Wolf Hall: Hilary Mantel’s Tudor tales spawn a lucrative industry with stage and TV adaptations

As stage adaptations add to her glory, Booker prize-winner’s creations are being hailed as a landmark in British culture

Nick Clark
Friday 10 January 2014 20:42
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Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn in Mike Poulton's adaptation of 'Wolf Hall'
Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn in Mike Poulton's adaptation of 'Wolf Hall'

The stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s lauded historical works Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies opened to rave reviews in Stratford-upon-Avon this week – and the Tudor cavalcade shows no sign of slowing down.

Mantel’s books are so successful that they have now established themselves as “landmark” works in British culture, according to the agent who helped negotiate the adaptations of the two novels that each won the Man Booker Prize.

A BBC television series starring Mark Rylance is to start filming in the coming months, and is expected to lend a further boost to the 1.2 million combined physical sales in the UK. Wolf Hall has almost become an industry of its own.

Bill Hamilton, at A M Heath literary agents, said: “It is a huge cult book series. It’s a spectacular case of a writer’s career coming together over an enormous project and taking the world by storm. We knew it was extraordinary.”

Booker success does not always guarantee vast sales, but Nielsen Bookscan revealed that sales of the books brought in over £11m in the UK. They sold close to 650,000 copies in the United States, according to the data company, which does not track ebook sales. The run of the two Royal Shakespeare Company plays sold out hours after going on sale at the end of November.

“Wolf Hall turned out to be a landmark book that had so much power and quality. Many people looked to adapt it in all sorts of ways,” Mr Hamilton said. “It is down to the writing being so exceptional and the drama so visceral. You can’t disentangle why these things are so brilliant, they just are.”

Hilary Mantel wins the Booker in 2009 (AFP/Getty)

Tracy Borman, author and historian and joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, said: “Wolf Hall and its sequel have stoked the flames of our enduring obsession with the Tudors. Partly this is due to Mantel’s brilliant gift for storytelling, but it was an obsession that showed no signs of abating anyway. The Tudors are one of the sexiest, most vibrant and endlessly entertaining dynasties in our history.”

The stage adaptation was negotiated shortly after the release of Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel’s agent said: “The curious thing is that the series is unfinished; she hasn’t written the third book. Yet, no one has raised that for a second. They’ve all been happy to work off the two books.”

Literary agent Jonny Geller, joint chief executive of Curtis Brown, said: “I would love it if theatre was another vehicle for sales; from page to stage is not a well-trodden path.” The only other recent high-profile example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

“We need a platform above and beyond the bookshop. Money for the author doesn’t really come from the adaptations themselves but the knock-on boost to sales. The film of One Day meant another two million copies sold,” he added.

The effect of television versions on sales can be more temperamental, Mr Geller said, as “people don’t quite buy the tie-ins the way they do with movies”. But he added: “That seems to have changed with Game of Thrones.”

The agents “all aim to get the scale out of a book in different media and formats. But also keep the integrity of them too. They would not be about getting Wolf Hall: The Musical made,” Mr Geller said.

Mantel’s agent agreed. “We’re not going for merchandise. It’s not her style. What would we do: a nice range in Cromwell poisons? We want people to get the maximum enjoyment from the story as authentically adapted as possible,” Mr Hamilton said.

There will also be no film. “There’s no point in thinking of doing a feature film,” the agent continued. “In boiling them to two hours you lose the central point that it’s all in the detail. You need a lot of space. Those who approached her with a view to making a feature film – it was a pointless enquiry.”

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