingdom to be well run; he likes for people to get their due–and he will take risks–calculated risks–to procure these ends. Mantel weaves these details into complexity rather than inconsistency, and if we don’t get to know Cromwell deeply, we can still recognize what is human in him.

Every time Cromwell walks into Anne’s rooms, he is greeted with an exaggerated tableau of virtuous domesticity.


I drank up the BBC adaptation as soon as I could get it, and it was overall an extremely satisfying experience, although I still can’t believe they crammed two books into six episodes. I would watch another six hours of this adaptation, no question. Here’s what made the television version work for me:

  1. After the hot mess of The Tudors, it’s such a relief to see a well-cast ensemble. All the characters look just as they ought. Henry is older–old enough to know better–and kingly, a big man who is imposing but not menacing, princely until he loses his temper. Anne is small and tightly wound, pretty but a little drawn around the eyes, a raw nerve. Cromwell is perhaps more handsome than he ought to be, but retains just enough roughness that you can see why other characters think he’s a thug. I have a slighter harder time telling apart some of the senior lords and the boyish courtiers who put on the pantomime skewering Cardinal Wolsey, but one might easily argue that the latter are interchangeable.
  2. Along the same lines: age appropriate actors. Mark the dancing-master is young, just a boy really, which makes his involvement in the trial even more tragic. Cromwell’s nephews and ward are very young men, and Thomas More is very old. It’s more than an aesthetic choice. For the men, age diversity underscores the dynamics of apprenticeship to mastery and old guard to new guard that shape political change. For the women, realistic age diversity shows us insight into womens’ lives we don’t always get to see, since we have these ideas that older times must have fetishized maidenhood even more than we do, and that women young and old were equally powerless. Anne, nearly 30 at the time of her coronation, is noticeably older than many of the women in her court, and for the most part considers them unworthy of her attention. Anne and Mary Boleyn are both very beautiful; though some members of the court have taken mere children as brides, it’s not exactly the norm, and it’s clear that the Boleyn women know the value of their adult beauty. Johann, Cromwell’s sister-in-law and sometime lover, is attractive and appropriately lined and aged for a fortysomething woman who hasn’t had the costly cosmetics and care of the court. Jane Seymour, 20 years old, looks real-20 and not Hollywood-20, still girlishly round and blank in the face.
  3. Jane, Jane, Jane. I love Mantel’s Jane. In so many versions of this story, Jane is the milquetoast angel in the house, so acquiescent that she demurely dies after giving Henry his much-longed-for son. In Mantel’s books and in this adaptation, Jane is weird. She is quiet and awkward, certainly inexperienced, but not stupid or simple. No one likes her or pays any attention to her until Cromwell does and then (always more of a follower than he’ll admit) the king does. Her family panics and starts trying to teach her how to be courted; she basically ignores them, prioritizing her own safety and sense of rightness. Jane is on the rise just as Bring Up the Bodies ends; I cannot wait to see her as Queen when the third book is published.
  4. Henry is well-cast and well-played. Somebody in the show refers to Henry as a lion; you can pet him and pull at his ears if you like, but you have to remember that he has claws. Book and film depict this Henry, a Renaissance prince who must be many things to many people. He is a man who was raised to be king, and he is indeed very regal and knowledgeable and artful–and he also believes in profane female magic and a vengeful God. He is a man who loves his buddies, and craves their approval as well as that of the woman he loves.  He is a man who is surprisingly prudish about sex–at least, people talking about it openly–who has at least one child out of wedlock. He is a deeply vulnerable and frightened man, who has bad dreams and imposter syndrome. One of the big questions of the book is: what is it to be a subject of a man who is, after all, just a man, yet who is said to be God’s anointed ruler of the land? Henry onscreen is a man who to all appearances believes himself imbued with divine right and power, and yet glances out of the corner of his eye at his lady love or his laughing court, smiling tightly, uncertain what the joke is or what her reaction will be. Cromwell is loyal to this sovereign lord and serves his interests, yet to do so, he must monitor those moments of weakness closely and swoop in before the king does something rash.
  5. This is not to exclude the excellent performances by Claire Foy and Mark Rylance, written about elsewhere. This show has excellent face-acting all around. In court you can’t say everything you feel–that’s a good way to lose position, or perhaps even your head–and in the book, part of Cromwell’s job is read between the lines and understand what the king means apart from what he says. For example, when Anne demands that Thomas More be arrested, Henry lifts his eyes eloquently to Cromwell–what can I do?–and Cromwell understands that he must arrest More but leave him a way out. For his part, Cromwell says little to the gentlefolk, especially when they say and do crazy things to him. Mary Boleyn practically throws herself at him, and his face is mostly impassive–waiting–but you can also see a little fear, because what would happen to him if he were to forget his place with her? Mary is not too greatly loved but her family, but a breach of conduct with her would be a good reason for his enemies to attack him.

More fun: Hilary Mantel published an excerpt from her character notes for a stage adaptation of the books, and it is a little bit of prose poetry itself.


4 thoughts on “5 Things I Love About the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall”

  1. Great piece. I loved the books and adaptation as well, though wonder how it affected watching the show knowing the machinations going on behind Cromwell’s (purposefully) blank expressions.

    1. I know–and the trials, both More’s and the depositions surround Mary Barton’s and of course Anne and her alleged lovers–all go by so quickly that I’m not sure I could follow if I didn’t know who was who.
      I’ve heard rave reviews of the plays on Broadway, which must have the same sort of narrative dilemmas but you’re more immersed in the experience.

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