It was certainly one of the best evenings yet on the Starz original series “The Pillars of the Earth,” as we saw this eminentaly satisyfing historical drama come to a very satisfying conclusion. Although this particular episode was not as faithful to the original novel as many of the earlier episodes, in many way that was a good thing, as it allowed the audience to get a sense that all of the characters have either been rewarded or punished, depending on the circumstances. All in all, this was a fitting and eminently watchable end to an incredibly watchable series.
First, as always, hats off go to the entire cast, who so ably performed their parts and who truly made these characters come to life. One of the great things about the casting in this series is that it has allowed us to see these characters as people with whom we can identify, even those who are the most vicious and diabolical. Of these, easily the most fascinating and watchable was the scheming Waleran Bigod, portrayed by Ian McShane. Although Waleran is the most cruel and ambitious character in the entire series, he is also the only villain that seems to have some humanity to him. When we see him flagellating himself and subjecting himself to the tortures of the flesh, it allows us to see that, despite everything, he does have some genuine religious sentiment, even if he has decided to distort that into something evil.
Second, some of the major plot differences between the novel and the film should be noted. In the climactic last scenes of this series, William is hanged because of his butchery of the citizens of Kingsbridge, while in the novel he was hanged for his part in the murder of St. Thomas Becket. Similarly, in this dramatization, Waleran commits suicide by throwing himself from the cathedral (in a style eerily reminiscent of a similar scene in Disney’s animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,”) while in the novel he is merely shamed and lives his life as a humble monk. While these are significant differences, it should be noted that the scenes as they currently appear have a great deal of emotional impact, and we can get to see that these characters are truly punished for all of the wrongdoing that they have committed. It is particularly fitting that we should see Waleran decide to end his life, when he has done the most of anyone to harm those who have truly devoted their lives to God.
Third, I think it’s important to mention the absolutely stunning visuals that occur throughout this series, especially the concluding views of the cathedral. Fortunately for the filmmakers, cathedrals are perhaps the most photogenic and visually inspiring kinds of architecture, and this certainly holds true in this series, when the camera lingers lovingly on this beautiful cathedral that has been such a large part of the series. Indeed, it is only fitting that the last scenes should be of the magnificent structure itself, since it has operated as the center of the plot, even if only in the most subtle of ways.
Fourth, and finally, this series, and the finale in particular, serve as a powerful example of what can happen when a novel is made into a television miniseries. All to often, sprawling novels of this type fail to translate well to the small screen of television, but this seems to have changed with the recent glut of series adapted from novels. Unlike previous films, such as the unfortunate “The Mists of Avalon” (which suffered not so much from bad acting as bad writing,) “The Pillars of the Earth” succeeds on almost every level, and shows that Starz has the ability to make a series that is genuinely moving rather than simply bloody (a la “Spartacus.”) So, this is definitely a testament to the power of good filmmaking.
All in all, this is a must-see for anyone who is interested in the medieval period, in cathedrals, or for anyone who just enjoys a good story. Although it has not been revealed yet whether there is an adaptation planned for the sequel to this novel, “World Without End,” we can keep our fingers crossed. In any case, be sure to watch this series when it comes out on DVD. Everyone involved with this series deserves the highest of praise. It is well-earned.