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Wolf Hall from Book to Screen

Leonie Dunn observes Wolf Hall, the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award winning novels, and BBC2’s most successful drama in over a decade

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Mantel’s 2009 and 2012 Man-Booker winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have managed to surpass all expectations, and winning the prize does invariably lead to a huge increase in sales, with Mantel’s books continuing to sell in their tens and hundreds of thousands even five years on. The afterlife of most Man Booker winners does not, however, usually include both stage and television adaptations, making Mantel’s something of an anomaly.

Mantel’s books captured the public’s imaginations at the time of their publication and they continue to capture viewers in their adaptations today. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies both tell stories full of human complexity which recount a distant time and place with unparalleled insight. With the breadth and depth of Mantel’s novels, it would seem that Peter Kominksy is stepping into a somewhat hazardous playing field in attempting to televise the books. Yet Kominksy’s adaptation challenges even the achievements of Mantel’s novel, succeeding in a clash of artistries that readers and viewers are relishing. While Mantel has almost limitless space within her novel, Kominksy has merely six hours, leading to unadulterated pace, flashbacks and visual impact that does justice to Mantel’s breakout works.

With the fourth episode of six airing this Wednesday, it seems that there is no stopping historical drama Wolf Hall. The Henry VIII drama first aired in January, and having been watched by over four million viewers, it swiftly became BBC2’s most successful drama in a decade. With viewers and critics alike regarding the adaptation of Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning novel as ‘close to perfect television’ The Daily Mail’s television critic Christopher Stevens gave Wolf Hall a five-star review.

It is no surprise that Kominksy’s adaptation has caused such a stir, with a cast consisting of Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Jonathan Price as Cardinal Wosley. With the media frenzy circling the filming and interviews with Rylance, Mantel and Lewis on their hopes for the programme, Wolf Hall really took on a life of its own. What sets Wolf Hall apart from other historical dramas is that, unlike The Tudors, Wolf Hall is taut and gloomy; if you are looking for lusty bed scenes and beheadings then Wolf Hall is unnervingly quiet in comparison. James Walton at The Telegraph was taken by the pace of the production stating ‘its willingness to allow a slow build; its defiant refusal to get overexcited by either its own material or its own hype; and, above all, its vivid sense that what we now regard as history (and therefore as somehow inevitable) is something that once unfolded—and unfolded uncertainly—in real time’. Kominksy sets Wolf Hall apart from the hype to present viewers with a pared down, concise and coherent interpretation that Mantel herself said exceeded her expectations.

The buzz over the novel and its televised adaptation is justified by many, and in a somewhat paradoxical manner BBC2’s adaptation has not discouraged anyone who hasn’t read the novels from reading them; it leaves you with a lingering urge to either read or re-read the originals. Kominksy has not dumbed down the historical drama but rather approached it in a manner that feeds our curiosity, as he cuts to the chase and feeds us our television in what could be coined ‘tablet form’.

Catch Wolf Hall on BBC2 or BBC iPlayer, and if you’re like me, make your Wednesday nights for staying in.