How Not To Mess Up An Adaptation Of A Popular Book

It’s always exciting when you find out they’re making a movie or TV adaptation of one of your favorite books. I’m a big fan of Ken Follett and love his two medieval historical novels, Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, World Without End.

The TV adaptation of Pillars of the Earth was really good, in my view.

The TV adaptation of World Without End has been a gigantic disappointment.

Neither series was a literal recreation of the books. Both added a lot about what was happening with the political structure of England during the time the stories were set. In the case of Pillars of the Earth. it took place during a period called The Anarchy, when the heir to the throne was unexpectedly killed and his cousin and sister fought bitterly for many years to gain the monarchy.

In the case of World Without End, it takes place just as Edward II is murdered by his wife and her lover so they could put her son on the throne and rule through him.

I’ll be honest, I could have done without so much of the story of Pillars of the Earth being about the monarchs (Follett’s stories are usually about how the powers-that-be impact the lives of ordinary people) but they did a good job and were fairly accurate in their portrayal of history.

Which brings me to the first area where World Without End went wrong.

1. If you’re going to add a lot of historical background to the story, don’t screw with the facts too much. Having read much about 14th century England, which included the Black Plague and the 100 Years War between England and France, I was struck by how often they messed with history. It’s a good bet that if someone likes historical fiction, they probably know at least something about the period. I’m not one of those people who rants about historical fiction having to be 100% accurate. To me, the first duty of a writer, no matter the genre, is to tell a good story. But at least stay in the ballpark of what really happened. World Without End not only didn’t do that, they rewrote history in some very silly ways. (I can’t say how without giving away the ending, but trust me, it’s VERY silly.)

2. If you get casting right, the audience will forgive a lot. Pillars of the Earth was impeccably cast. It was like the characters jumped right out of the book. While there were many good actors in World Without End, there was less care taken in casting, especially for the two young leads, Charlotte Riley as Caris, and Tom Weston-Jones as Merthin. I think they’re both good actors, they were just miscast.

3. Stay true to character. In Pillars of the Earth, they stayed remarkably true to the spirit of the characters in the book. In World Without End, they changed them a great deal. In the book, main character Caris was a very strong woman who fought for things she believed in. In the adaptation, she was far weaker and more passive. The major antagonists, her aunt Petranilla and cousin Godwyn, were wily opponents in the book. In the TV series, they made them so evil as to be almost laughable. The body count was so high it was a wonder they weren’t caught and brought to justice in one of the early episodes.

4. Stay true to the relationships between the characters. In the book, Caris became close friends with another major character, Gwenda. This relationship was very important to the story. For most of the series, the stories of Caris and Gwenda took place with the two of them hardly ever crossing paths. The relationship between Caris and her true love Merthin was similarly mishandled. It cut the heart right out of the story.

5. Don’t dump character motivation. In Pillars of the Earth, they made a point of giving the audience at least an idea of why characters were doing what they did. In World Without End, characters did things for no discernible reason, which was confusing as hell, even to someone like me who had read the book. For instance, in the book one character helped Godwyn in his mission to bring down Caris because she had been a rival for Merthin’s affections. In the series, this was entirely omitted–perhaps for time’s sake, but without any motivation whatsoever, it made what the character did completely inexplicable.

6. If you can’t afford to recreate some of the major set-pieces, adapt something else. One of the reasons HBO’s Game of Thrones is so beloved by the books’ fans is the producers fought to get enough money to do justice to some of the set-piece scenes. In World Without End, several major set-piece scenes, like the collapse of a bridge and some battle scenes, looked like they were done on the cheap. (Maybe it actually cost a lot to do them, but they LOOKED cheap.) Whether it’s for a movie or a TV show, viewers have a high expectation when it comes to visuals. If you don’t meet them, it brings down everything else.

7. If you’re doing a TV adaptation, don’t dumb it down. TV viewers get a bad rap, and are often portrayed as reality TV-watching zombies. But they also watch sophisticated fare like Mad Men. If the material is good, then trust it and trust the audience to understand and become entranced with it. They did that with Pillars of the Earth. They didn’t with World Without End.

 

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