Hayley Atwell as Aliena and Eddie Raymayne as Jack on the set of The Pillars of the Earth
Photos: Egon Endrenyi
One of Oprah's Book Club's most popular selections, Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth has been adapted into a sweeping, eight-hour miniseries that premieres July 23 on Starz. Now, Ken takes you behind the scenes on the set of the movie adaptation and gives you a peek into the writing process behind the central love stories between Jack and Aliena and Tom and Ellen.
Any historical work can be very cold, mere dates and events, without characters to warm it with emotions and reactions. They color and illuminate the narrative, the way sunlight through stained glass illuminates the cold stone interior of a cathedral. The strongest emotions do this best, so a writer looks for situations where his characters can experience them: great fear, great hatred and great love.

There are two major love stories in The Pillars of the Earth, and both involve that delight for any storyteller: unlikely, mismatched couples. To work at all, such relationships first have to be shown as feasible in their context: in this case, England of the early Middle Ages. Once that's been established, it falls to the writer not only to make the relationships keep working, but also to make them entertaining, sympathetic and exciting for the reader. Unfortunately for the characters, this usually means putting them through hell! There are proverbs and quotations about the course of true love, and in fiction, guiding that course straight onto the rocks is just the start. Then it gets worse; much, much worse.

In the early 12th century, it's entirely possible that a skilled master craftsman like Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) might meet and fall in love with someone like Ellen (Natalia Wörner). She begins as the tomboy daughter of a rough country knight and eventually becomes a novice nun. Now all that's in the past, and she's a mysterious wolfish woman who lives with her son in a cave in the woods.

But when they first meet, Tom is still married and has two children of his own; by their second meeting, he's shattered by being recently widowed, something for which Ellen might even be to blame. She has a secret that already brought tragedy into her life, and her reputation around Kingsbridge is that of a witch. It's immediately clear to the audience that if this couple have more than a brief encounter, the life they're going to share will be, to say the least, interesting.

What motivated the love story between Aliena and Jack
Natalia Woerner as Ellen and Rufus Sewell as Tom
Photos: Egon Endrenyi
Tom is a thoroughly likable man, the most popular character I've ever written, but his flaws have a bad effect on his relationships. His determination to complete his dream of building a cathedral sets him wandering away from other work, and may be responsible for the death of his first wife. His blindness to the bullying nature of his son Alfred (Liam Garrigan) creates immediate and lingering difficulties with Ellen, because the victim is her own son Jack (Eddie Redmayne). He's the only relic of her own first love, someone she's determined to protect because no one protected his father, and to her the bullying is so obvious that Tom's unwillingness to do anything about it makes her wonder whether the rest of the relationship is sincere.

It is, of course—but when one half of a couple won't see the other's point of view, that's when the risk of a parting starts to cast its shadow. This is no plot contrivance, but a human failing as real now as nine centuries ago, and the audience, who may have experienced it for themselves, are fascinated to see how it will be resolved in this time and place. And then there's that secret, which has given Ellen a deep distrust of the Church—so much that she and Tom are still unmarried when their relationship is discovered, and suddenly having to live apart is no longer their own choice to make.

Jack and Aliena (Hayley Atwell) have their own problems, ones that might prevent them even getting together in the first place. He's the illegitimate son of a presumed witch; she's the daughter of an earl (Donald Sutherland)—and very soon, the dishonored, landless daughter of an executed traitor.

Through determination and ability, Aliena builds herself into a successful wool merchant; through talent and his stepfather Tom's teaching, Jack becomes a much more skilled mason than Alfred, an unwitting revenge on the bully that will have its own consequences. He and Aliena are now on a more even social standing, and the possibility for romance beckons—but her family's old enemies tear them apart and destroy her newfound fortune.

Before her father's death, she swore to him that she would restore her brother Richard (Sam Claflin) to the earldom. His military fame, backed by her money, has begun to attract the king's attention, making this once-distant hope a real possibility—until Aliena loses her wealth again. Then maintaining support for Richard means making other arrangements, and that's when Alfred, now a master builder, offers her his own prosperity if she marries him. If she gives up Jack, she lets Alfred bully his rival worse than ever before by taking her away.

How Ken Follett created the opportunity for romance
Real life is unpredictable, but well-crafted fiction has to make sense. An author not only creates a story and its characters, he also creates the journey those characters travel through his story. If that takes them down a bumpy road pitted with potholes, he has to know where, why and when those bumps and holes appear and how big they can become, even when they start as little cracks small enough to go unnoticed.

Here's one: A mason loses his job because of a canceled wedding and has to look for work. Here's another: A nobleman's daughter refuses to marry someone she can't love. Here's a third: An impressionable girl finds the survivor of a shipwreck and bears him a son.

Each one of those cracks grows, splitting and expanding into chasms able to engulf people we care about, whichever way they turn—obstacles that even love and courage might not surmount. The rougher their road, the more steadfast fictional lovers must be as, inevitably, the author sets yet another complication in their way. But the more challenges they face and conquer, the more the audience cheers and supports them. And when our lovers reach their final destination, be it wealth and glory or just hearth and home, and the music swells or the book closes, that audience sits back in satisfaction, exhausted, exhilarated and glad to have shared that journey. And who knows? They might well do it again!

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Next blog: A lesson in cathedral building

More about The Pillars of the Earth
Everything you need to know about The Pillars of the Earth miniseries
Your Pillars of the Earth reading guide
Oprah interviews Ken Follett


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