Book Vs. Film: The Other Boleyn Girl
SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.
• Book: The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory, 2001
• Film: The Other Boleyn Girl, adapted by Peter Morgan and directed by Justin Chadwick, 2007
Say what you will about the movie The Other Boleyn Girl—that it's shallow, melodramatic, and sometimes campy, that it plays fast and loose with history, that it hollows out a book that was already kind of hollow to begin with. In fact, I encourage you to say all those things about it. But it's hard to criticize how pretty it is, or how well-cast its two female leads are. The film discards or simplifies much of the book's action, beyond the broadest, most historically based plot points, but it sticks by the book's portrayals of its two Boleyn girls: Scarlett Johansson as Mary is vapid, ineffectual, and barely there, while Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn is tempestuous and unpredictable, except where her unswerving selfishness and ambition are concerned. They were both cast accurately and intelligently, based on their past roles and their abilities. The only problem is that Portman is so much more vivacious and involved in her role that she steals an awful lot of sympathy away from the pallid, hapless Johansson. Given how hard the book works to make Anne into an incomprehensible monster, and how hard the film works to make Mary into an innocent victim, that becomes a fairly large problem with the story.
Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl is the first in what became her series of novels set in the Tudor era, including (in release order, though their stories don't play out in chronological order) The Virgin's Lover, The Constant Princess, The Boleyn Inheritance, and the upcoming The Other Queen. I haven't read the others, but Other Boleyn Girl is essentially a historical novel, perched on the edge of being a historical romance, but lacking a romance novel's panting sex, and free from words like "stormy," "throbbing," and "tumescence." At the same time, while it leans heavily on historical events, it feels as much like a fantasy novel as historical fiction; the names and timeline are historical, but the characters live in a fuzzy, bright, detail-light parade of parties, hunts, masques, games, and scheming sessions. Change the names, and this could be a Guy Gavriel Kay book; throw in some more erotica and the occasional nosy, interfering angel, and it could be a Jacqueline Carey novel.
It's also written in a fairly simple style, with brief paragraphs and easy words. It's too hefty a book to be a really light read—my paperback copy is 735 pages long—but it glides along easily, with a lot of broad, summing-up narrative and a lot of quick-moving dialogue, like in this scene, where Anne Boleyn and her brother George tell their sister Mary about their latest plan to pin Henry VIII down to marriage with Anne, even though he's already fathered two children on Mary:
"The thing is," Anne said lightly, turning her collar up against the cold wind, "I thought I would adopt Henry."
"You thought what?"
"I thought I would adopt little Henry as my own son."
I was so astounded, I could only look at her. "You don't even like him very much," I said, the first foolish thought of a loving mother. "You never even play with him. George has spent more time with him than you."
Anne glanced away, as if seeking patience from the river and the jumbled rooftops of the city beyond. "No. Of course. That's not why I would adopt him. I don't want him because I like him."
Slowly, I started to think. "So that you have a son. Henry's son. You have a son who is a Tudor by birth. If he marries you, then in the same ceremony, he gets a son."
I turned and took a couple of steps, my riding boots crunching on the frozen gravel. I was thinking furiously. "And of course, this way, you take my son away from me. So I am less desirable to Henry. In one move you make yourself the mother of the king's son and you take away my great claim to his attention."
George cleared his throat, and leaned against the river wall, arms folded across his chest, his face a picture of detachment. I rounded on him. "You knew?"
He shrugged. "She told me after she'd done it. She did it as soon as we told her that the family thought that you might take the eye of the king again. She only told Father and Uncle after the king had agreed and the deed was done. Uncle thought it a keen bit of play."
I found my throat dry and I swallowed. "A keen bit of play?"
"And it means that you are provided for," George said fairly. "It puts your son close to the throne, it concentrates all the benefits on Anne, it's a good plan."
"This is my son!" I could hardly say the words, I was choking on my grief. "He is not for sale like some Christmas goose driven into market."
