[It should be noted first of all that this post contains substantial Pillars of the Earth spoilers. Second, as it's a post about a Ken Follett novel, it gets a little bawdy.]
Pillars of The Earth, Ken Follett, 1989.
Sometime in the late 80s, a successful spy novelist named Ken Follett got tired of thrillers and decided to try his hand at historical novels. This understandably made his publishers a little nervous. Follett’s stock in trade was the potboiler, the beach read. It was by no means clear that his audience, who had eagerly lapped up the cocktail of sex, violence and Nazis that Follett had perfected in The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca, would be as interested in a thousand-odd page love letter to medieval cathedral-building. But the gamble paid off. The Pillars of the Earth turned out to be Follett’s most critically and commercially successful book. So successful was the book that it’s easy to overlook just how peculiar it is.* There’s a reason why the book is borderline respectable: Follett explores medieval culture and society with a level of detail that rubs up on the border between the novelistic and the encyclopediac. (I don’t know if the detail is accurate, necessarily, but it feels accurate, which for historical fiction is really all that matters.) But there’s also a reason why it’s only borderline respectable: Follett fans who turned in for the hair-breadth escapes, vivid fight scenes, and well-nigh-pornographic sex scenes that marked his earlier works would not be disappointed. In fact these elements are if anything ramped up, as if Follett understood on some level that a fifty page in-depth exploration of the medieval textile industry would need to be washed down with a spoonful of
sugar vigorous humping.
But that’s the nice thing about novels. They’re spacious: there’s more than enough room for the history lessons and the coed naked knife fights. As a result, Pillars of the Earth earns its page count. It needs its page count. Cut out the history, and it collapses into a pile of letters from penthouse. Cut out the raunch and it becomes a rather substandard history textbook without footnotes. Keep them both, and it stands as a nearly perfect exemplar of its particular kind.**
Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, 2010, Ridley Scott et. al.
It’s something of a commonplace these days that we are currently enjoying a golden age of television, and most of the shows people bring up are serialized dramas on premium cable channels. The Sopranos, The Wire, Treme, and their ilk are often held up as the moving-image equivalent of the novel, offering psychological and social nuance that cannot be achieved in a mere two-hour movie. As a result, an eight-hour miniseries adaptation of Pillars of the Earth would seem to be something to cheer about. Would seem to be.
Overthinking It is not a review site, so let me get this over with quickly. The show is fine, but it’s not particularly good, which means either that I’m overestimating the quality of the source material or they really blew an opportunity here. By relishing in the detailed exploration of various slices of 12th century society (and toning down the sex and violence, or at least leaving it alone), they could have turned Pillers of the Earth into something like a medieval version of The Wire. Instead, they actually decided to ramp up the sleaze, throwing in an incest subplot that I don’t remember from the book, and cut out a great deal of the subtlety. Take the character of Ellen. She is accused of witchcraft early in the book, but no one, even her mortal enemy Waleran Bigod, takes it seriously. The ecclesiastical court, lead by the virtuous Prior Philip, summarily informs everyone that she is obviously not a witch, but that she has committed fornication and as punishment must stay away from her common-law husband Tom for a full year, after which they have to get married for realz. As punishments from medieval courts go, this lacks something in the Iron Maiden department, which is why coming across it in the book feels so refreshing. Ellen’s reaction is also interesting. Tom breaks the news to her at dinner.
“We have to live apart for a year, and you have to remain chaste—”
“Piss on that!” Ellen shouted. Now everyone was looking. “Piss on you, Tom Builder!” she said. She realized she had an audience.
“Piss on all of you, too,” she said. Most people grinned. It was hard to take offense, perhaps because she looked so lovely with her face flushed red and her golden eyes wide. She stood up. “Piss on Kingsbridge Priory!” She jumped up on to the table, and there was a burst of applause. She walked along the board. The diners snatched their bowls of soup and mugs of ale out of her way and sat back, laughing. “Piss on the prior!” she said. “Piss on the sub-prior, and the sacrist, and the cantor and the treasurer, and all their deeds and charters, and their chests full of silver pennies!” She reached the end of the table. Beyond it was another, smaller table where someone would sit and read aloud during the monks’ dinner. There was an open book on the table. Ellen jumped from the dining table to the reading table.
Suddenly Tom knew what she was going to do. “Ellen!” he called. “Don’t, please—”
“Piss on the Rule of Saint Benedict!” she yelled at the top of her voice. Then she hitched up her skirt, bent her knees, and urinated on the open book. The men roared with laughter, banged on the tables, hooted and whistled and cheered. Tom was not sure whether they shared Ellen’s contempt for the Rule or they just enjoyed seeing a beautiful woman expose herself. There was something erotic about her shameless vulgarity, but it was also exciting to see someone openly abuse the book that the monks were so tediously solemn about. Whatever the reason, they loved it.
