Emma Frost, co-showrunner of Starz drama The Spanish Princess, discusses finding the balance between historical truth and dramatic storytelling in a key scene from the series, which is produced by New Pictures and Playground and distributed by Lionsgate.
The Spanish Princess is the third instalment in the English historical series I’ve been doing for Starz, following The White Queen and The White Princess. It’s loosely based on two Philippa Gregory books, The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse, and is about Catherine of Aragon, who arrives from Spain to marry Prince Arthur.
There’s a scene in the third episode that we probably discussed more than any other in the whole show. It deals with the death and funeral of Arthur. As dramatists and producers, we know that anyone with a passing interest in history knows Arthur dies. So how do we write it? How do we produce it? How do we bring something fresh to it?
In terms of the filming, the scene is hugely ambitious in scale. We filmed it in Wells Cathedral in south-west England. Our wonderful director, Daina Reid, was very ambitious and had so many great ideas for this scene, but we had one day to film this huge funeral procession. It was a real military operation. The practical production challenges were immense.
There is a lot of historical record of Arthur’s funeral. When you have historical facts for any story, it presents unique challenges. You need historical advisors, but it’s one of the peculiarities of this show that we endlessly have to fight back against the truth, because our show is so much about power play and politics.
We can’t have a scene where characters are saying treasonous things within earshot of guards or clergymen who would be loyal to the king and would go off and immediately tell him. So one of the things we had to really police is well-meaning historical advisors who tell you to make all these people stand in one place because that’s where they were on the day, while Matthew [Graham, co-showrunner] and I endlessly have to go, ‘No, all those people out.’ It undermines the scene and the storytelling because this is a scene that cannot have eavesdroppers.
Spectacle isn’t story. It’s really easy to fall into a trap where you stop telling the story, forget about characters and suddenly just design a wedding or a funeral and spend a ton of money on it. There’s an endless challenge for us about how to combine spectacle with narrative and make sure every unfolding scene or sequence is driving deeply into character and story so it’s really earning it’s place either emotionally or narratively, and it isn’t the equivalent of a song and dance number where the story stops.
One of the things we discovered was that Sir Richard Pole, a nobleman who brought up Arthur for most of his childhood in Wales, rode a huge horse through the church, snapping Arthur’s staff across his knee and laying it on the coffin. When you read that, you think it’s amazing. But then we discovered Catherine rode to the cathedral on a donkey. This was about her own sense of humility. She wanted to be a woman of the people; she wanted to be on their level.
In the first version of that sequence, we had Catherine on a donkey and then the horse in the cathedral. But the horse is simply spectacle, whereas Catherine riding the donkey is all about character and story. So the decision was made to lose the horse. It would have been great but we all felt it was gilding the lily and would have been one of those things where historical truth gets in the way.
We also wanted to find the emotional centre of the scene. Everybody is grieving but we tell the story through the female characters, so the three women for whom this is most significant emotionally are Catherine, whose husband has just died and whose fate has been thrown into uncertainty; Lizzie, Arthur’s mother; and Margaret Beaufort, who is the political player and is now wondering what is to be done with Catherine – as Arthur’s death means Lizzie’s second son is now in line to sit on the throne as Henry VIII.
Our story is about Catherine and her entourage coming in and bringing their own culture with them. There’s a practice called keening – crying out to express grief – that cuts through many different faiths and cultures, and it’s so un-English and beautiful. So we focus the scene on the elements that felt pertinent to our characters so they weren’t just historical realities recreated.
A lot of noise has been made about how longform serialised dramas are the ‘new novels,’ with numerous episodes that keep audiences hooked until the very end. But what books are now coming to screen and how are they being adapted?
In the era of ‘Peak TV,’ it’s commonly overheard that serialised television dramas are becoming the new novels – one story told over multiple episodes. Indeed, some series, like Netflix’s House of Cards, even name their episodes ‘chapters’ while, like books, there are surely now too many shows made for anyone to claim to have watched them all.
Yet while this is a more recent phenomenon, books have long been the inspiration for, and basis of, many television series. And with the need of every new television drama to create some buzz at its launch and pull viewers away from whatever else they’re watching, plus the added bonus of a ready-made fanbase, it’s no wonder books continue to be snapped up for small screen adaptations.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Poldark, Castle Rock, Ordeal by Innocence, La Cathedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), Vanity Fair, The City & The City, Sharp Objects, Women on the Verge and My Brilliant Friend are just some of the series based on books that have been on television this year, with the eagerly anticipated final season of Game of Thrones due in April.
