Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning series has been adapted for TV, with the first episode airing on PBS last night. The books are told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a man who was chiefly regarded as a doctrinaire toadie before Geoffrey Elton elevated him to chief architect of the English reformation in the 50s, in “The Tudor Revolution”.
Mantel’s Cromwell is Elton’s Cromwell; a man with a brilliant, incisive mind, working for long-term church reformation, and securing the future of England against succession woes and military threats from France and Spain. Cromwell has insights into banking, finance, trade, and spirituality, and is a self-made renaissance man born in poverty.
Vox reports that not all historians are enthusiastic about Mantel’s sympathetic treatment of Cromwell, but states that it’d make for poor entertainment if she focused on the bully depicted in historical records.
Good writers know that purely evil characters are boring. What makes Thomas Cromwell such a great character in Hilary Mantel’s books is his complications. He’s someone who enables and occasionally suggests immoral behavior, but he’s also the eyes we see his world through. It makes sense that he wouldn’t present his actions as completely manipulative and dirty.
Mark Rylance plays Cromwell in the TV adaptation in a role that sounds more like that of the master spy Varys in Game of Thrones than the power-wielding minister of the novels, but Vox notes that this seems inevitable as the series is not shot from the perspective of Cromwell, but that of an observer.
Reviews have mostly been favorable, and the show was well-received in Britain before it’s export. The NY Times review found Cromwell somewhat disappointing as a TV character despite a brilliant performance by Rylance.
Critic John Powers appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air to praise the series, calling it “darkly lit, finely acted and thoroughly compelling”. (Transcript and audio)
Are you a fan of the books? Have you been eagerly awaiting the American premiere? Let us know what you thought of the first episode and how the show compared to the novel.