George rose from the wall and put his arm around my shoulders, turned me to face him. "No one's selling him, we're making him all but a prince," he said. "We're claiming his rights for him. He could be the next King of England. You should be proud."
I closed my eyes and felt the onshore wind on the cold skin of my face. I thought for a moment that I might faint or vomit, and more than anything else I longed for that, to be struck down so sick that they had to take me home to Hever and leave me there forever with my children.
"And Catherine? What about my daughter?"
"You can keep Catherine," Anne said precisely. "She's only a girl."
Doubtless some people disliked Other Boleyn Girl precisely for its loose, airy, fantasy-novel mentality, and I don't blame them—there isn't all that much sense of specificity of time or place in a book that has its characters constantly saying "Buck up and remember that you're a Boleyn girl, a Howard girl," without in any way explaining what that means. The book treats the Boleyn lineage as a badge of honor—not just a mark of personal pride, but of historical importance. And yet it never gets around to explaining why anyone but a Boleyn/Howard descendant should care. But personally, I actually enjoyed that about this book. The assumption that we should know what these names mean, and why, is the assumption that the reader has at least a wee bit of brain matter, and I like my books to assume that.
Now if only the book's protagonist had a brain too.
Here's how the book and film are similar. Both tell the historically based story of Henry VIII's first two wives—how he married Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, who failed to give him a male heir; how he took Mary Boleyn as a lover, and fathered children with her; how he later defied the pope to divorce Catherine and take Mary's sister Anne Boleyn as his new wife; and how she, too, failed to produce a male heir. So he had her tried for various horrible, possibly fabricated crimes, and executed.
And here's how the book and film are different: The book makes this all into a story about vastly grasping ambition, and how it swept a family to prominence, changed how an entire country thought of its monarchy, and then smashed a great many lives, leaving political and personal wreckage behind. In the film, on the other hand, it's basically about a fight between two sisters who both want the same dude. Sure, all that other stuff happens too, but all the emphasis is placed on the emotional damage Anne does to Mary by being a total ho-bag and stealing her man. There are other themes in play in the film—particularly the idea that women were helpless pawns in Tudor society, which the film plays up far more than the book—but all the film's central scenes are really about Anne and Mary. Yes, their relationship is a big part of the book, too, but the book has so many other threads, ideas, and subplots packed in that it blunts the emotional damage of what they do to each other. Whereas the film strips things down, and takes the two of them as the one single focus that ties events together.
And yet the movie leaves out many of the most specific awful, damaging things Anne does to Mary in the book. Why? Because, as with the scene above, they largely involve Mary's children and her love for them, and that just isn't sexy. And the movie is all about sex, sexiness, sexiosity, and most especially the things men will do to get sex. (Though curiously, it's almost as coy about on-the-record sex as the book is, and it mostly uses sex as a big shocker. But we'll get to that.)
There are so many differences between the film and the book that it's hard to really get a handle on them, even though they mostly point in the same direction. So let's try a category-based breakdown this time around:
• Anne Boleyn. Where to start? Perhaps near the beginning of the film, when her ambitious uncle and father purposely put her under Henry VIII's nose when he visits their estate, because he may want a mistress, given the queen's ongoing failure to produce an heir. But her aggressiveness causes an accident that hurts the king. Her shy sister Mary tends his wounds and attracts his attention, so he hauls her (mostly unwillingly) off to bed while Anne sulks and instead seduces an important noble's important son, Henry Percy, and marries him on the sly. Mary, horrified, tells the rest of the family, and Anne and Henry are hauled home in disgrace, and told their marriage is invalid and that in spite of what they remember, they most certainly did not consummate (and thus validate) it. Anne is shipped off to exile in the French court, to her horror. But she returns later, full of fury and wanting vengeance on Mary for stealing the king's affections and for tattling about Henry Percy. And so the whole film becomes about Anne's revenge, which she gets by stealing the king from Mary in turn.
In the book, by contrast, Anne doesn't seem to have motives as mundane as revenge and jealousy. Instead, she's an almost supernatural, incomprehensible bitch from early on. I've seen other fantasy authors do this—George R.R. Martin leaps to mind as someone else who hooks readers in largely by creating monstrous miscarriages of justice that they love to hate. The book version of Anne is basically a Martin character—ridiculously seductive, ridiculously ambitious, and never at a loss for the absolute most horrible thing to say to her sister and her other rivals. Book-Anne doesn't screw up a hunt and get Henry hurt early on, and she doesn't need petty reasons like Mary's success to drive her to ambition. She just wants power—complete and utter power, which she abuses ruthlessly, to destroy people who once crossed her, or who might cross her in future. She makes a point of humiliating and destroying people, and of saying patently over-the-top things, for instance about how once she has the king's heart, she'll make sure he can never love anyone but her, not even their children, because that would lessen her power. She's an evil force of nature, and the book is as much about how she gets her way until she gets her comeuppance as anything else.
Although, oddly, she claims in the book that she really did love Henry Percy, and that she spent her whole short adult life pining for that first lost love. Then again, maybe she's just saying that because she's a selfish, crazed drama queen, and it sounds good.
She also spends much of the book struggling with the effort to keep Henry VIII entranced without letting him fuck her. In the film, she uses her nearly magical French-court-learned wiles to lead him on but to deny him her body, leading to a fairly ridiculous series of scenes in which he keeps asking, petulantly, "Will you give yourself to me now?" In the book, however, she and Mary were both raised in the French court, and have the exact same training and the same wiles, and it's Anne's liveliness, beauty, and determined efforts that keep Henry's focus on her. While the movie compresses all the action into what seems like about a year, the book points out that Anne spent years sexually denying Henry while trying to hold his interest, all so she could persuade him to divorce his wife and marry her in exchange for that first night in the sack. And it wears on her heavily; one of the running plots in the book involves how difficult it is for her to be the brightest light at court constantly, without rest, for years on end.
Both book and movie seem to lose interest in Anne once she gets what she wants and is queen; at that point, in both cases, it feels like the story's over and there's nothing left but a long rush to the denouement and downfall.
That aside, will audiences ever get tired of seeing Natalie Portman being slowly and thoroughly broken down into a state of abject, weeping helplessness? This, V For Vendetta, Goya's Ghosts… Are they all just revenge for the Star Wars prequels or something? I'm personally getting pretty tired of seeing her ritually abused.
• Mary Boleyn. In the book, she's the POV character; virtually all the scenes and analysis are from her perspective. (There's one that isn't, for some reason, and it's hugely jarring.) The movie, by contrast, has no problem going places she doesn't go, which makes for a more holistic but less personally nuanced view of the world—though hours of debate could be wasted on whether the film's version of Mary seems less nuanced because we never get into her head, or because she's so much more passive in the film's version of events, or just because she's played by Scarlett Johansson. At any rate, the book's Mary isn't nearly as blank and helpless as the film's version, but even hanging out inside her head, it's rarely possible to tell why she puts up with so much unbelievable crap from her sister. Early on, she spends a little time talking about their mutual love and their mutual jealousy and competition, but as the book wears on and Anne becomes more and more of a terrifying psychopath, there's less and less reason for Mary to cooperate with her, and the book doesn't particularly justify it. Perhaps because it's impossible to justify.
At any rate. The film's Mary is a meek girl who goes along with her family's plots, even when it removes her from her marriage and puts her into the king's bed, mostly against her will. Henry VIII knocks her up, but the vengeful Anne lures him away, pushing him to promise never to see Mary again literally as Mary is giving birth to his child, in a scene rife with fairly ridiculous melodrama.
And then she gets pushed around a bunch more, and she's sad about it, but she stays loyal to her sister. In the book, she isn't necessarily any more emotionally complicated, but there are many more forces at work on her. For instance, she falls in love with Henry long before he decides to take her to bed. Then she falls in love with her two children by him, and wants to help raise them. (Her family then mechanically uses them to force her into doing whatever they want; any time she resists any plan of theirs, someone asks, like clockwork, "You want to see your children again this summer, don't you?") She also falls in love with her family's simple homestead, and the peasants that work the land, and she gets to know them and gets involved with their crops and their goals. She then repeatedly emphasizes, to her family and to the reader, that she could just drop out of court and go home and live a simple life at any time, and that would be just awesome with her.
In the book, she also has a fairly complicated relationship with Catherine of Aragon, whom she admires utterly and is nonetheless forced by her family loyalties to betray over and over. And she has men in her life other than the king, who complicate matters further. Basically, there's a whole lotta stuff going on with her, dragging her in different directions and distracting her from her crazy bitch sister. It's a fairly complicated story, in spite of the simple writing.
• Henry VIII. In the movie, Eric Bana plays him as a dark, brooding, manly man of passion, but the script doesn't give him much to do; he's more like the game piece the two women are playing for than a character. From time to time, he disappears offscreen for a bit and comes back reporting that he's, you know, restructured the entirety of British law and religion in order to get Anne into the sack. But he's never really a character. In the book, on the other hand, he's an omnipresent force hovering over everything that happens, and it's emphasized very strongly that he's a petulant child who's been cosseted and praised all his life, and that he isn't happy unless he's winning all the games, getting the lead roles in the masques, and otherwise being petted and entertained and played with all the time. And unlike Eric Bana, midway through the book he starts getting fat and slovenly. Again, not very sexy, hence left out of the movie. For me, the portrayal of Henry was one of the best parts of the book, largely because it's nuanced and complicated: Here's a man who controls an entire country, and does it reasonably cannily, but at the same time, is a total brat. It becomes much easier to understand how Anne can manipulate him so well just by denying him something he wants—which no one else dares to do—and how it leads to such a bad place when he finally, at long last, gets what he wanted, and then realizes it wasn't ultimately worth all the trouble.
• Catherine of Aragon. Movie version: Played with great presence, but very little of it, by Ana Torrent. She gets much more stage time in the book, mostly so the book can emphasize how very, very queenly and composed and intelligent and elegant she is, as opposed to oh-so-monstrous, crass, grabby Anne.
• George Boleyn. Movie version: A minor character in the background. Toward the end, Anne tries to get him to have sex with her when Henry won't, so she can produce an heir. He tries gamely, for the family's sake, but simply can't manage. Nonetheless, as in history, when they're both tried and executed, an incestuous relationship between them is one of the charges. Book version: George is a major character, a dashing and beloved courtier almost as present as Anne and Mary. He's also gay (another one of the charges historically presented against him), and there's a lengthy plot involving his love affair with a young man of the court, and how it develops, and how he has to deny himself or risk discovery and execution. And yet he's also clearly Anne's lover, and they do have a creepy incestuous relationship, which eventually produces a hideously mutated, miscarried child, in the book's weirdest, most fantasy-ish touch.
• Mary's first husband. In the movie, he's quickly shunted aside when Henry VIII takes an interest in Mary, and he more or less disappears. In the book, he's an ongoing presence who pops up periodically to remind Mary that even though she has two children by the king and is a fixture at court, and even though he's accepted wealth, power, and titles as bribes to stand aside in favor of the king, she's still his wife. Later, when her fortunes change, he's briefly a threatening villain, since he has the legal right to sweep her off to his estate and do whatever he wants with her and her children, who are supposedly his children, since the king hasn't officially claimed them as his own. He and Mary are strangers by this point, but he strongly makes the point that he has every right to command and control her. But she comes to better terms with him fairly quickly. And later, he sickens and dies, leaving her as a very young widow.
• Mary's second husband. The movie version of this character comes so completely out of nowhere that I thought it was her first husband finally resurfacing, even though the way he's portrayed doesn't make any sense in that context: He suddenly appears and suggests they get married, and off they go. In the book, their relationship is a major plotline: He's a poor, ordinary man with a little land, working as a hired hand, but he befriends her over a long period of time, and then romances her, and eventually she runs off and marries him. Then, when Anne drags her back to court, she has him as a loyal friend in her corner, untainted by ambition or by too much time having his values warped by the social bubble of the king's court. He's another major character the movie basically drops in order to make the story entirely about Mary and Anne.
• The rest of the Boleyn family. Not very detailed in either film or book, save as a vague group of people who get together from time to time to plot how best to use Anne or Mary to their advantage. Mostly of interest to me for two reasons: In the movie, Anne and Mary's mother is a sympathetic but helpless character, who repeatedly speaks out against the way the family uses the girls as pawns. She's part of the whole sense that the movie is trying to build up that Tudor society uses and abuses its women, who should at least be loyal to each other, as Mary is to Anne, even when Anne isn't to Mary. In the book, on the other hand, their mother is just as crassly ruthless and ambitious as their father and uncle. She even makes a point of telling Mary that she's a sentimental twit for caring about her children and waiting to have a hand in raising them, which is servant work. Also, in keeping with the book's "Anne is an outsized monster" theme, Anne winds up dictating most of the strategy to the family most of the time, from very early on. Which is a far cry from the movie version, where the women are being repressed by the cruel men.
• The rest of the world. The movie takes place more or less entirely at court. The book, however makes a point of how the Boleyns were seen in the cities and countryside in England, and how the masses reacted to the news that Catherine was being divorced and Anne was taking her place: largely with pitchforks, torches, and angry killer mobs, as if Anne was an old-school movie monster. Again, this was some of the more interesting stuff in the book, largely because it steps outside the insular little world of so many costume dramas to show how much the madding crowd would like to get their hands on people inside that world and dance on their sticky bones. Similarly, the book at least nods toward what was going on in France and Spain and Rome at the time, and how it affected the English court, particularly Henry and Catherine's relationship—which again, was some of the more interesting material, since it sets aside the all-too-common passion play in favor of looking at the working relationship between two powerful people who married for political reasons, and whose countries are frequently at odds.
• "The other Boleyn girl." That phrase is used, as far as I recall, once in the film. Maybe twice. In the book, it's more like six or seven times, sometimes referring to Anne, sometimes Mary, depending on how the tides have turned. When Anne becomes Queen, Mary just refers to her as "the Boleyn girl," indicating that Mary herself no longer even counts as a presence. Later, when both of their stars are falling, Mary starts referring to "the other Boleyn girls" who will no doubt be trotted out next to compete for the king's affections. Ugh. There are motifs, and then there's getting cutesy with overly obvious, forced repetition.
• The sex. The book is just a few steps shy of a romance novel, and the movie is all about two sexy girls competing to see which one has sexy sex with the sexy king. So why is there so little sex in either version? And why is it so creepy in both cases, and so tied up in quaint old punishment dramas? In the film, Mary and Henry have a brief, soft-edged, romantic candlelit tryst when he first commands her into his bed. Then Anne tempts him away, and spends much of the rest of the film leading him on and putting him off. When he finally breaks with Rome, he storms into her rooms and says he's had enough delay, and he throws her down and violently rapes her from behind. And later, Anne wails to the unsympathetic Mary about the unnamed but dire, humiliating, grotesque sexual horrors she has to put herself through in order to keep the increasingly bored Henry interested in her. The film is clearly set up to show the contrast between the sisters' experiences: Mary, the shy good girl who doesn't want to have sex with the king, but placidly goes along with it, gets a gentle, idealized romantic encounter; Anne, the demanding bad girl who tries to use sex as a weapon, gets punished for taking control and for not cooperating with the man who lusts after her. This is an old, old narrative dynamic, and a pretty stomach-churning one. Especially since the rape and the "sexual horrors" monologue were invented for the film. And since they don't make much sense. If he could get away with raping her without consequence, why didn't he do it three years earlier, and save himself and England a whole lot of pain?