Also on screen in 2019 are Les Misérables, The War of the Worlds, Good Omens, The Rook, The Spanish Princess and The Name of the Rose, while His Dark Materials, The Luminaries, Alex Rider, The Butchers of Berlin, Lord of the Rings and Dracula are all in the works.
Following the worldwide success of 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, UK production company The Ink Factory returned to John le Carré’s extensive catalogue of spy novels for follow-up The Little Drummer Girl, again for the BBC and AMC. Endeavor Content distributes. But those expecting a similar story would be wise to forget Tom Hiddleston’s rookie spy and Hugh Laurie’s ruthless arms dealer. In this adaptation of le Carré’s 1983 novel, Florence Pugh plays Charlie, a young actress who strikes up a relationship with Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), an Israeli officer who entangles her in a complex plot orchestrated by spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon).
After The Night Manager, Ink Factory co-founders – and le Carré’s sons – Stephen and Simon Cornwell sought another of the author’s works that played out on a cinematic level with a compelling story at its heart, but that was also quite distinct and different. The Little Drummer Girl fitted the bill.
“It’s a compelling narrative, it’s very anchored on the core characters and their progression through the story and it travels and evolves and has a complexity and richness to it that really speaks to longer-form storytelling,” says Stephen Cornwell. He believes the proliferation of book adaptations on TV is down to the fact that “great books tend to tell great stories,” and in turn, great stories attract great talent – from writers and directors to actors and everything in between.
“Obviously authorship and the awareness of titles also helps drive audience interest,” Cornwell continues. “It just feels like there are a lot of things converging right now that make adaptation, and particularly the literary form as the basis for longform storytelling, very natural and organic.”
Le Carré himself takes a keen interest in adaptations of his work, as his cameo as a waiter in The Little Drummer Girl will testify. He is happy for writers to reinterpret the story for the screen, rather than slavishly follow the fine details of the novel, Simon Cornwell says, noting that it’s more important to be true to the essence of the book than the detail of the plot. “A lot of that really starts with the importance of character. If you’re coming at this from the point of view of focusing on character, you begin to capture the core of the book and then you start to think about how you put that on screen.”
For Sarah Williams, the role of adapter is to be as invisible as possible, putting the author’s vision on screen with as little interference as possible. “When you’re dealing with a really good book, my note to myself is ‘invent as little as possible and try to present the story as authentically as possible,’” she says. “Keep as close to the book as you can.”
Williams first adapted a novel by Andrea Levy in 2009, turning in the script for BBC miniseries Small Island. She has now reunited with the author for The Long Song, a three-part BBC1 series produced by Heyday Television and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
“If you’re adapting Pride & Prejudice, you might favour your own take because it’s been done many times and everyone knows it. But I didn’t feel my take on this book was as important as this book,” Williams says of the story, set during the final days of slavery in 19th century Jamaica. “For me, that’s been the priority. That’s how I see it. Other people might read the script and think, ‘Oh Sarah, you’re all over this.’ But I don’t think so. People make a lot of fuss about adapting books, but all you want is all the best bits of the book in one place and put into a screenplay structure.”
The writer says working with Levy has been crucial to the adaptation process, most notably on condensing the life story of strong-willed slave July (Tamara Lawrance) – told over two timeframes – into a trio of hour-long episodes that also replicate Levy’s balance of drama and humour.
“Quite often it’s structurally complex to unpick, and replacing the structure for TV can be a challenge. But the emotional strength and that bittersweet tragi-comedic tone she has, it’s my favourite kind of thing,” Williams says. “For me, what she manages to do is to take you on a very emotional road that has pain but also laughter. There are some very funny moments but it’s never trivialising the subject matter.”
The producers behind Swedish spy thriller Hamilton have taken a different approach to adaptation, however. Jan Guillou published his first novel about the character, dubbed Sweden’s James Bond, in 1986, and more than a dozen have followed. But rather than creating a period drama setting intelligence officer Carl Hamilton in the midst of the Cold War, which was ongoing when the books were first released, DramaCorp-Pampas Studios is placing the character firmly in the present day during what might be considered a Cold War 2.0. Airing in 2020 first on Scandinavian streamer C More and then on Sweden’s TV4 and ZDF in Germany, Hamilton is distributed by Beta Film worldwide and ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) in German-speaking territories.
“This is the first time these novels have been adapted into a TV series. When pitching it, the idea was really to reboot the character, the universe, the novels and the stories for a serialised format,” says executive producer Patrick Nebout. “We had extensive meetings to find the essence and the core of these novels and, from there on, to develop an original story that is relevant to a contemporary audience. So it’s not an adaptation of the novel, it’s a new origin series based on the universe and the main character of Hamilton.”
The strategy echoes that employed by co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland when they reimagined Tom Clancy’s action hero Jack Ryan for Amazon Prime Video, creating a series based on Clancy’s characters. A second season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was ordered by the US streaming giant before the first debuted in August.
Similarly, Hamilton is designed as a long-running series, with future seasons likely to leave the novels behind entirely. “In the first season, we pick things from different novels that really are part of the audience’s expectation. But then we will take the next seasons somewhere else,” Nebout says. “We leave the novels and find our own way. These series are also designed to not only touch Nordic audiences but also to travel, so we’re looking for the universal elements in the story and the characters.”
New adaptations aren’t just playing with the source material, but the traditional television format too. Italian drama Donne, based on Andrea Camilleri’s collection of short stories, plays out over 10 10-minute episodes on Rai Uno. Produced by Anele Production and distributed by RaiCom, it recreates Camilleri’s meetings and personal experiences with 10 women, recounting discoveries of seduction and sex as he attempts to “solve the enigma that is the universe of women.”
“The literary material was so rich to start with that the skill was neither to add nor remove, but only to enhance what was already incredible,” creator Gloria Giorgianni says of the adaptation. “That was the only difficulty, really.
“Creating original content is great, but adapting is even more challenging. Recreating the visual sensations of a book is an incredible challenge. But starting with a great writer, a book helps to have a set narrative structure and to have a world of reference at hand.”
Michel Bussi is the author of bestselling novels including After the Crash and Black Water Lilies, with the former adapted into a four-part miniseries by CPB Films for French network M6. Global Screen holds distribution rights. The thriller is set after a plane crashes in the Alps, with just one survivor – a baby girl. When two families claim the child as their own, a detective is hired to find out the truth.
Book adaptations are more popular than ever because “they offer rich plots and are generally more original than that usually offered on television,” according to Bussi, who adds: “Writers do not limit themselves to their imagination.”
But the author never considers a future adaptation when writing his novels, admitting to building “the most complex and twisted stories possible to give the producers a sleepless night, often using literary processes difficult to reproduce on screen. This forces the directors to be very imaginative.”
Bussi will discuss his novel with the writers at the start of the development process, but then leaves them “completely free” to take the project in their own direction. “My stories are based on some fundamental pillars that must be preserved. It is quite easy to agree on them with a screenwriter or a producer because they are a bit like the DNA of the story,” he says. “Then the removal of certain chapters or certain characters for the needs of the adaptation is often a necessary crime.”
Keeping the DNA of the source material was also essential in making Swedish drama Kristina Ohlsson’s STHLM Requiem, based on Ohlsson’s detective novels. The 10-part series, with five stories told over two episodes each, follows an unconventional criminologist solving cases as part of a special investigations unit within the Stockholm police.
Black Spark Film & TV producer Piodor Gustafsson says Ohlsson’s background working with the police has ensured gripping, factually accurate plots. Even so, “there’s a lot of things you have to take out because they’re inner thoughts, or events move away from the main character, so we have to simplify and create characters that work all through the 10 episodes,” he says of the drama, produced for TV4, C-More and ZDF and distributed by ZDFE. “There were a lot of changes but I believe we kept the main feeling in the books. Kristina’s very happy about it, so I think we did something right.”
Gustafsson says adapting a novel means “you always have to be very brutal in the beginning and only use what you think is extremely useful to build your series.” But then the director, in this case Karin Fahlén, can use the book to inform the visual style on screen. “We’re not dependant on Kristina’s approval but we want her to be happy, so she’s involved in reading the scripts, and also the writers ask her questions.”
Fahlén continues: “With good books, you get a universe laid out in front of you when you read them. I think that happens to all of us. I could only follow my own vision, what I saw, and then I had a close collaboration with the set designer and the photographer and we found we almost didn’t have to talk. Things flowed really easily and we found our universe.”
Kate Brooke is used to stepping into different worlds, whether it’s the early 1900s with Mr Selfridge, Renaissance Italy with Medici: Masters of Florence or creating a dark thriller in crime drama Bancroft. For her latest project, however, she plunged into a world of witches, vampires and demons with the adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s fantasy novel A Discovery of Witches. Produced by Bad Wolf for Sky1 in the UK, it has been renewed for second and third seasons following its launch this autumn.
This was the first time Brooke had dipped her toes into the fantasy genre, with a story that introduces a variety of supernatural species all living together in plain sight and addresses political and evolutionary issues that she says feel incredibly contemporary. There’s also a love story between lead characters Diana Bishop (a witch played by Teresa Palmer) and Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode’s vampire).
A Discovery of Witches didn’t lend itself directly to adaptation, however, owing to its first-person perspective and huge amounts of backstory that comes with each character. Brooke sought to introduce characters earlier on screen so they are already familiar by the time they become more central to the story. She also decided to give Matthew 50% of the narrative, which involved building the character beyond what was in the book. “But that’s fun for an adapter because you can begin to bring your own imagination and meld it in Debs’ world. Obviously I was always in contact with Debs about that,” Brooke says.
What’s notable about many adaptations today, including A Discovery of Witches, is that they might have been considered too niche or even impractical to make several years ago. But the explosion of content on screen means networks are now more open to genre drama, particularly fantasy and sci-fi, than they were previously, while technological and financial advances also mean exciting new worlds can be realised with the cinematic quality audiences demand.
The rise of serialised television means books that come with deep mythologies can also be retold, with writers not forced to cram everything into a feature-length running time.
Brooke believes there’s a safety net to adaptations because people know the story has an end. “It’s much easier to commission an adaptation but I do think we need to continue to engage in new writing,” she says. “There’s so much content, there’s a fear that sometimes original pieces don’t push through.”
But Stephen Cornwell says original series and adaptations can inform each other. “A great adaptation can inspire someone to do a great piece of original storytelling,” he adds. “I don’t think they are in any sense in competition with each other.”
Showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham explore the early life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, in historical drama The Spanish Princess. They reveal how the future queen caused a stir in Tudor England and the drama’s parallels with Breaking Bad.
Hot on the heels of The White Queen and The White Princess, US premium cable network Starz is continuing its dynastic saga of Tudor England with eight-part drama The Spanish Princess.
Like both of its predecessors, this new series recalls history from the perspective of its female characters and is based on historical novels by author Philippa Gregory, this time The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. But while the story ostensibly focuses on Catherine of Aragon’s arrival from Spain with dreams of becoming queen – an ambition she achieved by marrying the future Henry VIII – it stands apart from previous instalments through its perspective of an outsider causing a stir in the Royal Court, themes of immigration and its focus on people of colour living in 16th century London.
Under the leadership of co-showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, the series will reveal how Catherine left a Spain ruled by her fearsome mother, Isabella of Castile, and came to England, where she experienced a huge culture shock in a land that was comparatively old fashioned and male dominated.
“She really causes gigantic ripples in this old-fashioned, rather fusty male Tudor world,” Frost explains. “As history goes on to tell us, her daughter Mary [with Henry VIII] becomes the first queen in her own right, Mary I.”
But there’s another reason that Frost and Graham believe The Spanish Princess promises to be the most exciting chapter yet. Beginning their research during production of The White Princess, they were keen to understand the place of people of colour in 16th century London. Historical advisers suggested diverse characters would have been an anachronism for the period, which Frost admits “really pissed me off,” as she already knew that wasn’t true.
“What we discovered without breaking too much of a sweat is that Catherine of Aragon came to England with an incredibly diverse entourage of people, notably including an African Iberian lady-in-waiting called Catalina de Cardones, who we call Lina in the show,” reveals Frost, who was also the showrunner of The White Queen and The White Princess.
“This woman exists as a footnote in history but no one has ever bothered to dramatise her or acknowledge she was there. What we know is Lina married another African in London, Oviedo, and it was very unusual in this period for people of colour to marry each other. So this is a really extraordinary story of these two African people in early Tudor England marrying each other and being very much part of the world of the court. So there is a whole new massive piece of this story that is reappropriating history for people of colour as well as for women by telling this story of these two people who really did exist.”
Graham says The Spanish Princess also looks at issues of class and social mobility in a way the previous versions weren’t able to. “The White Queen and The White Princess were both very much about the Yorks and Lancasters and all of it was at that level. Now we can tell stories that take place in the taverns, the streets and the way their love story unfolds,” he says. “The other thing you get a chance to do is tell what could not be a more pertinent story about immigration. There was cultural wariness of people who came from a different country. Frankly, though, in Tudor London you were wary of people who came from Wales. It wasn’t the colour of the skin that was the issue, so that’s quite nice – here we are with two black people in the middle of Tudor England and we don’t tell a story about racism.”
Like The White Queen and The White Princess, every scene in The Spanish Princess is from one of the leading female characters’ points of view, with Catherine and Lina joined as the main protagonists by another Iberian lady-in-waiting, Rosa, and Maggie Pole, who also featured in The White Princess. Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, is still very much a key player and antagonist-in-chief, Frost says. “There are various very strong conflicting female points of view that interweave or fall in behind Catherine. She’s the main character but we always have these other incredible strong women in the show.”
