Back in June, I put Hilary Mantel’s masterful novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, Wolf Hall, on my Introductory Guide to Women-Centered Culture For Guys syllabus. Now, HBO’s making a miniseries out of it.
This is great news for a couple of reasons. First, if it’s done right, the adaptation will be a great look at — in addition to the birth of the Church of England — European trade, the consolidation of church properties that led to the founding of Cardinal College at Oxford, and the allegations that Thomas More actively promoted the torture of Protestants during the lead-up to England’s split with the Catholic Church. Wolf Hall is a phenomenal novel about personal investment in politics. Watching Thomas Cromwell escape his father’s vicious abuse through the kindness of Amsterdam’s cloth merchants and the mercenary armies of the continent; Cardinal Wolsey fret over the future of the college he wanted to make a jewel; or the cold home More builds to prop up the edifice of his righteousness, the show builds a complicated definition of the means and costs of being a genuinely world-historical figure.
And for all that it’s big, it’s a strikingly personal novel. We see what it means to be sold off for your chastity, the cost of being an object of obsessive pursuit in a way that makes a mockery of Twilight. It’s a shame that Natalie Dormer already played Anne Boelyn in The Tudors so she can’t take on a more nuanced version of the role here. Cromwell’s relationship with his late wife, and later, with her sister, who is married to another man, are infinitely tender. The loss of his daughter, the disappointment of his son, sting like whips. And it’s a marvelous novel of friendship, whether it’s Cromwell and Wolsey or Cromwell and Imperial diplomat Eustace Chapuys. I don’t really know how a miniseries will capture the Cabinet of Wonders-like effect of the novel, which is one of the most effective evocations of a historic worldview I’ve ever read. But I’m glad it’s not getting reduced to a movie, and that some serious writerly fire-power will be behind it. HBO’s movie team has been wildly on their game lately, so I can’t wait to see what they do with this.