Fans who may be lamenting the demise of historical dramas such as The Borgias will be happy to know that this Starz launches The White Queen tonight.
Based on The Cousins’ War book series by best-selling author Philippa Gregory, the new entry follows the journey three women of the War of the Roses period - Elizabeth Woodville (played by Rebecca Ferguson), Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), chronicling their respective parts in the long conflict in England’s throne.
Series lead writer Emma Frost sat down with me at the recent Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour to talk about adapting Gregory’s books and how to make sure modern audiences will find plenty to connect with in the ambitious series...
TV Fanatic: What did you connect with as a writer with the project?
Emma Frost: I read The White Queen first and what immediately struck me was that it was this very modern story and it’s a real page-turner with huge stakes. I mean, it’s life, death, birth, survival, betrayal, murder. And then, of course, I read the next two books because the three books are combined in one series.
They’ve got three very different women and, actually, there are a lot of modern references. Margaret, she’s a fanatic religious zealot, really, and she fasts and she has this very dysfunctional relationship with her mother, and just the modern psychology of having an eating disorder.
I think also each of these women are using a different arsenal of weapons than the men use and I think that’s very relatable to the modern woman because, you know, I work in TV and film and . it can be a man’s world but women do think slightly differently and there’s something quite exciting about writing a show in this very high stakes world where these women pull strings and they weave their power plays very differently to the way the men do. The men go out and whack swords at each other and the women pull strings and do it in a different way and that felt both very modern and very exciting to write about.
TVF: What was it about Rebecca Ferguson brought into the role of Elizabeth, which we see a lot of in the first episodes.
EF: Elizabeth Woodville was very famously the most beautiful woman in England and when you think about what actually happened was the Earl of Warwick (James Frain)…[he and Edward] spent two years negotiating and had fought so hard to be King. His father had been murdered by the Lancastrians so he hates the Lancastrians.
What did it take for that man to go, ‘Oh, do you know what? I’m going to mess it all up by marrying from the wrong house, and a commoner.’ I mean, it was love at first sight and six weeks later they were married so she was not enjoying the courtship. He was obviously quite possessed with her.
TVF: For fans of the books, how much of a challenge was it for you to not have everything in the book from the series?
EF: I think what’s really interesting to me is what the response in England would be. [The series aired in the UK in June] As far as I can see from Facebook and Twitter, they’ve all gone, ‘Oh my God, it is the book!’ And that’s really exciting because usually of course people go, ‘It’s not as good as the book, films never as good as the book’ and all that stuff. They seem really to recognize it, which is really interesting because the books are single point of view narratives, and I combine them together.
So, actually, in one respect, the show is completely different to the book, but people feel that they are finding the book on screen…we had to do some [cuts], it was quite hard to wrestle the material into shape where their stories connected more at the beginning and at least gave the promise that this battle is coming between them, so that was quite hard.
TVF: How did you navigate how to incorporate the supernatural into the series so it doesn’t become more about that than the story itself?
EF: It’s an interesting one. It’s an area where the books and the show do differ. And you know, at the time, people did believe in magic. They were very, very superstitious and they believed in magic as much as they believed in God. One could easily argue that they’re both as real and fantastic as each other.
In the book, I think it would be true to say that they commit more to magic than real. I think in the books you feel that there is a direct cause and effect of what they do. We had discussions about it and I felt the two problems of doing that on the screen is when you see it visually it plays much more loudly than when you read it in the book.
So, my fear was tonal to the love story and my fear was that if magic comes right at the beginning of The White Queen and if you’re not careful it appears that Edward only falls in love with Elizabeth through magic. If you make your audience think that, you’ve undermined the entire 10 hours, because you just go, ‘Well he doesn’t love her, it’s witchcraft’ and then, every time they get in a tight spot you go, ‘Well, why they don’t just wave their magic wand?’
I felt we had to see a disconnect with cause and effect and what we tried to do…Elizabeth sees something in that mirror that the audience does not. What we know is she believes she saw it, but we didn’t see anything and what we know is she believes it. So, it’s about her and her mother believing in magic, and us you know going, ‘Well, I don’t really know’ much like Margaret and God. We don’t hear God, but she hears God. So it’s exactly the same. It’s what is real for them because also tonally, this isn’t Merlin.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.