Friday, October 7, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is a emotional book-movie combination of Metaphors and Premises. It is one of those rare marriages of novel and motion picture (i.e. TV mini series with big budgets) that define the concept of epic literature and the motion picture arts. I would classify this with the Lord of the Rings, but without the fantasy. While some historians of 12th Century Western Europe would no doubt whine about it's accuracy, my joy is seeing a story told well, in both mediums. It also reinforces my observation that the best stories are not short, nor limited to 120-page screenplays, or is it 90-110 pages, now?

Eight, 60-min episodes on STARZ or DVD
High production value, fabulous casting, directing and acting and seamless special effects.
Accuracy: Fictional based on real events, but structured for story with a true moral premise.

Directed by: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Written by: Ken Follett and John Pielmeier

Starring (L-R, above)
Ian McShane - Bishop Waleran
Rufus Swell – Tom Builder
Matthew Macfadyen – Monk Fr. Philip
Eddie Redmayne – Jack Jackson
Hayley Atwell – Aliena
Donald Sutherland - Bartholomew

It was a year or so ago Pam and I watched the Episodes 1-8 on our Apple Box and big screen display with our nearly voice-of-the-theater speakers. What a great experience. We tried to spread it out over 8 nights, but the production was so well done in every respect, we watched 2 or 3 episodes a night... and then were disappointed when it was over.

Episode Titles:
1. Anarchy
2. Master Builder
3. Redemption
4. Battlefield
5. Legacy
6. Witchcraft
7. New Beginnings
8. The Work of Angels

I'm reading the novel now. I bought a used Library binding, Morrow edition. (I still like paper books, that I can mark up and hold in my hand without running on reserve power half way through a transcontinental flight and then using even more energy off the power grid. Yes, I'm into killing trees...they're a renewable resource and have proven to benefit humankind over the millennium.) Nice smooth, off-white paper, clear serifed font.  I've estimated the word count, for what some say is Follett's most popular novel, at  405,000 words. Bring it on. I love epic stuff that takes a long time to read. Problem is I read before bed, in a nice leather chair in our bedroom. I keeps me up. But, Pam is always asleep across the room when I do this under LED glasses or a focused reading light. In spite of the drama in what I'm reading (last month is was the Padre Pio and Vatican corruption, now it's Medieval rivalries and hypocrisy) , my wife sleeps soundly, safety within eye-sight. I enjoy those times immensely. Deep joy. 


But it wasn't until this morning during prayers that I came across (by "accident") what I'm sure was the moral premise or thematic basis for the story. For the first time I happened to read the Canticle of Anna (1 Sam 2:1-10). There, toward the end are these words written thousands of years ago:
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; on them he has set the world. He guards the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked perish in the darkness; he grants the wish of him who asks and blesses the years of the just. For it is not by force that a man prevails: the Lord it is who shatters his enemies.
Reading that on my iPhone's iBreviary sent chills up my spine. I played back (in my head) the entire series, and re-read the first sentence of the novel:
The small boys came early to the hanging.
Classic first sentences, like the first image of a movie, can show us a lot. 

Here's stab at the moral premise statement for the story

Wickedness leads to years of darkness; but
Holiness leads to years of blessing
(after generations of hardship and testing, I might add)

The moral-physical premise statement of course, is embedded organically into the 1 Samuel 2 passage, and properly imbued into every one of many chapters of the book, and 8 television movie episodes.  When done right, you can read the statement, and connect it to all the events and actions, heroes and villains, settings, and (especially) motivations. Exciting, focusing stuff about what the story is REALLY about.


In all story telling metaphors (showing) always work better than didactic (plain telling). and when you do both, organically, all the better.  Follett's first sentence "The small boys came early to the hanging" paints a picture of evil in high places and its consequence. At first it seems that the evil is whatever the man being hung had done. But it doesn't take long to come to the telling moment in that Prologue -- and how the curse will be passed down to successive generations through the values of the "fathers." Follett doesn't use that word "fathers" but the implication and layered meaning of the term is there.  Here's the passage, faithful reproduced in the movie version. This happens at the base of the gallows as the man is being executed.
    There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl...
    The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest, and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: "I curse you with sickness and sorry, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony. . . ." As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out alive cockerel. a knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.
    While the blood was still spurting form the severed neck  she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either  side of him.  The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.
Enough said. Do you see the showing, both in her telling curse, and the metaphor of her actions. She is not telling us her "feelings" but is painting a visual picture of them.

AND THE PILLARS? The title says a lot. Mankind (especially the male variety) think of themselves as the pillars upon which everything, of any "good," gets done. I know the feeling. I'm a man recovering from rotor cuff surgery in my right shoulder, and something similar but less sever to my right knee. Both sailing injuries. I want and think I should and can do it all. It's humbling when your wife has to dress you. Hopefully, I'll heal... physically, but in the meantime healing of the spiritual kind is working on me -- the consequence of suffering. And that is what The Pillars of the Earth is significantly about -- male, patriarchal egos. The image at the top of this blog (from STARZ TV) is constructed like six vertical pillars (these are the characters about which the story is about). Then there are the pillars of the cathedrals that Tom and others are building... not all successfully (when not properly designed, resulting in death). And then there are the Angels that build the Church. And to make sure you really, really get the connection between the moral decisions, the natural physical consequences of attention to natural law, and the story's metaphors, the final scene (in the movie at least) SHOWS us the corrupt, egomaniac bishop as he takes a suicidal plunge from the properly designed and built pillars of the cathedral.
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; on them he has set the world. He guards the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked perish in the darkness; he grants the wish of him who asks and blesses the years of the just. For it is not by force that a man prevails: the Lord it is who shatters his enemies.

No comments: