It's coming. The BBC adaption of Wolf Hall will finally make its American premiere on PBS stations across the country on April 5 at 10 p.m. ET. Of course, a Booker Prize-winning novel adapted to become the highest rated BBC program in more than a decade starring Tony Award-winning actor Mark Rylance and Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winner Damian Lewis (from the glorious and gratuitous Showtime series Homeland) would surely be considered "must-see TV" by just about anyone, but for literature lovers there are even more reasons to tune in to the April 5 premiere.
But let me start at the beginning.
Hilary Mantel's lauded and widely read series exploring the Tudor court of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell awoke the passions of audiences who had all but forgotten their love of historical fiction. The first two Booker Prize-winning volumes in the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, quickly earned critical attention; Wolf Hall was heralded by Booker Prize Committee Chairman James Naughtie as an "extraordinary" work of fiction, "a contemporary novel, a modern novel, which happens to be set in the 16th century."
Despite the critical acclaim, what is perhaps most extraordinary about Mantel's trilogy is the reception the books received among a general audience. Within the realm of historical fiction the phrases "cult classic" and "taking the world by storm" are not bandied about lightly, yet Mantel's writing has earned all of these accolades and more. In Britain, a veritable Wolf Hall industry has arisen, with an adaptation for the illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company garnering rave reviews, and the BBC series premiering to an audience of more than 4.4 million viewers, making Wolf Hall the highest rated BBC program in more than 13 years.
Yes, it broke records.
Wolf Hall is more than just a successful adaptation (an impressive feat in its own right, and a relief for readers everywhere who cringe at the very notion of bringing a beloved book to the small screen). Wolf Hall is a ode to the novel itself, a stirring tribute to the power of fiction more than a cunning reconstruction of one of the more thrilling periods in our history. Damian Lewis, who portrays the imperious Henry VIII reminds audiences that "we are not telling Tudor history; we are creating ‘Wolf Hall’ from novels, which are already a rereading of Tudor history.”
The centrality of Mantel's fiction to the development of the series highlights the awesome power of the novel — the power to mold characters from the clay of history, to seek out the singular moment, the thrilling detail, the enlightening emotional response and bring to life a narrative where before there was only information. Mantel's fiction is so much more than a forthright retelling of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor court of Henry VII, the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy that will come to a close with the forthcoming release of The Mirror and the Light is a "vividly original reading of the period," a breathtaking demonstration of fiction doing what fiction does best — crafting a timeless story from a unique and captivating perspective.
The world of literature can sometimes become lost in a circuitous and self-congratulatory feedback loop within which authors and critics talk exclusively to one another, forgetting all but the most avid reader in a quest for glory understood little and appreciated less by the wider world. The adaptation of Hilary Mantel's critically acclaimed novel represents a broad and enthusiastic support not only for a revival in imaginative new works historical fiction, but also for narrative more generally, for stories shaped with precision and care, guided by a unique perspective, and shot through with all the power brilliant writing brings to bare on a blank page or a bygone era.
For a lover of literature, the PBS premiere of Wolf Hall represents a rare gift: the chance to see literature itself represented on the silver screen, and represented with the exceptional skill and absolute care of some of the greatest artistic talents of our time. So, mark your calendar for April 5, because opportunities to celebrate great literature in alternative forms come all to rarely, and this particular adaptation promises to be one for the books.