Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: World Without End

Non Spoiler Review:
Last year saw a pretty fair adaption of Ken Follet's novel, Pillars of the Earth. The time period was presented beautifully (and suitably gritty), the characters were interesting and the plot compelling (if not more than a little melodramatic). So while I enjoyed its conclusion, I was equally excited that World Without End would be coming up next, this time on Reelz.

I've not read Ken Follet, so knew little of World Without End aside from it being set in the same town of Kingsbridge (which in hindsight is fortunate). The first episode reintroduced this medieval world  of 1327, over 150 years later, with the town now a thriving center for wool, and England again suffering a conflicted succession with Edward III taking the crown from his father (with help from his scheming mother), and the apparent death of Edward II. Once again the royal goings on spill over into Kingsbridge, with a fleeing knight taking refuge in the priory with a secret that could shake the monarchy. The new king embarks on a war with France that will become the Hundred Years' War just as the plague begins to make its appearance in England. Of course this all has particular impact on the characters in Kingsbridge.

The series' main players are Charlotte Riley as proto-feminist Caris, Rupert Evans as villainous monk Godwyn and Tom Weston-Jones as builder Merthin. Throw in some familiar faces like Miranda Richardson as Mother Cecilia and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Petranilla, and you have a small taste of this expansive cast. They all look good, but it's quickly apparent they don't all have much to work with here.

While the production of the series appears to have suffered some budget cuts, it still is presented quite believably. But after the first episode it was evident that plot points were trumping any attempt at letting the characters evolve to achieve any real connection with the audience.

Each episode brought a new list of plot points to be checked off with each passing minute. Things happen to characters. They don't actually experience them. And if you thought Pillars of the Earth was melodramatic, World Without End leaps fully into medieval soap opera. The amount of terrible things that happen to the characters in Kingsbridge becomes laughable by the time the series reaches its climax.

World Without End suffers from another syndrome that similar period pieces tend to fall for—the out of place character who expresses our 21st Century ideals. In this case it's feminist Caris who embodies everything progressive you might imagine—feminist, revolutionary, progressive doctor, etc. I really can't see someone like this showing such contrarian views (and not getting burned as a witch for them), much less being able to attract a husband (who is equally progressive).

Meanwhile, villainous characters kill virtually out in the open and arbitrarily without ever getting caught or the least bit of suspicion.  Even more black and white than Pillars of the Earth, it was clear with every introduction who the villains and heroes were, with no area of grey to muddy the themes.

The plot was quite similar to Pillars of the Earth for most of the narrative, as well. Conspiracy in the monarchy. Mysterious secret centered on Kingsbridge. The Earl of Shiring is unfairly deposed. The travails to build a cathedral bridge. But even the building aspects introduced early on, like with many details, are suddenly abandoned in the flurry of activity as episodes progress (and the narrative jumps ahead in time). After the first couple of instalments my interest was left behind.

A final significant criticism is how much this departs from the book. The climactic episode creates a vastly different conclusion which feels very out of place and in contrast to everything that was set up in the first episode. I did a bit of research on the book's plot, and had I read it I would be fuming at how this mess all resolved itself. Or did not resolve—because the final coda of Pillars of the Earth is something we don't get here. Just a quick fade out with a few notes tacked on before the credits roll. But that all didn't really matter given I didn't really care what happened to these characters.

This is eight hours I won't get back. It doesn't come close to matching the decent Pillars of the Earth, much less a production like The Tudors. I can't even recommend this to even the most die hard fan, simply because it lacks any heart to keep you coming back each chapter (and any fan of the novel is going to be irritated by all the changes). It's all very disappointing and achieves success only as an example of how not to adapt a book to screen.

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