Wolf Hall - Could it ever be accurate enough?
This week, the final episode of Wolf Hall airs on the BBC. Much like Hilary Mantel’s books, the adaption has been described as an incredibly accurate portrayal of Henry’s Tudor Britain - but still complaints have flowed. The actress playing Jane Seymour is too pretty. The tudor buildings are too aged. Why isn’t Henry fatter? Would the men of the court really drop the C bomb when describing an intimate part of Henry’s future queen? Honestly, does it really matter? A rose by any other name and all that…
Obviously we don’t want to see iPhones being used by Henry for a quick chat with the Pope in Rome, but would a bit more light have hurt during the night time scenes? Probably. If they added more light, they’d lose all the complaints that the night time scenes are too dark, but would be left with just as many questioning how a palace could be lit so well with only candles (which were hugely expensive, even for a king). It’s a catch-22 situation. Hilary Mantel has herself declared the term ‘historical fiction’ less a genre descriptor and more of an accusation - as if you should discount whatever follows.
History can never be presented as fact, at least not in black and white terms. Even if a filmed version is presented to you, without narration or added bias - your own political leanings, upbringing and where you live will all combine to influence your understanding and acceptance of what you are presented with. You need only look at another adaptation set during this specific period - A Man for All Seasons. Robert Bolt’s play paints Thomas More as an unwaveringly principled man fighting for what he believes in - this man is missing from Wolf Hall, an obstinate, caricatured villain sits in his place.
People don’t picket Wagner’s Ring Cycle because a woman wears a horned Viking helmet (which in fact never existed). Perhaps it’s because it is only based in history and not described as historical, or perhaps it’s because that’s an accepted (un)truth - just like Henry’s considerable size (he only bloated out in his later years, following a jousting accident in 1536). Mantel’s Wolf Hall is well researched and - apologies - perhaps more importantly, well written. It has sparked debate and has people talking about an endlessly interesting and important period of history. Does it really matter if some small liberties are taken? It has us talking, and ultimately, isn’t that the whole point?