Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pillars of the Earth

Another day, another Starz historical drama. Only this one is a mini-series (remember those?) called The Pillars of the Earth and aired last year. So you can score it on DVD or through Netflix if you desire.

Let's start off with a personal anecdote. I know you guys love those like woah. About two years ago I was thinking to myself, "Self, there must be more to the audiobook genre than Harry Potter and Twilight*. Why don't you see what else is out there and start listening?"

I can't remember how I got turned onto it, but I decided that Ken Follet's, Pillars of the Earth, was a good place to start so I reserved the audiobook from my library. And then I picked it up and almost started laughing. You guys, this thing was massive. The unabridged novel was over 30 discs long. It took me a long time to get through it, but get through it I did. I wish I could say I enjoyed it, and while I certainly appreciated the story for it's epic scale, huge cast of well-established characters, and ability to hold my attention--all in all I was glad when it ended.

Because in my opinion, this was a story that made you care about a bunch of characters and then proceeded to shit all over them for 30 discs (let's say more than 40 hours). Seriously. Bad stuff seemed to happen to these people a lot, and sure that's realistic for a tale set in the medieval world, but as a reader or listener it gets draining.

So why did I decide to watch the mini-series that Starz aired based on the novel? Mostly because I was curious and wanted to see how an adaption went, but maybe because I'm also a glutton for punishment. Or because I needed something to write about here on the blog and I figured there were only so many posts I could squeeze out of the Best Christmas Movie teat.

I was all set to write this in-depth review and then I found this one from Time and it's pretty much exactly what I wanted to say. Allow me to shamelessly quote their sum-up of the plot and some of the review:
England is in a succession struggle (a period called the Anarchy) after a ship disaster killed a royal heir. The intrigue draws in the Church, which is experiencing its own power battle: the very very upright Prior Philip (Matthew Macfayden) rises in the Church and comes into conflict with the very very corrupt bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane). Among the points of contention, the building of a planned massive cathedral. Around the edges of this story comes in a lot of the juicy stuff: warring nobles with their lusts and shifting alliances, and the trials of poor but virtuous stonemason Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) who wants to design the cathedral and whose life is complicated by his Wiccan consort Ellen (Natalia W├Ârner). (I would say Tom Builder is aptly named, but people were aptly named by design in the 12th-century.)

In 1980 on NBC, this show (with the sex and violence heavily cut back) would have been a landmark. But after a decade of complex, sophisticated, morally challenging cable dramas, it’s a letdown...All that said, the production values are high enough and the history heady enough that the show should appeal to fans of big historical pics willing to overlook some simplistic drama. Pillars can be an intriguing look at a period of history that we tend to see covered more in mythic stories of Holy Grail parodies.
I think that pretty much covers it. The show follows the book very faithfully, such that sometimes I was a little bored since I knew what was going to happen. But the entire cast is excellent and I found myself sucked in almost against my will. Let me put it this way: disc 2 got popped in as soon as disc 1 ran out even though I didn't think the show was that fabulous.

And I don't seem to remember that incest subplot from the book, but it's cable. Whatever.

A lot of the cast will be familiar to you, Ian McShane is of course from Deadwood, and you've got Matthew Macfayden from the most recent Pride and Prejudice movie. He's much better in this, by the way. Also Eddie Redmayne (from the recent My Week With Marilyn) is excellent as the real "hero" of the show, Jack.

MacFayden is MUCH better as a monk than Mr. Darcy, thank you very much.

I'll also give the show props for making all the political intrigue and shifting alliances easier to follow than the book. In fact, I think that's where the series' real pleasure lies. While the book seemed really depressing due to all the terrible things that happened, watching the characters on the television respond and try to bring themselves back from disaster (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) with quick-thinking, gumption, and good old fashioned wits was really interesting. The visuals of the cathedral are also quite stunning.

If you're a fan of historical drama on a grand scale with a side of violence and sex, then you might want to think about checking this out. A warning though: it's no Game of Thrones. But if you're looking for something to fill the winter hiatus that won't require a huge commitment (the entire series is only 8 episodes long) this could be just the ticket.

*don't judge.


Clovis said...

i totally stumbled on this miniseries last winter when i was sick and laying on the couch all day and desperately going through Netflix instant view. i mistakenly thought it was a documentary for a while. (don't judge, i was on a lot of meds at the time.) i actually read the book after seeing the series as well, but i can't really tell you why.

Priya said...

Have you seen MacFaydan in Little Dorrit? He's really good there as well. I liked him as Mr. Darcy (no Colin Firth though)