BBC Reigns Globally With ‘Wolf Hall’ Adaptation

A Booker Prize-winning pair of novels about the middle-aged manager of Henry VIII’s court doesn’t sound like the next hit literary property for the stage and screen, but “Wolf Hall” has so far turned conventional wisdom on its head.

Hilary Mantel’s 2009 hit novel — which sold nearly 3 million copies in the U.K. and U.S. — and sequel “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012) have already been adapted into a critically acclaimed hit by Mike Poulton at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, and its current Broadway transfer has grossed almost $2 million in previews since March 20; it opened April 9.

Three months earlier, nearly 4 million British viewers watched the six-part series’ first episode Jan. 21 on BBC Two, the highbrow channel’s biggest audience for a drama series in a decade.

The April 5 PBS debut of the series, starring Mark Rylance as the king’s right-hand man, statesman Thomas Cromwell, along with Damien Lewis (“Homeland”) as Henry and Jonathan Pryce (“Game of Thrones”) as Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, scored 40% above the national ratings average for the night, and wowed American critics. PBS is releasing a DVD/Blu-ray set April 28.

BBC Worldwide, which is selling the series internationally, knew it had something big on its hands when it invited 600 buyers to a “Wolf Hall”-themed feast in Liverpool Cathedral during its sales event in the city in February.

But when Peter Straughan took the job of adapting the books for the smallscreen in 2012, he faced a whole host of challenges, most notably one that was still rocking the British screenwriter to his core.

Straughan’s wife and writing partner, Bridget O’Connor (with whom he shared an Oscar nomination for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), had died in October 2010, and he felt he needed to take a break from writing, which soon stretched out to more than a year.

“Part of me was frightened that maybe I wasn’t going to write again,” he says. “Then I got sent ‘Wolf Hall’ to read, and that’s what made me want to write again. I owe a great debt to it.”

But the length of the two novels — more than 1,000 pages combined — along with their plot complexity meant decisions had to be made. Straughan pulled out a strand of the story to form a backbone for the series: Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey, and his desire for revenge against those who caused his mentor’s downfall.

Executive producer Colin Callender of New York-based Playground Entertainment, which produced the miniseries along with the U.K.’s Company Pictures, says the decision to hire Straughan was made quickly. “You needed someone who understood structure, who could find the narrative spine and drive that through the thousand pages. When we sat down with Peter, it was one of those great meetings when you say, ‘Stop, let’s just do the deal,’ ” Callender says. He adds that the first draft was “jaw-droppingly great,” and the BBC greenlit the project immediately.

During the writing process, Straughan was often in touch with Mantel, asking for advice or clarification, and checking her reaction to changes and compressions. “The good novelists understand that the adaptation process is about having to break something down and put it together again in a different way,” Straughan says. “That was true of Hilary. She was incredibly generous and helpful.”

With a solid first draft in hand, Callender was able to bring Rylance and director Peter Kosminsky aboard. But a key, Callender says, was in having defined the parameters of the project early on.

“In the very first meeting with Hilary Mantel,” says Callender, “we talked about two things. First, about how there was a way to tell history in a complex way that didn’t need to pander to the audience. You didn’t have to change events to tell a story; you could trust an audience to go on a journey with you.

“The second thing,” he adds, “was that we wanted to put the characters and the audience into the story without the benefit of hindsight, so they didn’t know what was going to happen next; creating a world from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, where he doesn’t know the consequences of his actions, and exploring the moral complexity at the center of this man’s life as he is trying to navigate the Tudor court — to do the right thing and yet survive; the tension between pragmatism and idealism.”

The approach certainly worked during the February sales pitch. Besides PBS, buyers have included Arte for France and Germany, SVT in Sweden, DR in Denmark, YLE in Finland, BBC First in Australia, and several other territories — Israel, Greece, Slovenia and Croatia among them.

Let the royal tour continue.

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