Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From Page to Screen

The Other Boleyn Girl (2001)
Philippa Gregory

In previous blogs I've looked at the relationship between novels and their film adaptations (a strange preoccupation, you might think, given the vanishingly small chance of ever seeing The Dog of the North on the screen). Films are often criticised for "not being the book"; a curious objection, since it's clearly implied in the word "film". I've tended to be more forgiving of film-makers, who don't have the scope to explore interior states which novelists have.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a generally favourable review of Justin Chadwick's film, The Other Boleyn Girl, not having read the book. This defect I have now remedied, and readers of the blog might be interested in how they differ.

Chadwick's film, of necessity, considerably simplifies the plot. Mary Boleyn has only one bastard by the Henry VIII in the film, but two (including a son) in the book. The existence of the son has a major effect on the dynamics within the Boleyn family, but also adds complications which a 90-minute film could not have accommodated. The film also attenuates (almost to invisibility) Henry's struggles with the Pope to grant his divorce from Katharine of Aragon.

The film also all but removes Mary Boleyn's romance with her eventual second husband, William Stafford (but then confusingly drops it back in at the end, in a way which makes very little sense unless you've read the book). This, for me at least, was a good decision: the courtship phase of the relationship was a bit Harlequin Romance for my taste, and jarred with the assured realpolitik of the rest of the novel.

The point of view is also dramatically shifted. Gregory's novel is first-person, something film always struggles to replicate. Without the insight into Mary's thoughts--and particularly growing disillusionment with the "family business"--the film struggles to present the "good" sister as anything other than insipid. Anne, on the other hand, is more sympathetically treated in the film; but the film is less successful at displaying Mary's highly ambivalent feelings towards Anne--one of the finest elements of the novel.

Despite having a smaller canvas to work with, Chadwick does interject some new material not found in the novel. A final scene in which Mary pleads to Henry for Anne's life is introduced (in the novel, more plausubly, Mary is keeping her head down in case she shares her sister's fate). Indeed, the whole business of Anne's trial and execution is given much greater attention in the film: the novel dismisses it in a curiously perfunctory fashion. A scene early in the film in which Anne and Henry hunt together is also introduced (Anne botches her chance and the torch passes to Mary: it's there to show the Boleyns utter opportunism which the book can do more indirectly).

The character of Mary and Anne's mother, Lady Boleyn, is also entirely different in the film. Played by Kristen Scott Thomas, she is an appalled and powerless victim as her family's ambition prostitutes her daughters. The performance is one of the best in the film, but it's there because Chadwick has no other way of reflecting a sensibility which Gregory can reveal through Mary's first-person narrative. Gregory's Lady Boleyn is a chilly "Howard girl" with no maternal feelings at all.

The major difference, and the one which lifts the book far above the film, is in atmosphere. Gregory's portrayal of the Tudor court is frighteningly claustrophobic: Mary soon realises she wants no part of it, but she cannot escape. Even Anne, who stokes the claustrophobia in keeping Mary by her side, falls victim to it. As her own downfall becomes inevitable, she realises she is trapped. Henry's descent from selfish playboy to tyrant contributes to and explains the context (this psychotic king is much better realised by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors than Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl).

Readers and viewers who enjoy the Tudor period will no doubt be entertained by both incarnations of The Other Boleyn Girl. But those who prefer their historical drama to have emotional depth as well as opulent costumes are steered towards the book first.

No comments: