Starring a number of notable faces, including Donald Sutherland and Matthew Macfayden, The Pillars of the Earth is a TV miniseries set during the Anarchy in England based on the novel of the same name by Ken Follett. Tom Builder, a master builder, dreams of building a cathedral, but has to put first the concerns of feeding his pregnant wife and two children. While searching for work, they wind up stranded and taken in by a so-called witch, Ellen, and her bastard son Jack. Shortly after, Tom’s wife goes into labor but dies in childbirth, fostering resentment between Tom’s son Alfred and Ellen and Jack. But Tom takes Ellen and Jack with him to Kingsbridge, where the prior wants a cathedral but has no money to pay. Jack seizes an opportunity and makes it so a cathedral is necessary – but the church is still penniless without the help of Bishop Waleran, a ambitious but corrupt churchman. Throughout the Anarchy, as Maud and Stephen fight for the throne of England, the building of a cathedral consumes the lives and loves of these people, alongside a quagmire of difficult politics, secrets, and murder.
I normally don’t review films or mini-series here, but I read The Pillars of the Earth back in high school and couldn’t resist the opportunity to watch it recreated on screen. When a lovely publicist contacted me and offered me the DVDs for a review, I had to accept, and I’m glad I did. The mini-series started off slowly with an almost unceasing number of character introductions – never a good sign when you have seven hours in front of you – but quickly picked up the pace and became a consuming epic in its own right.
A few things struck me most notably about the mini-series. Number one, it’s absolutely gorgeous, and I loved watching so much of the medieval world come to life. The building of the cathedral was a particularly moving set. I’m not religious but I love cathedrals; it astounds me that people built these immense, beautiful buildings for worship and standing in them is still awe-inspiring. In almost every cathedral I’ve ever visited, there is a little model of how the cathedral was built. I never genuinely visualised that until I saw this show. The character dress, which clearly showed their status, was also really well done, and I felt overall the visual style felt quite authentic.
That was good, because not much else was. I don’t hold TV or film adaptations to any sort of historical standards the way I do with most books, and I think this show perfectly demonstrates why. It makes me very glad I checked my inner historian at the door because the actual history would have been difficult to swallow. For instance, Matilda is portrayed as a little girl when her brother dies though she was already married, and then appears young and virginal while fighting Stephen when she was actually 35 and had had three children. Her husband also mysteriously vanishes, though I suppose there are so many characters that one more might have been too many. As a narrative, though, I thought the series held together. I’ve forgotten most of the book so I was still very curious as to what was going to happen next and I found myself watching most of the series over the course of a few evenings.
Like most historical epics seem to be these days, The Pillars of the Earth is very graphic. There is a lot of killing, which is a bit more uncomfortable visually than on paper, and there is also a lot of sex. There was also a rape scene which was very difficult to watch, though regrettably necessary to the story. I wouldn’t let it put me off watching the series but it’s worth noting beforehand to be prepared.
Overall, I found The Pillars of the Earth to be an engrossing mini-series that, while not perfect, certainly entertained me and kept me watching throughout. If you think you might be interested, here’s the trailer:
I am an Amazon Associate. I received these DVDs for free for review.