The Pillars Of The Earth Review: Starz Gets It Right
I’m not generally a fan of period pieces when it comes to books or, for the most part, TV shows. In fact, it took me years to actually pick up Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth as well as repeated attempts on my father's part to convince me I would like it. Finally, I got around to reading it and it quickly became one of my favorite works of fiction. So, when Starz sent me the series to review, I was more than a little bit interested in seeing how the story would play out on the small screen.
If you’ve read the book, skip this paragraph as you already know the story. If not, The Pillars of the Earth follows the building of a cathedral in a town in England during the 12th century, and the drama that surrounds the project and the characters involved. Getting the cathedral built proves to be more challenging than just stacking stones as there is an ongoing struggle for power between the recently deceased king’s daughter Maud and his nephew Stephen. While some involved, including the corrupt Bishop and the Hamleigh family, use the strife for their own personal and political gain, the people of Kingsbridge, including Tom Builder and Prior Philip, attempt to get their cathedral built. From political drama, to romance and plenty of suspense, the book is more than just a story about a church being built. It’s the classic good versus evil tale where most of the characters fall firmly on one side or the other.
We see books turned into movies constantly and many of them become butchered somewhere during the process of cramming hundreds of pages of story into a two-hour film. I doubt I’m alone in thinking that any attempt to turn Pillars into a big-screen picture would’ve been disastrous. Even the best of screenwriters would have trouble figuring out a way to condense the story that much. A mini-series format was definitely the way to go with a story that focuses on numerous, interlocking character arcs such as Pillars. Starz gets credit there for getting it right as fans of the book will appreciate the steps taken to address all of the major plot points to some extent or another.
The cast is fantastic and this is important as Pillars is book full of great characters. One bad casting choice could have derailed the entire series. Fortunately, the cast as a whole is excellent. Matthew Macfadyen’s portrayal of the wise, principled Prior Philip is done well enough that I’m sure I’ll be picturing his face, voice and gentle demeanor during future re-reads of the book. While I wouldn’t have pictured Rufus Sewell as Tom Builder, he does an excellent job of bringing the strong, quietly determined working man and father to life as we see his character suffer the loss of his wife and attempt to build a new future for what’s left of his family through the cathedral. Eddie Redmayne was the perfect choice for the role of Jack, as he makes the young artist seem sweet, boyishly shy and at the same time, strong-willed and determined, just as he is in the book. Ian McShane delivers just the right amount of creepy and evil as Waleran Bigod, while David Oakes portrays the weak but ambitious William Hamleigh with equal success. Finally, Donald Sutherland is typically fantastic as Bartholomew.
Hayley Atwell’s portrayal of Aliena is the perfect blend of strength and femininity as we see her attempt to deliver on the promise she made to her father to get her brother’s land and title back. Sarah Parish pulls off the creepy but ambitious Regan Hamleigh beautifully, while Natalia Wörner plays Ellen with just the right amount of confidence and sexuality. And Alison Pill’s portrayal of Maud ranges from good to scary-good as we see her attempt to claim and hold the throne on behalf of her son.
In terms of the content, Starz had an opportunity to bank on the sex and violence of the book. They’d be playing it up if they did but there’s enough of both in the story to give viewers an eyeful, if that were the angle they were aiming for with this adaptation. Fortunately, it isn’t and the series is better for it. While there are some sexual scenes (some more implied than others) and a few violent moments, the series stays focused on the characters and the suspense, which I believe are two of the books biggest assets and the same can be said for the adaptation.
I’m guessing most people’s biggest question with regards to the miniseries is, “Is it as good as the book?” The answer: Is it ever? Rarely, as we tend to set our standards by our own interpretation of the author’s text, and how often does the film version ever really match that? With that said, Starz’s Pillars of the Earth miniseries does the book justice, and given everything that takes place and the years spanned throughout the story, that’s saying something. Die-hard Pillars fans will see the areas that were condensed or otherwise altered for the sake of the story, however I think most of the major arcs are covered nicely in this adaptation.
Fans of the book are in for a treat here as this eight-hour series captures the heart of Follett’s story rather well and gives us a chance to re-enjoy the tale in a different format. Moreover, those who are new to the story and looking to bypass reading the lengthy novel should find the adaptation to be extremely entertaining, suspenseful and worth tuning in for each week as the summer progresses.