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Wolf Hall is the next British cultural invasion

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell stars in a drama that becomes much more political for the screen
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell stars in a drama that becomes much more political for the screen
BBC/PBS

Filled with plots to kill enemies, political manipulation, and a heavy dose of sexuality, England under King Henry VIII's rule seems more like a soap opera than a period of English prosperity that lasted from around 1510 through 1535.

With the king in a quiet fight over whether he can divorce his first wife, and Catholics and Protestants arguing over the nature of truth and what the church should be, Tudor England is a prime place to set a historical series that weaves together dynamics of faith, fortune, and family because all three were uncertain. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series — in both book and TV form — is just such an accomplishment.

The themes of heresy, fear, death, and the problems of the powerful are universal, but the story of Wolf Hall is a specific story of one man's place amid all this drama. That's what makes it great.

What is Wolf Hall?

Wolf Hall is the first book in author Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy. The historical fiction novel follows Cromwell through his life as a child, secretary to Catholic Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and adviser to King Henry VIII. The book is written from Cromwell's point of view and provides readers with a limited third-person understanding of the world he lives in — one where the politics of old England seem just as important and relevant as today's.

The book received substantial critical acclaim and won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize upon its release in 2009. Sales of the book brought in almost 11 million pounds in the United Kingdom, and more than 650,000 copies have been sold in the United States.

Both Wolf Hall and its equally acclaimed sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, have been turned into a six-episode miniseries on the BBC starring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damian Lewis (best known to American viewers for Homeland) as Henry VIII. The miniseries debuted in the UK in January, and it premieres in the United States on PBS on Sunday, April 5.

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. (PBS/BBC)

Was Thomas Cromwell a real person?

Yes! The real Thomas Cromwell was an English lawyer born around 1485. He died in 1540. Cromwell was born to a lower-class family (his father was a blacksmith), but worked his way up through the ranks to become a formidable force in the courts of Henry VIII.

He was married to Elizabeth Wyckes and had three children, but his wife and two daughters died from a sweating sickness, a mysterious disease with a high death rate that overtook England in the early 16th century.

Cromwell played an instrumental role in helping Henry VIII annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and cementing his relationship, marriage, and future annulment to Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII's eventual divorce from his first wife caused a huge schism within the church. In order to divorce her, Henry had to ignore the rule of the Catholic Church. That division later created the Church of England and led to the Protestant Reformation.

Cromwell was executed for treason without trial on July 28, 1540. He was beheaded on Tower Hill, and his head was placed on a spike on London Bridge. Cromwell's sentencing and death happened on the same day that King Henry VIII married the teenager Catherine Howard as his fifth wife. Cromwell had fallen out of favor with the king and his court after the king's failed fourth marriage.

Is this book historically accurate?

Wolf Hall and the books that follow are rooted in historical fact, but they are works of fiction. Mantel is a novelist who has taken liberties with aspects of history in order to make her story work and move forward.

Historian Simon Schama said on the television series A History of Britain:

It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII’s dirty work.

When I was doing research for A History of Britain, the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture. He also unleashed small-minded bureaucratic "visitors" to humiliate, evict and dispossess thousands of monks and nuns.

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 through which we see his world. It makes sense that he wouldn't present his actions as completely manipulative and dirty.

Mantel has noted the painstaking measures she went to in order to make sure her book fit in the proper historical context. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mantel explains that she created a kind of card catalog for every single character with important dates and where they would have been at that time.

"You really need to know, 'Where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment?' You can't have him in London if he's supposed to be somewhere else," she said.

The book is certainly historically accurate in its placement of characters and events and its ability to carefully describe the political undercurrents of 1530 England. But as with any story, the internal monologues of the characters are from Mantel's imagination.

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The costuming of Wolf Hall is maybe one of the most impressive aspects of the show. (PBS/BBC)

How many of the books have been released?

Two. Wolf Hall was released in 2009. The second book, Bring Up the Bodies, follows the next phase of Cromwell's life as the king's relationship with Anne Boleyn becomes more complicated when she fails to produce a male heir. It, too, won the Man Booker Prize and received sensational reviews.

The third and final installment in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is expected to be published in late 2015.

Do I need to read the books before I watch the miniseries?

The miniseries stands on its own as a work of historical fiction. Because the series is not limited to Cromwell's point of view, the series can actually be more clear at times than the book was about where a scene is taking place and who the major characters are.

Both the books and the television shows are hugely accessible for people unfamiliar with British history in general. In fact, some of the biggest twists won't be twists if you know too much about Tudor England.

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King Henry and Anne Boleyn. (PBS/BBC)

Will I like the show if I read the books?

There are a couple of major differences in this adaptation that may put off people who have read and enjoyed the books.

Rylance gives a good performance, but his interpretation of Cromwell makes the character seem nicer than the books ever do. Though Mantel's Cromwell is certainly a sympathetic character, Rylance's Cromwell occasionally pushes that sympathy too far. Instead of an indomitable force who commands the British court, the miniseries' Cromwell is a quiet man whose power comes from how many secrets he harbors.

That variance, however, isn't entirely Rylance's fault. Wolf Hall the book is told in first person, and thus the reader only knows what Thomas Cromwell knows — and his version of events is limited and biased in his favor. The television show, however, doesn't have a consistent way of presenting the story in that fashion. The camera, by the very nature of the medium, exists outside of Cromwell's head. Instead of seeing Cromwell from his perspective, we see him onscreen. That changes the way the story — and character — feel.

That pulls away from the personal feel of the books, but it also makes the story seem less dynamic. When Cromwell goes to see Anne Boleyn, it seems dutious — a thing he must do because someone told him to. In the books, that decision is plagued with the knowledge that seeing Anne Boleyn has complicated undertones throughout the monarchy. Without Cromwell's inner monologue, some of the emotional undercurrents of the story suffer.

To compensate for this, the show is shot through a lens of gritty realism, all low light and faded color. By diluting the color palette for the show, writer Peter Straughan and director Peter Kosminsky force the storyline toward something ultra-serious and grave, like historical dramas you may have seen before. Thus, the series is dominated by commentary about governance and royalty, which is exactly what buries so many historical films and TV series.

What makes Mantel's work special is that it doesn't ever feel like a historical fiction novel. Instead, it feels like she completely imagined it — and it just happens to fit into the facts of the time period. The TV series, by necessity, feels like an adaptation of a popular book.

What the show does imagine in vivid detail is the setting. All the trappings of the period that Mantel doesn't take the time to describe in the books come alive in the show. On top of that, the show has the ability to make the political aspects of the book all the more interesting and engaging by focusing more intently on the trial over King Henry's annulment, creating dynamics that are familiar to anyone who has watched a political drama, despite the fact that the events happened more than 500 years ago.

Even with its faults, the BBC's adaption is an entertaining watch for those already invested in Thomas Cromwell's story. How much reach the series will have outside of people who already loved the books is yet to be determined. But luckily for PBS, the books' fan base is plenty large.