The Atemporality of The Pillars of the Earth and its Impact on Game of Thrones

The Atemporality of The Pillars of the Earth and its Impact on Game of Thrones

July 23rd, 2010

I have never read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, but I have a feeling that it would be a very different experience than this Miniseries.

I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight, even if it may read as one for fans of the book: I can’t know whether or not the miniseries, co-developed by Canada’s The Movie Network and American cable’s Starz, bastardizes Follett’s epic tome, but I do know that the story has been given a linear form which I can’t imagine exists in the original novel. Of course, considering the talent in front of the camera – with Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew MacFayden, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Pill, Donald Sutherland and Gordon Pinsent in prominent roles – the miniseries is watchable, and has moments which hint to a greater depth which the series’ pace simply can’t indulge as often as one might like, but in the end one can’t help but feel that this is a miniseries produced by individuals who have too little faith in television as a medium for telling complex stories, choosing to boil down a narrative which would have likely been more engaging had it been left in its original form.

I think this is partially the result of the limitations (or the supposed limitations) of a plot-driven miniseries like this one, but it raises concerns about another upcoming adaptation, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which on paper would face similar problems. That being said, I think that the approach being taken with Game of Thrones is set to face the challenges of adapting this material, while I feel like Pillars of Earth cuts its losses at an early stage and fails to take off as a result.

I can’t tell you what The Pillars of the Earth lost in translation, but I can tell you what it’s missing: time. Perhaps it’s that the series spends roughly three minutes in a prologue before leaping forward indiscriminately, but throughout the first two episodes there is a complete failure to capture the elapsed time between events. Some might argue that spending time on people traveling, or people simply living their lives, should be the first thing to go in a story this substantial being adapted to television, but without it the sheer volume of story begins to fall in on itself. Ellen and Tom’s relationship is perhaps the best example of this in the first two episodes: that he is able to go from his wife’s tragic end to bedding another woman is not entirely uncommon, but it seems like only days between those events. I’m fairly certain, based on how much bloody happens in them, that these episodes took place over several weeks if not months, and yet there’s nothing to really indicate this. The story never stops for a single moment, which could be seen as momentum but in fact keeps some of the story’s most interesting elements from really connecting. It makes everything seem like plot, which is the last thing you want from a miniseries like this one.

These episodes are lucky, in that they have a pretty simple premise to work with: because so much of the action is driven by the King’s death and the web of succession which follows, it’s fairly easy to follow why things are happening. However, the further away from that moment, the more of a struggle it will be to relate to these events if the characters are not more developed in non-plot capacities. I would have loved to see some brief vignettes of Tom and Ellen bonding on the road rather than jumping ahead to their departures and arrivals, learning things about their characters which may not be relevant to the plot but might be relevant to my connection with them. The series is very much designed as one with many coincidences, what with Ellen’s connection to the one witness to the fiery wreck which killed Henry’s true heir and the like, but the world seems much too small when people seem to travel from Point A to Point B as if they were walking across the street. As weird as it sounds, a two-minute travel montage where we see these people move from one location to another would have done a lot to give the miniseries the sense that time was actually elapsing and that these characters are not simply being placed wherever the plot demands them to be placed.

It’s perhaps true that plot is king in the Miniseries format, as one chooses a miniseries rather than a full-length series based on the story they have to tell and how they have decided to tell that story. However, this doesn’t mean that a miniseries will be held to different standards than a traditional series: if it still airs in an episodic fashion (in four two-hour blocks, in the case of Pillars), and if each episode stands as a single unit, then I expect more than plot. It’s true that I find this story to be fairly interesting, and am curious to see how it resolves, but that won’t sustain me through eight episodes, not should it. We expect any series asking for an extended commitment to connect with us on more than one level, to make us feel like more than spectators in their world. Where Pillars of the Earth fails is that I feel like nothing more than a spectator: they keep mysteries from us (like the fact that Ian McShane’s character was the priest confessor who Ellen cursed) as if that’s enough to keep us hooked, but the miniseries is so linear that any such mysteries are easily deciphered (the incest reveal was just as benign, considering how emasculated the father was made to be in earlier moments). This series needs something other than plot and some good performances to keep me engaged for four weeks, and I’m not hopeful of this changing much in the future (when the series will likely be condensing even more plot to work towards a climax).

