Michael Cavacini

An award-winning arts and culture blog.

TV Review: The Pillars of the Earth

I finally finished the Starz miniseries The Pillars of the Earth. Having read the book, I have mixed feelings about the miniseries. Overall, it was a great piece of television that strayed too far from the source material.

First, I think the casting for the miniseries was great. All of the actors did a terrific job, especially Ian McShane as Waleran Bigod, a delightful villain. The other standout was Matthew Macfadyen as Prior Philip. He fit the character like a glove and was very likable throughout.

With this in mind, there were two major problems with the miniseries:

  1. It tried to condense a book that’s more than 1,000 pages into eight hours of television. Considering the unabridged audiobook is more than 40 hours in length, you can see how this could be a huge problem.
  2. Too many major and minor details were changed from the novel.

Because the miniseries was only eight hours, many of the story’s most important events felt rushed. Similar to the film adaptation of Angels & Demons, each scene moved at a break-neck pace. While this makes for entertaining television, the impact of certain events failed to resonate with me because they didn’t seem nearly as important as in the book. For example, when Aliena searched for Jack in the novel, it took her an extremely long time to find him, which made their reunion emotionally satisfying. In the miniseries, her search seemed to last five minutes and was therefore insignificant.

Another major problem was that the miniseries was vastly different than the book. While the overall story is the same, many things are different. For example, in the book, Tom Builder’s relationship with Ellen was a long, loving and tumultuous one. An entire portion of the novel dealt with how Tom raised Alfred compared to how he raised Jack. This provided a greater understanding of why the two boys didn’t get along. It created a tension that wasn’t felt in the miniseries until later on. Furthermore, it showed how this drew a wedge between Tom and Ellen, something that didn’t seem to happen in the miniseries. I could go on and on about the numerous alterations made to key relationships in the miniseries compared to how they were in the book, but the bottom line is this: Changing these relationships didn’t improve them; it weakened them.

One bright spot was the music. Trevor Morris did a wonderful job with the soundtrack, and the main theme embodied the majesty of the book perfectly.

Overall, this was an entertaining series, on it’s own. However, it was based on a book of legendary stature. Unfortunately, it failed by changing key elements of the book and by trying to condense too much content into too few hours of television. Nevertheless, it was still an enjoyable journey worth taking.

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2 thoughts on “TV Review: The Pillars of the Earth

  1. my mother watched the TV series and thought it was great. I suppose you might if you had never read the incredible novel. ah, well, maybe the TV series will encourage more people to pick up the book…

    • Hi Claire,

      Hopefully you’re right. If people watching the miniseries results in them reading the book, thats great.

      And while I think it pales in comparison to the book, it’s still one of the better miniseries I’ve seen – definitely worth watching more than once.

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