This is a pretty weird scene, and not one of my favorites from the book. Confidential to authors everywhere, and especially Ken Follett because he does this kind of thing more than once: there is never, ever, any reason to write “there was something erotic about X.” Either the audience will themselves find X erotic, in which case they don’t need you to point it out to them, or they will not, in which case they will not appreciate the implication. (The only exception to this rule is when X is something cartoonishly non-erotic. If there was something erotic about the aluminum siding, for instance, you probably would have to tell us.) Nevertheless, this scene is far, far preferable to the version that appears in the TV series. Here the accusation of witchcraft, rather than being laughed off, is played deadly serious. Waleran instructs his men to start building a pyre so that she can be burned at the stake. Ellen protests that her weird collections of mushrooms and the like are only medicine. So she’s not a witch, she’s a doctor, and the primitive medieval Catholics just don’t understand! How original. (Even the fact that she has a weird collection of mushrooms is a little obnoxious: in the book, Philip points out that the only reason she’s being accused of witchcraft is that she lives by herself out in the woods.) Luckily Philip and Tom arrange for her daring escape. They smuggle in a knife to her, which she uses to cut her bonds in the middle of her trial. Jumping up onto the table, she advances on the prosecutor – Waleran, in this case – and delivers the following, much shorter, soliloquy with an air of deadly calm: “Piss on you, Waleran Bigod.” And then she does.
I guess it’s a creative escape plan.
The Starz version takes Follett’s scatology to new and obnoxious levels; meanwhile, as far as sociological depth goes, it is not far removed from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Also, it makes Ellen less interesting as a character. While the urination feels unnecessary in both scenes, the book version has the virtue of being a recognizable human impulse carried well past the limits of our suspension of disbelief (i.e. the pee feels gratuitous, but the tantrum feels real). It shows us Ellen as a woman with some self control issues. The TV version gives us a caricature of bravery and righteous indignation. To put it another way: the urination always seems stupid, but in the book we’re supposed to think it’s stupid, while in the show it’s supposed to be badass. If you already subscribe to Starz, you probably should watch Pillars of the Earth at least once. It is – to damn with faint praise – just about worth the time it takes to watch it. The acting is good, if nothing else, and you might get to see Donald Sutherland wielding a claymore. But the idea that anyone would subscribe to Starz specifically for the purpose of watching this is absurd.
Now lets get into the overthought portion of your evening’s entertainment. The most interesting thing about the new series is another element that it gets wrong. One of the classic structures for historical fiction is the Tale of the Schlubby Bystander. In this kind of novel, we see important moments in world history through the eyes of a not-particularly-distinguished observer who rubs elbows with the great, and feels the repercussions of their actions, but has little to no active role in the creation of history. Johnny Tremain is a great example of this, as is The Three Musketeers, as are pretty much all of Sir Walter Scott’s books (Scott having essentially invented the historical novel with Waverley). The attractions of this structure are obvious. The readers get to identify with the Schlub: after all, they too are bystanders. The author is spared the indignity of having to put too many words in the mouth of (and worse, thoughts in the head of), notable personages such as Paul Revere and Anne of Austria. It’s really a win-win. But it does entail a tricky balancing act. Stories of this kind always require the author to shift back and forth between the main character – i.e. the Schlub – and the more important supporting characters. Even in the sections focused on the Schlub, the author needs to balance the character’s personal emotional life with his/her involvement with world events.
One of the best examples of this balance can be found in The Three Musketeers. The first big section of the book is all D’Artagnan all the time. He traipses around France on his godawful horse, gets in some duels, makes a friend or two or three, becomes a Musketeer (although actually he totally doesn’t, yet). Then, slooooowly, we zoom out. Now D’Artagnan is running errands for the Queen. Now he takes part in the siege of La Rochelle. At the climax of the book, we witness the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham! How did we ever get here? (And note that D’Artagnan is not really even peripherally involved.) Then in the falling action we zoom back in, and it becomes all about the personal vendetta between the Musketeers and Milady De Winter.
In the book version, The Pillars of the Earth follows a similar arc. When it starts out, it’s all about Tom Builder and his family trying like hell not to starve to death after someone steals their pig. Gradually we zoom out to the point where we see Prior Philip struggling to run his thriving medieval town, and rubbing elbows with Kings and Archbishops in his efforts. Towards the end, we zoom back in and focus on how all this has derailed the main character’s love life. On its most fundamental level, for all the chase scenes and heavy petting, The Pillars of the Earth is about how the best-layed plans of mice and men are upset by institutional forces like monarchy and religion (although, unlike The Wire, it does offer the individual a way to struggle back against the system: if one is lucky and persistant one may get the chance to build a cathedral, which after all will stand long after the current king is dead).