Frost argues Catherine is much maligned by history, overshadowed by Henry VIII’s later wives, particularly those who lost their heads in the process. “She’s characterised as this unwanted old bag, but it’s a phenomenal story that’s very pertinent to the 21st century,” she adds.
Catherine’s arrival from Spain is used to great visual effect in the series, contrasting the bright sunshine and rich colours of her homeland against the dark, gloominess of England – a place of shadows and people whispering in corridors.
“She’s a breath of fresh air but she’s also not to be trusted. She brings her own culture,” Graham says of Catherine. Frost notes that the character’s arrival in the country allows the show to observe Tudor England from an outsider’s perspective, something not possible in the previous iterations.
“That’s a really exciting point of view shift because now the Tudor world is the ‘other’ to the world of our heroine,” she says. “That allows for all sorts of other conflicts. There’s also an incredibly exciting theme running through the show about faith, because the Inquisition is beginning in Spain under Isabella, Catherine’s mother, and several of her entourage are Muslim, so they have to deal with their feelings about what’s happening in Spain and what Catherine’s real allegiances are. There is a world where the Catholic faith is no longer the only gig in town for a lot of characters who have always peopled the show. So we’re able to explore lots of thorny issues around conflicting ideas about faith, God, forgiveness and redemption.”
Leading the drama as Catherine is Charlotte Hope (pictured top), who was cast following an international search across Europe and North America. Frost and Graham were looking for someone who could embody the strength and vulnerability of the princess. That Hope (Game of Thrones) looks eerily like Catherine was a bonus.
“Charlotte just looks like her,” says Frost. “She has this strength, this fragility, and she’s just grown into the role. It was very hard casting a lead because there are so many factors to consider, but she is the most talented, hard-working, wonderful actress. We just love her.”
Ruairi O’Connor plays Henry, with Stephanie Levi-John as Lina de Cardonnes, Aaron Cobham as Oviedo, Nadia Parkes as Rosa, Harriet Walter as Margaret Beaufort and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Maggie Pole.
Graham was watching from the sidelines while his real-life partner Frost ran The White Princess, living and breathing Tudor England through her work. So when she suggested they do the next one together, he jumped at the opportunity to work alongside her and share the endless responsibilities of a showrunner – a role they had both previously performed separately. They say every TV show they both work on in future, they will do together.
Frost also welcomed the introduction of a male viewpoint behind the scenes. “Even though the show is told from the point of view of women, the male characters really matter, and trying to write a young Henry VIII – a complex, mercurial, intelligent, likeable, flawed and dangerous man – it’s been fantastic to have Matthew’s voice coming into that as well.
“Every single TV show we are working on now we do together, so we’re showrunning everything we do in TV. We break the stories together, we write the pilot together and then, moving forward, we write episodes separately and give each other notes. Then Matthew’s brilliant at all the bits in production that I’m hopeless at.”
Behind the camera, Birgitte Stærmose (Norskov) directs the first two episodes and Maya Zamodia is the DOP. Graham also got to try his hand at directing, picking up some battle sequences and palace-set scenes in Spain. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones (The Alienist) and costume designer Phoebe de Gaye (Killing Eve) return from The White Princess. Composer Samuel Sim is adding the music to the production, which Graham says won’t feel like “your grandmother’s period drama.”
“It’s got to have a buoyancy and momentum to it that feels fresh and cinematic and youthful,” he adds. “That’s one of the big things in production we’ve gone for.”
Frost picks up: “It’s a tremendously ambitious show. For the budget, what we’ve achieved is extraordinary. We’ve all had to be really inventive about how we cut our cloth and how we make the show.”
Distributed internationally by Lionsgate, the series is produced by New Pictures and Playground and is due to debut early next year. Frost and Graham, however, are already working on a second season of The Spanish Princess, which will continue the story of Catherine of Aragon – one Frost likens to Walter White’s journey from idealism into darkness in Breaking Bad.
“This doesn’t have the same darkness but it does arguably have more tragedy. Ultimately, it’s the story about the lie,” she adds, referring to Catherine’s claim that her marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated before his death, thus leaving her free to wed Henry and become queen.
“Our whole exploration really is an exploration of that decision she makes and whether she’s lying or telling the truth and the consequences of those actions. It’s a really strong female story of a woman trying to define her place in the world. It’s very familiar [to modern audiences] in that regard.”