What struck me the most about Pillars of the Earth, however, was how clearly it outlines the challenges which face HBO’s Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (which I’ve written about in the past, and which arrives next year). It similarly relies on political intrigue in order to tell its stories, and there are quite a number of story elements and themes which played out in the early episodes of Pillars with what I’d consider limited effect (the rape, for example). However, perhaps because of the transparency of the casting and production process (you should be following Winter is Coming, a fantastic news resource) or perhaps because of my love for the source material, I feel as if Game of Thrones is designed to rise to these challenges. While the Pillars of the Earth adaptation seems to have boiled away anything but plot, Martin’s books are structured around characters, and the first novel (and thus first season) is specifically organized around journeys. While Game of Thrones will similarly jump back and forth between various different locations and storylines which relate to one another, each location is given life through its characters, and what I’m seeing coming out of the project indicates that this remains their modus operandi.

It also helps that Game of Thrones will, in an ideal world, get seven seasons rather than eight episodes to tell its story – it isn’t a miniseries at all, but rather a story which can spend time to develop its connections and which can stop when it so desires to emphasize the temporality of Martin’s world and the importance of his characters to the unfolding story. In Pillars of the Earth, a cheesy title card announces the plot of the miniseries, unwilling to take the time to establish that through narration or through spending the time necessary to set things up. With Game of Thrones, the entire first season will essentially set the stage for the larger story, which should allow them to iron out some of the problems on display here.

At the very least, Pillars of the Earth should stand as a warning to Benioff and Co. about what could go wrong with Game of Thrones, but I’m confident that they’ll be just fine on their own.

Cultural Observations

  • Redmayne, who is coming off a win at the Tony Awards, has the one character (Jack) who manages to be quite interesting, if only because Redmayne is such a magnetic presence and because his character doesn’t speak for the bulk of the first two episodes, making the character (rather than the plot) into an enigma which we desire to solve.
  • Two of the young actors here are moving onto some pretty big projects on pay cable: Redmayne has been cast in HBO’s The Miraculous Year pilot (which Kathryn Bigelow is directing), while David Oakes (William) has been alongside Jeremy Irons in Showtime’s The Borgias. Also, Hayley Atwell is perhaps making the biggest leap of all, having earned the role of Captain America’s love interest in the upcoming Marvel film.
  • Also, in the “Where have I seen them recently?” column, Atwell played Lucy/4-15 in AMC’s Prisoner miniseries, while Stephen Curran played Vincent Van Gogh in a recent Doctor Who episode.
  • Honestly, as terrible as it sounds, watching these episodes was worth it to hear Ian McShane say “Cunt” again – I really should finish Deadwood Season Three at some point.


Filed under Game of Thrones, The Pillars of the Earth

10 responses to “The Atemporality of The Pillars of the Earth and its Impact on Game of Thrones

  1. Interesting thoughts. My understanding is that Pillars of the Earth covers a much bigger span of time than ASoIaF, and that’s naturally going to lead to some very compressed events as they have to make way for the jump ahead to the next period they cover.

    The reviews of it I’ve seen place it as a very old-fashioned and earnest, with one reviewer saying it would have been a huge hit … in 1982 (with the sex and violence toned down, of course). Which, ouch.

    • I think the fact that Pillars of the Earth covers such a span of time (which was apparent from the beginning) is what makes its atemporality so problematic. A lot happens, but there’s no evidence of time elapsing, which makes it seem like everything happens very, very quickly within each time period, which lessens the impact of those jumps considerably.

      I wasn’t alive in 1982, so I have no idea if it compares, but I do think those adjectives nicely capture the better qualities of the miniseries. That seems like an epic put down, but it’s not as if this is a terrible piece of television; rather, it’s one which simply fails to take advantage of an era of television which is allowed to be more complex and delve more deeply into the potential of the medium.

      Which is frustrating, perhaps, but not wholly damning if people are looking for something simpler.

  2. trippdup

    You stopped mid-Deadwood? That’s quite a feat.

  3. Pingback: TV, eh? » Review: The Pillars of the Earth suffers from linear-itis

  4. It’s funny you mention how quick Tom and Ellen bond in the series, because it happens just that fast, maybe even faster in the book. It was one amazingly unbelievable plot point that I almost stopped reading it. But I plowed through it and enjoyed it for the most part.

    You’re right about some of initial the changes. The mystery that isn’t uncovered until the very end of the book is discussed almost instantly. But the book also makes great leaps in time, and follows certain people in a not quite linear fashion. So, the presentation of time is maybe less jarring if you’re familiar with the book. There’s also more travel, more despair, more fatigue and hunger too.

    I was surprised how underdeveloped Philip is in the first hour since he’s arguably the main character.

