Why Pillars of the Earth should have been a medieval The Wire, and wasn't.

Why Pillars of the Earth should have been a medieval The Wire, and wasn’t.

Basically, they kept the dirty bits and left out the sociology. And they should have… not done those things.

[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.

Heh, look at that font. All literary and elegant. Don't be confused, though: the book still has, like, tons of dirty bits.

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.

More like Pillars of the Backlighting! Am I right? Amirite?

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.

10 Comments on “Why Pillars of the Earth should have been a medieval The Wire, and wasn’t.”

  1. Gab #

    I don’t actually have Starz, but I watched the first two episodes online- and without having seen the movie- because the historical geek in me was intrigued (and because the book was on an endcap thingy at my favorite bookstore with the new cover featuring the actors). If the rest shows up on their site, too, I may watch it, but I won’t go out of my way to, either.

    I think the adaptation problems you’re discussing are purely that, though: historical fiction movies have a different format than those allowed for novels, meaning the politics and sociology are not as big of a part. The “reveal” in the first episode felt very formulaic to me, not having read the book, and the fact that it’s onscreen made me think it’s supposed to be something close to dramatic irony, which is always a big pull for cinematic efforts. The urination scene *was* pretty damn awful, and it’s fairly obvious who dun what in the past and what’s going to happen sooner or later (I expect Jack to somehow rise to the throne or something close, aye?), and I think that’s the point of it being onscreen as opposed to in print- the miniseries makers aren’t presenting a mystery, but blatant exposition. And why, well, I’d chock that up to lack of faith in the audience, which I can’t really blame them for. They’re ramping up the sex because that’s a draw for film and television, and they’re oversimplifying the plot because the audience they’ll draw in with said sex wants softcore porn, not mystery. I’d categorize it with _Rome_ and _The Tudors_, two series I haven’t watched but have been told to because of the historical spin- but I have been reluctant because these same recommenders first mention how the shows are uber sexxay, the historical part being an afterthought; and while I’m not a prude, I don’t watch movies or shows simply because they’re hott. But, I still make the comparison because while there is supposedly lots of politicking in the two other series, the ads are at least pitched to ignore that- it’s all sex and sieges and swords, and the politicking sort of takes a backseat position to the rest. Any soundbites (apart from heaving and panting) are cheesy, action-packed one-liners that are fairly generic and give absolutely no mystery at all.


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Oh, no, Gab. Rome is awesome. Yeah, it’s not the most historically-accurate thing ever, and it’s full of sex, but the politics and social stuff are pretty front-and-center, too. I don’t recall any generic one-liners in that show at all–it’s not 300 or Spartacus: Blood & Sand. I haven’t seen The Tudors, either, but my friends who watch it suggest that it’s much more egregiously-sexy and ahistorical.


    • Gab #

      Oh, sorry, I guess I didn’t make myself clear. What I meant was while there may be lots of socio-political drama in _Rome_ and _The Tudors_, they are *pitched* as though it’s all sex and violence. I can’t quote directly, but I remember getting the impression that the ads all had lines like, “I’ll never give up,” or, “I’ll stop you, if it’s the last thing I do!” with sword/ shield or dagger in hand, or a generic, lustful/romantic phrase just before a passionate embrace. I wasn’t saying that’s all of the entirety of the shows, but rather the ads were filled with nothing but, and, as such, gave the *impression* the shows would be that way, too.

      But your clarification about _Rome_ makes me wonder if it lost viewers because there was what *they* would call “too much” politicking involved. Sad as it is, I very easily envision a scenario in which the mob (get it?) demands more sex and swords, and the studio either caves and sacrifices plot for hott- thus risking a loss of a chunk of audience because they get angry or disgustipated by the inaccuracies and such- or doesn’t and loses at least some of the chunk of audience watching for the promise of people in (or out, I guess) of togas getting it on.

      How much have you seen? Does it get sexier as it goes, less sexy, or does it stay pretty consistent?


      • stokes OTI Staff #

        How funny would it be if the last episode of Rome was literally nothing but gladiator fights and loving, Food-Network-esque shots of fresh baked bread? All set to a soundtrack of happy fiddle music?

        (Don’t get me wrong – I would totally watch that show.)


        • Gab #

          Only if, after the happy violin music, the hoi polloi ended up throwing said bread at each other or the nobility in their attempt at a revolution. While this was playing:



      • mlawski OTI Staff #

        Ah, sorry, Gab! I must have misread your comment. I’m a little sick today, so I’ll use that as an excuse.

        I’ve seen all of Rome. If I’m remembering correctly, it gets less sex-ful in the second season–maybe that’s why it got canceled? I would say, sexwise, it’s between Pillars of the Earth the book and Pillars of the Earth the TV show. The sex adds to the plot and historical ambience about 50-75% of the time, and the rest of the time it’s just there because yay sex. As I’ve written on OTI before, the fun of the show is that it showed so many different kinds of Roman sex: low-class sex, high-class sex, sex with a teenage prostitute, sex with Cleopatra, loving sex with your female slave, angry gay sex with one of your male slaves, sex with your sister because you’re being manipulated for political purposes, sex sex sex sex sex…

        And also there’s some history. And one gladiator scene.


        • Gab #

          You’re sick, that makes me sad. :(

          If that really is why _Rome_ was cancelled, because the sex decreased and, with it, the viewership, I don’t know if that means the writers just can’t write without it, or the audience just can’t stand the politics without the reprieve of naked time every so often. And I don’t know which is more depressing.


  3. stokes OTI Staff #

    Gab, your comment is helping me to articulate something that I wanted to say in the post itself but couldn’t quite get my mind around. The reason I was excited about the series to begin with was that the the book was already an uber-sexxay version of history, but one that – like Rome, from what Mlawski tells me – somehow managed to stay interesting and intelligent. An adaptation of Pillars SHOULD need no dumbing-down or tarting-up: it’s already as audience friendly as a book of that length can possibly get.

    Also, although I guess I did say that they ramped up the sex in the TV version, that’s not quite accurate. So far there’s actually been less sex, believe it or not. What they have done, though, is made the plot-function of the sex much, much more stupid. In the book, Tom and Ellen’s sexual relationship is used to demonstrate a sociological point. Because everyone’s sleeping in the same room, they get it on in front of the children all the time, and no one really cares too much about it. Semi-public sex is just part of poor people’s lives. When Alfred tells the monks that Tom and Ellen are having sex, it’s not because he’s trying to get her in trouble, it’s because he doesn’t understand that anyone would be mad about it. And even the monks aren’t really mad. They understand that this kind of thing is typical, especially among the poor. They just use it as a pretext for their own political jockeying, striking at Prior Philip through Tom through Ellen. And this too tells us something about the broader social context.

    In the show, they have sex once, Alfred sees it, and it triggers some kind of Oedipal crisis where he blames her for replacing his mother. Then he goes and tells a wildly embroidered version of the story to the monks with the specific goal of destroying her. Like the urination scene, the actual smut level has not changed… and yet it’s so much more obnoxious, isn’t it? It no longer serves to advance the depiction of character or society. Instead, it advances a standard melodrama plot, and while I’ve got nothing against melodrama as such I feel like it tarnishes both 1) the original book, and 2) oddly enough, the sex.

    How about this: the series is not ramping up the smut, it is distilling the smut. By boiling away all of the intelligent stuff around the sex, they end up with a final product that’s closer to pornography.


    • Gab #

      There being less instances of sex in the miniseries isn’t hard to believe, actually, especially when you put it like that. The dumbing-down of the plot goes hand-in-hand with the distilling of the sex, though, which makes it seem, like you said, more like pornography and less purposeful.

      So then what do you think, is the distilling and dumbing-down a result of the producers’ preferences, what they think would be most successful in the medium, or just piss (hah!) poor adapting of a decent (not necessarily SPECTACULAR) piece of historical fiction? If the book worked and was simple enough, why do you think they changed it? Because I think it goes a little beyond the arguments of, “Well, there are just some things that can’t translate from page to picture,” which is often an excuse for film adaptations of books. That works sometimes, but not always, and what you’re saying makes me think it shouldn’t in this case.

      To take a specific example (since I was totally WTFd when I saw it, and you mentioned you didn’t remember it in the novel): Did they add the incest because they thought it would be cool and EVERY show should have something shocking like that, because they thought audiences would like it, or because they thought there needed to be another dynamic for that character (William?) and that was all they could come up with?

      (And about the incest again, and related to the last possibility there: I really hope they don’t try to use the twisted relationship between the dude and his mom as an excuse for his raping the other girl… “My mommy f***ed me up, so I have relationship and power issues! I’m not *really* an asshole, I can’t help myself!”)


      • stokes OTI Staff #

        I can’t even really speculate as to why they made some of the choices they did. The incest thing, in particular, had my eyes bulging out of my head. And if you ask me, they already are using it as what TV Tropes calls a “Freudian Excuse” for his crimes. (For those who didn’t watch it, William’s mother gropes him in the bathtub while she tells him how awesome it was that he raped Aliena. “Ick” does not even BEGIN to cover it.)


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