How do you adapt 1,000 pages of plot? Honestly, a mini-series is really pretty much the only format that makes any sense for books that are bigger than a breadbox. Just take a look at Shogun, or the Stephen King double bill of It and The Stand, or even the upcoming HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s epically lengthy fantasy novels, in which each season will essentially be a mini-series adaptation of a single one of the books. So it makes total sense that Ken Follett’s massive cube of a historical novel The Pillars of the Earth would end up as an “8-hour mini-series event.”
In the first two hours, which aired Friday night, we were introduced to the large cast of characters populating the twelfth century tale, as well as some of the court intrigue that will play a bigger role later on. First off, I like Ian McShane in pretty much everything, even, ugh, Hot Rod. Here he’s playing a priest who, while he may not be quite as profane as ol’ Swear-again Swearengen, is certainly no less conniving, and the actor makes him as much a commanding presence as all his characters. Rufus Sewell is solid as the two hours’ closest thing to a protagonist, an itinerant builder named Tom Builder. On a side note, how cool would it be if people were still named after their profession? I’d be Keith Entertainmentweeklywriter, which just rolls off the tongue and isn’t all that much longer than my real last name.
The narrative was a little over-packed with plot points of backstabbing and power plays and pretenders to the throne, so I just tried to concentrate on Donald Sutherland’s beard whenever I started to get a little overwhelmed. That white patch of peace is always a safe haven no matter what movie or TV show it’s in. I hope as the weeks go on, the series will eventually settle into a rhythm that makes following the story strands a little bit easier. To make an analogy to the cathedral they’re building, hopefully these hours are just the early foundational blocks, necessary but not exactly awe-inspiring in and of themselves.
I will admit to not having read the book, although it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years. I’ll bring it down once in a while to kill a spider or a burglar (it’s a big book), but I just haven’t gotten around to cracking it open. So I’m interested to hear what fans of Follett thought of the mini-series. Yea or nay? Are you planning on sticking around to the end? Does anyone find Donald Sutherland’s beard as calming as I do?