  5. I saw only a snippet of an episode of Pillars of the Earth last night. I think that your comment about the problems of condensing stories that unfold over long periods of time and space into a set of a few short episodes is good, however, successful film makers accomplish this in much shorter time spans, through cinematic art. The problem I saw in Pillars is the “made-for-TV” style of film production, which, as you say, tends toward being heavy on plot and trying to maintain a constant sharp feeling of momentum.

    I think good movie-making has many techniques to address the problem of complex events unfolding over long periods of time. Cinematographers, directors, editors, and screen writers know when to slow down and speed up the momentum of the story-telling, how to create both depth and breadth, to enable viewers to breathe the setting, bond with the characters, to feel the tension of the unfolding story; this what’s lacking in many “made for TV” productions. (An exception, the Foyle’s War series.) The rushed, shallow feeling of so many TV dramas is very disappointing to viewers who care about the dramatic experience. Take a great film that follows a story over a long expanse of time, for example, Lawrence of Arabia, analyze just the camera shots (the length they’re held, tracking, focal depth, composition, proportions of the characters on-screen), and compare that to how most TV dramas are filmed. I’m not a student of cinema, so I don’t know how to say it, but the camera work is luscious, the film maker can take in sweeping shots, and linger over small revealing details, as a writer would do. The point of a drama is creating an experience, not just describing a series of plotted events, and effective film making gets this balance right.

    I understand that films for TV have been shaped by expectations for small screens, low resolution, viewer impatience, commercial interruptions, and of course smaller production budget, but it seems to me that the audience for high-value premium cable TV dramatic series usually has home theater equipment, with surround-sound and large screens. Is there any reason, beyond budget limitations, not to go for full-cinematic experience?

    Yes, I fervently hope the Game of Thrones team gets it right.

    • I think you’re quite right that the visuals are one of many areas where Pillars of the Earth has absolutely no ambition, but I do think that you’re slightly underselling television as a visual medium: while there remains stock television production, there are some absolutely fantastic television directors doing work on networks, basic cable, pay cable, etc. With more and more series transmitted in high-definition, and with all series being released to DVD or Blu-Ray, the visual prowess of the medium is more important than ever, and while Pillars of the Earth fails to embrace this I have no doubts that HBO understands the importance of establishing a visual signature, and will do everything in their power to ensure this develops for Game of Thrones.

  6. Pat

    When the book came out about 20 years ago, my Mother gave it to me and said “it’s a book about building a cathederal”. And that is basically what the book is about. It is not a character driven book. So far it follows the book pretty faithfully. And yes Tom and Ellen did fall in bed that quickly. I think it is decent summer fare, and hey it’s only 8 hours out my life. I wasted more of my life on season 2 of Heroes.

  7. Hanna

    Starz gets it wrong! Apparently, everyone who actually read the book agrees! This is not the book I read (and loved). I expected that details would be omitted and sub plots rearranged but the entire tone of the book was ignored. One of the most wonderful things about both books is that Royalty is NOT the focus of the book. The Civil War is mentioned but NOT the focus of the book. The story is about real people, real life events. That Ken Follett was able to create a riveting story about characters we have not seen or heard from before was/is (for me) the main reason to love the books. Even the author has said over the years that it was the building of the churches that are the central storyline NOT THE WARS and bickering over titles. There are 3,000 books and movies about the same. What a shame the powers that be allowed the screenwriter(s) to completely ignore the essence of the books. What a shame so many people will turn the channel and wonder what all the “hype” is about. What a shame for Ken Follett that his beautiful story was reduced to sensationalistic, drivel in an apparent attempt to appeal to the masses.
    Did they even read the book? Tom was a “Liam Neeson” type! Older, rugged, earthy – and the list goes on. Unknown actors would be fine/better than mis cast name actors but that would be ok if the story line had not been completely ignored.
    What a disappointment. Done right, “Pillars” could have been a classic like “East of Eden” (miniseries with Jayne Seymour).
    They did Follett and themselves a greater disservice than they did us, the viewers. They should be ashamed.

  8. Elaine

    I am more disappointed about how shallow the series is compared to the book. No investment was made to develop the characters. The TV characters seem to be on those people movers at airports, because if you look away for a moment they are gone! True the book was about building a cathedral, yet the investment Follet made in the reader’s understanding his characters made readers care about the importance of the cathedral and the people building it. I was not a Starz subscriber until I saw an ad for this series. Now, I just want to get rid of it. Maybe Starz should have spent time watching how good these historical series can be by subscribing to Showtime and watching Henry VIII! I wonder what Ken Follet thinks.

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