What makes this structure work is that it’s not a bait and switch. We know going in that we’ll eventually be seeing the big picture – we just don’t know how it will relate to the small scale stuff. Part of the reason that the small scale, pig-stealing stuff can be compelling is that we know these characters are destined for greater things… but we don’t know anything specific. If we did, it would wreck it: the mystery, which must be carefully maintained, is what really makes the story tick. Said mystery is established in the very first scene of the book, in which an unnamed man is hanged by the neck on the orders of a likewise unnamed monk, knight, and priest. The dead man’s lover – who turns out to be our old friend Ellen, she of the active bladder – curses them, which apparently was a thing you could do back in the middle ages. I really dig Follett’s prose here: “I curse you with sickness and sorrow, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony.” Proper. Next time someone cuts me in line at the grocery store, I’m gonna whip that one out.
Who the dead man is, and why he was killed, is the central mystery of the book. We find out sloooooowly, even more slowly than we pull back and start to engage with the broader political situation. Arguably the answer, when it arrives, is something of an anticlimax – but with big narrative mysteries like this, the anticipation is always sweeter than the event itself. Follett manages to sustain the tension for well nigh 1,000 pages, and that in itself is something to celebrate. Also cool is the way that Ellen’s curse actually comes true. One of her antagonists turns out to be the old Prior whose cathedral burns down, giving Tom a chance to design the new one; one is Percy Hamleigh, whose loathsome son William eventually does die on the gallows; and one is Waleran, who at the end of the book we are told is “a sad old man… and knows that [he has] wasted his life.” If you’re paying close attention throughout the book, you can figure most of this out, but it’s not actually spelled out for you until the very, very end. Which is how it should be, with a major narrative mystery. It’s not exactly rocket science – just basic narrative craft.
The TV show bungles this on every conceivable level. Rather than the slow zoom out from the petty concerns of petty people to the great concerns of the nation, it cuts back and forth between them constantly from the very first episode. As a result, I found myself hard-pressed to care about either one. Rather than the lingering mystery of the hanging and the curse, we learn in the first episode that [Spoilers! Although the writers of the show apparently don't think so!] the man was killed because he knew something about the shipwreck that caused the death of the King’s only heir. We also learn right away that the old Prior was involved with the coverup, because he makes a deathbed confession to his successor, Philip. Yes, you read that right: when adopting the novel for the screen, the writers found it necessary to add a dramatic deathbed confession that basically gives away the plot. And Ellen’s curse (which does not happen right at the beginning, where it would be cool, but halfway through the second episode), is considerably dumbed down. I don’t remember it word for word, but rather than telling Waleran that he’ll grow old in sadness and regret she says that he’ll “climb very high, and then fall.” Really? I mean, really? If this turns out to be setting up a scene in the last episode where Jack Jackson tosses Waleran off the top of the newly finished cathedral, shouting a one-liner like “I’ll take the pillars – give my regards to the earth,” I may well vomit.
But that’s only if I end up seeing the last episode. And I don’t think I will. After all, we’re living in a golden age of television. I have better things to do with my time.
*Granted, the combination of sleaze and scholarship in Pillars of the Earth is not particularly strange for a historical novel. Once in a library I picked up a book called Raptor that was ostensibly about the reign of Theodoric the Great, and turned out within the first ten pages to feature an extensive episode of what can only be described as “hot hot female-nun-on-intersexed-nun action.” I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that historical fiction, as a genre, runs to weirdness.
** This isn’t to say the book is actually perfect… there are lots of flaws. Although Follett’s prose usually does a good job of avoiding the Scylla of Ye Olde Englishe and the Charybdis of “Yo yo yo, wassup your Majesty? Isn’t this, like, bubonic plague thing totally harshing your buzz?” there are rare occasions where a modern-sounding phrase lands on the reader’s consciousness with a deafening leaden CLUNK. A couple of major plot threads are left hanging in a way that’s probably meant to be realistic (because in real life people sometimes do just up and die at narratively inconvenient times), but comes off as a failure of imagination. The book could stand to be a bit less rapey – or if we think that’s an important reality of the time period, it could at least be much, much less prurient about it. And most damningly, the main character, Jack Jackson, has a bit of a Mary Sue problem. Nevertheless, I do think that Pillars of the Earth would be pretty much the best possible book to study if you wanted to learn how to write a historical potboiler. Follett is a tremendously gifted craftsman on both small and large scales, and his balance of geopolitical sweep with the soap opera angst in this book has got to be some kind of minor miracle.