In the book, by contrast, what little sex there is is pretty muted, which is why it's fairly jarring when midway through, out of nowhere, Anne bitches to Mary about how hard it is to keep putting Henry off, and how she's let him grope and fondle her, but she doesn't dare do more. And Mary gives Anne a quick, graphic rundown on the "whore's tricks" Mary used to perform on Henry to keep his interest: oral sex and mutual masturbation. Anne is annoyed but fascinated, and she later reports that she's incorporated these acts into her repertoire, and that Henry's much more controlled. And that's about the last we hear about that, until he's accusing her in court of unnatural acts and seducing him with those "whore's tricks," as part of the evidence that she's a lewd woman, unfit to be queen. Here, the hypocrisy reflects more on him than on her; it's another punishment narrative, but it's more about how unfair life as a woman was at the time. Which comes up a lot in the book.
Either way, both versions are more about what women can get with sex and the promise of sex than about actual, you know, sex. In fact, it's more or less implied in both cases that sex is an unpleasant chore most of the time, and that it's only really useful to girls if they can maximize their profit in exchange. Or wind up with someone whom they actually love, not that that generally happens.
• The tennis. For some reason, there's a bunch of tennis in the book. Probably because Gregory was tickled to learn that the Tudors played tennis. The movie? Not so much tennis.
• The big points. The movie essentially has two: The emotional impact of all the conflict between Anne and Mary, and the way women suffered historically as second-class citizens with limited power to determine their own fate. The book is scattershot with its messages, and packs a ton of themes into a small space, but the one that stuck with me most was the idea that the Boleyns single-familiedly wrecked England, by undermining the monarchy on all sides: By encouraging the common folk to see their rulers as capricious humans who made terrible choices, by encouraging Henry VIII to be a spoiled brat, by specifically encouraging him to divest himself of all ties that might have constrained his behavior, by getting him started down the path of considering his wives disposable, by breaking the very institute of marriage in England. It's pointed out several times that once Catherine was set aside, no wife was safe in England; if the king himself could set aside a royal spouse and trade her in for a hot young trophy model, why couldn't anyone else? More to the point, why would he bother sticking by Anne once a prettier, younger face came along? But also, there are a lot of expected messages about how love is better than power, and the simple farm life is better than the rich court life, with all its frustrations and all its nasty, grasping people. And also how virtue and steadfastness and loyalty and love are rewarded in the end. Again, shades of a fantasy novel.
So. Book, or Film? I didn't wholeheartedly enjoy either, and I think they're both pretty flawed, but both had their high points, and both were fairly entertaining as far as they went. I haven't said much here (largely because I said it in my review) about how sumptuous and pretty the movie is, in an Elizabeth-esque costume-drama way, which is one of the big draws. And while it's a fairly shallow, narrow story with a lot of cheap melodrama (pregnant woman abandoned in childbirth! After Anne's death, Mary carries her child through the entire castle, with everyone silently parting before her in a big ridiculous climax!) it moves along pretty quickly, and the performances are often terrific even when the script is clumsy as hell. The book, meanwhile, was a fairly slick, bestseller kind of read, with a lot going on, and a number of surprises. It wasn't great, but it was an entertaining diversion, somewhere between a trashy beach novel and something with a little bulk and complexity.
The big problem for me with the book was that it tries too hard to make Mary a saintly victim, emphasizing over and over how badly her family, her king, her gender, and her sister misuse her, and it felt so forcefully, artificially manipulative that it periodically just became annoying. Whereas the big problem with the movie, as I said at the beginning, was that Anne is a far more interesting character than Mary. Not a sympathetic one, exactly, but much more so than she was in the book, less prone to nastiness for nastiness' sake. By sheer force of will, Natalie Portman becomes the center of the film's universe, while her paler, blanker co-star fades into the background. Just as it supposedly happened in the real life of the story. Appropriate, really. Just not very satisfying in the end.
Next week: The return of Nathan's Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club.
And next in Book Vs. Film: