Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance Star in PBS Masterpiece’s ‘Wolf Hall’

March 5, 2015 8:51 PM

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Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance Star in PBS Masterpiece’s ‘Wolf Hall’

HAS THERE EVER LIVED a lustier, more murderous cast of characters than the Tudors? The infamy of the English dynasty owes largely to the treacherous 38-year reign of Henry VIII, but an even more compelling character may be his enabler and brain for hire, Thomas Cromwell, the commoner who rose in his court to become a kind of Henry whisperer, an advisor renowned for his ability to read the king’s mind like a book. For 500 years, Cromwell was viewed as a great heavy in the Tudor drama, a character whose lure became irresistible to the British novelist Hilary Mantel. “When I was researching, I started off with a fairly conventional viewpoint: that Cromwell’s a villain but an interesting villain,” Mantel says. “Then I began to discover other things and modified my view very fast.” Cromwell was the consummate fixer—in Mantel’s words, “the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make.” Mantel also found him unusually sympathetic: After the deaths of his wife and daughters, he went on to support his large extended family. She devoted eight years and a thousand pages to novelizing the first 51 years of Cromwell’s life with Wolf Hall, released in 2009, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, published three years later.

The books made Mantel a literary star—the first British author to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Naturally, film producers came calling. “There were many suitors, yes,” she says. But her books are serious works of historical fiction. The Tudors—notably in the Showtime series of the same name and th...

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