The decision to translate Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen from print to screen cannot have been one taken lightly by head writer Emma Frost. Gregory’s novels are much loved by historians and readers alike, despite their historical inaccuracies but, ignoring them (which, as a History student, I’ve done many times), the new BBC drama series – which combines the books on Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and the Neville sisters during the War of Roses – has done a pretty good job at remaining true to the written word, while creating the right atmosphere of the time period and manages to be entertaining.
Unlike many other historical dramas on our screens at the moment, The White Queen has also not glamourised the past to gain viewers. The grandeur of the English medieval royal setting is evident but not exaggerated. The cries of outrage at the zips often seen on Elizabeth’s costumes have been rife, however the overall presentation of the drama successfully transports viewers to the fifteenth century. The carefully chosen music also convincingly creates the pomp and ceremony of Elizabeth’s rise to power, yet we also hear the subtle undertones of sinister events yet to come.
Rather admirably too, The White Queen does not seem in a rush to tell it’s story, with the first episode focussing primarily on the first few chapters of the book that it’s based on, which makes for a more enjoyable and rich retelling. However the focus on the romance element of the narrative left me feeling slightly unfulfilled as I yearned to see Edward ride out to battle against the old Lancastrian King Henry VI but instead had to make do with what seemed like a never ending number of sex scenes between the lusty young king and his new bride. Equally, Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) has not quite lived up to the feminist icon I so wanted her to be after her rather pathetic attempts to resist the will and allure of Edward (Max Irons). Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta however, is without a doubt the strongest female we have encountered as of yet. Played by the stunning Janet McTeer (Parade’s End, Sense and Sensibility), she rules her life as she wishes and is neither intimidated nor belittled by anyone she meets. Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) also came to life in the latest episode in which we saw her passion and determination to secure recognition of her son Henry’s claim. The White Queen is refreshingly ‘female driven’, and I can’t help but feel gleeful to see poor Max Irons fade into the background among the sparkling, enigmatic women he is surrounded by.
It is possible that the BBC’s latest attempt at a perfect historical drama may only appeal to diehard Gregory fans. Naturally many may find the references to magic and the insinuation of scandal at every turn too fantastical, yet these are key elements of every successful Gregory novel and the trend is fast catching on, with the likes of Alison Weir signing up to write their own versions. The series has tried to encapsulate this style of interpreting medieval events, and the overwhelming result of The White Queen is a commitment to the books it is based on, which has often been lacking in previous literary adaptations. Hopefully this marks, as with last month’s much anticipated The Great Gatsby, continuing proof that we can successfully adapt from the written word to screen.
The White Queen is on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm
Words: Caitlin Williams