Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

I saw the trailer for the movie based on Philippa Gregory's bestseller a while ago. Despite the fact that it stars ubiquitous starlets Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson (I don't HATE them, I'm just a bit weary of seeing them in EVERYTHING!), I am curious to see the film. I have a weakness for period costume dramas in general and for this historical time period specifically. So I decided to check out the book.

First off, from the little bit of trailer I saw it would seem that the movie will deviate from the book. Which isn't a big deal since the book took some liberties with the facts itself. Just about everyone knows the story of Anne Boleyn for whom Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England all so that he could divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon to marry her. Unfortunately, having set the precedence of discarding a Queen as it suits a King's fancy, Anne found herself similar overthrown--with her head divorced from her body to boot.

The book tells that story through the eyes of Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister and onetime lover of the King. Told over a period of 15 years from 1521 to Anne's beheading in 1536, it will be interesting to see how the film deals with the time span of the story. Movies generally require a more compressed time period. It will also be interesting how they balance the characterizations of the two sisters. In the book it's fairly black and white--Anne is a scheming, manipulative bitch and Mary is the good, dutiful girl. It's doubtful that either Portman or Johansson would concede to portray such one dimensional characters.

Gregory depicts Anne as being the elder sister, but according to most historians Mary was the eldest of the Boleyn children. She also lops about seven years off Mary's age, making her a mere 15 years of age when she became Henry's mistress. In fact, Mary wasn't the virginal teenager as the book makes out, but had already been mistress to the King of France before coming to Henry's bed. Gregory also seems to take perverse delight in the scurrilous rumors that were used to condemn Anne and her brother George--much in the same way George's devious wife Jane Parker is portrayed in the novel--presenting what was most certainly fictional (incest, homosexuality, witchcraft) as true. Certainly Anne Boleyn was ambitious, headstrong and opinionated. She may have even been manipulative and at times deceitful. But it's doubtful that she was evil incarnate as written by Gregory in this book. Mary, on the other hand, is depicted as a proto-feminist--ultimately defying her family and her status to marry commoner William Stafford for love.

After Mary's marriage, she was banished from court and there is no evidence that she had any contact with her sister between 1534 and 1536--much less have been an eyewitness to Anne's downfall. There is a scene in the trailer where Mary begs the King to spare Anne's life. This was not in the book, nor does it appear to have happened in real life. Ironically, both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were discarded by Henry for want of a son and heir to the throne--and yet Anne's daughter Elizabeth became one of the greatest monarchs England has ever known.

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Other Boleyn Girl. There are inaccuracies and anachronisms, but it paints a time and lifestyle that's exceptionally interesting to me. I'm looking forward to the movie to see how it differs (for better or worse) from the book. And for the awesome costumes...

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