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If you haven’t read The Other Boleyn Girl, you know at least five people, probably women, who have. Philippa Gregory is the reigning queen of historical fiction, having written several books set in the 16th and 18th centuries that deal with all sorts of monarchs, gentry and the like. The Other Boleyn Girl, though, is by far the most popular, and has been turned into the movie starring Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.
Gregory knows her stuff about the Tudors, the royal family who ruled England in the 16th century and gave us Queen Elizabeth I, so you’ve got to be on your toes to interview her. A brief rundown of the events in both the book and the movie: Anne and Mary Boleyn are sisters in a family that’s aiming for a little upward mobility. Mary catches the eye of King Henry VIII and has an affair with him, having two of his children. But Anne, the more ambitious of the two, sees an opportunity to take the King for herself, and seduces him all the way to the throne. Meanwhile Anne and Mary’s brother George is living it up in the court and, as told in Gregory’s book, being about as openly gay as was possible in those days, and maybe having an affair with dear sister Anne. Of course, it didn’t work out too well for anyone: Anne was accused of witchcraft and beheaded, and George was executed on charges of incest and sodomy. Mary, on the other hand, lived a long life in the country, married to a commoner whom she married for love, something virtually no one did in that day.
Yeah, that’s the brief rundown. Gregory’s book is 600 pages long, and the condensed version in the movie still has all the political intrigue and sexual power plays that made her book such a thrill to read. She talked to me about venturing into filmmaking as a consultant on the film and some of the differences between the book and the movie—in very atypical fashion for someone promoting a film, she admitted to not liking some of the changes! Of course, when you’re the queen of historical fiction, you can do as your majesty pleases.
Did you and [screenwriter] Peter Morgan meet and talk about his plans for the screenplay?
Yeah, we met several times before he started. Then we were on the phone, I think, every two or three days, and we talked a lot. We talked a lot about language, we talked a lot about what was possible and what wasn’t possible. Quite often he would say to me ‘I want to write a scene in which this is going to happen.’ And I’d say, ‘That wouldn’t happen, really.’ There was a lot of historical correction that was going on where I would say to him ‘I see what you want to do, but that wouldn’t happen.’
So you were more like the historical expert?
I was hired as a consultant. It was my job to do the historical stuff. The book, in a way, was its own advocate. One of the things that was really striking, when I went on the set, everybody was reading the novel. The crew, and the extras, and the stars—everybody. The book was really very powerful in the filmmaking. Even if I wasn’t arguing about it, the book was really there, representing itself.
Was it hard for you to see certain elements of your book taken out of the screenplay?
No. The great relief was that the book was out. It had been really successful worldwide, it goes on selling in enormous numbers. The book’s got my name on it. That’s my view of how the story should be told as a novel. What Peter chooses to do as a film is really his job. I can advise him, but, he’s Peter Morgan! I’d better leave it to him. And Justin Chadwick is a really fine director, and the cast is fantastic. It’s much better that I let them go on doing their jobs. What we all wanted to do was make a really good movie based on what we believed to be a really good book. There wasn’t a lot of disagreement about that. The only trouble was what would be the most successful way to do it.
Is there anything you were glad to see go away in the screenplay version?
I think what the movie does that the book doesn’t do is it really pares the whole thing down to the two girls and the king. It really depends how you like your history. In a way I think that makes it quite narrow. But it makes it quite a contemporary story—it’s something that everyone can understand. I love history, so I like the fact that the novel takes 600 pages, and it’s got so much countryside and landscape in it and imagery in it.
In the movie you lose Mary as the first-person narrator, and it becomes much more of an even story between the two girls.
To me, that actually skews too much to Anne. What seems to me extraordinary is the story of Mary Boleyn—it is called The Other Boleyn Girl because it is supposed to be her story. The novel is really much more focused on her. Having had this extraordinary career at court, when she’s been the king’s lover for four years, she’s born him two children—she has this amazing status at court that she turns her back on. She decides what she wants to do is marry a man of no importance, against the wishes of her family, defying every convention. She goes and lives in the country, and she damn well does it! You wouldn’t expect a woman of her position to do that for 200 years. It’s only in the 18th century that people start justifying marrying for love. It’s an extraordinarily courageous and exciting thing to do. We don’t get that in the movie, and we don’t get either the fact that all the marriages are arranged. What you’re talking about is a really loveless world. Whereas the movie is much more tenderhearted, and I think, historically soft.
George’s character is very different between the book and the movie. [In the book, he’s an avowed homosexual and has an incestuous relationship with Anne. In the movie, well, he doesn’t.] How do you feel about that?
I think Jim Sturgess’ performance as George is wonderful.
So charming. They dropped the homosexuality I think because it just felt like, for the movie, it’s too much. If you’re having the incest as well and having the homosexuality, then you have to have all of Anne’s court, all of those other characters. It gets so confusing. As it is, I think that in the first half of the movie, all of the guys with hats on get a bit—I’ve seen it six times, I’ve really got them now—but to start of with, there’s a lot, it’s hard to distinguish who’s who.
How much of what you know about Mary and Anne did Scarlett and Natalie know going into their roles?
They just read intensely. Both of them read The Other Boleyn Girl, then they read The Constant Princess, which is about Katherine of Aragon. It was when the whole of the crew was reading The Constant Princess that they all went to Peter Morgan and said ‘You’ve got to write more for Katherine. Otherwise we’re just not telling her story; it’s not fair on her.’ All of these scenes, which I think work so well, when Katherine speaks or really goes for them—those were all absolutely by public request, from the cast and crew to Peter Morgan. They said, ‘We have to have Katherine in the movie.’
Did they bring anything to their parts that made you look at those characters differently?
I don’t think so, because I’ve been working on the characters for so long. But what struck me about the performances, particularly Natalie, was Natalie’s ability to turn on beauty and glamour. So when she’s flirting with the king she is amazingly beautiful, and when she’s despairing and terrified, she’s ugly with despair. She had the courage as an actress to let one see that. She’s both ends of the spectrum. I thought that was very, very brave, for a young woman actress to whom looks must be important.
And the novel gives a good sense of the toll that Anne’s ambition took on her. Natalie did that really well.
And I think that’s really true to the history. I really tried to get the sense of her driving herself crazy, in the tension of trying to hold the King’s attention for all this long time. I think Natalie read that in the book and just really got the fact that what you had here was an absolutely doomed ambition. It was too much, it was too big an ambition for any woman to pull off. But she nearly does. So close—if she’d had a son, she would have stayed on the throne.
A friend of mine read The Other Boleyn Girl in a book club, and she got so angry at everyone else because they thought Anne deserved what she got for being a bad mother. But you really leave it open as to whether or not we should judge Anne for her ambition. Where do you see her winding up?
I really like the fact that, to me, these are like real people. They were real people. In a sense, judgment of them is unfair. They are rounded people, they have all sorts of complicated reasons, some of which you cannot know. Some of which they may not know. All of my books are fairly ambiguous morally. I try and tell the story of the people—I try and tell them with all of their complexity. You, the reader, can decide if someone deserves what they get or doesn’t deserve what they get. No woman deserves to be beheaded for upsetting her husband.
Anne and Mary Boleyn were living in a very patriarchal time, but people today relate to their story. What is it that people can understand about their lives from our contemporary point of view?
I think what’s very powerful for women today—and I come across it whenever I do readings. People come up often and they’re moved to tears. It’s something that for some reason evokes very deep emotions in women, in our society today. We all come up against men’s power in one way or another. Either in a nice way, that you get a job because you’re pretty, or in a bad way, that you get in trouble because you’re pretty and young. Everybody hits a glass ceiling. Everybody feels the power of men. And I think when you read about a society in which that isn’t in a sense the unstated fact, but is the rule of law, it really dramatizes it for women. It’s quite inspiring for women to see two women, both Mary and Anne, who absolutely refused to accept the limits on themselves. And Mary’s story is one of absolute independence and victory. I adore Mary for that.
And just after this Elizabeth reigns and becomes this incredible monarch. Did things change for women after that?
No. Never, ever think that. You put a woman in power, it doesn’t bring other women up in power. Very few women use their position to raise the position of other women. It’s one of the ways patriarchy keeps going. Put a woman in power, she then concentrates her energies on maintaining her position by putting everybody down. It’s a pity.
Here in the U.S. we have a woman running for President, and you can’t help thinking about that when you’re reading this.
I think women readers do really think about, not just women in power, but also all of my books are about how to be a woman. Are you to be a woman by using your feminine wiles and taking risks and appealing to men for what that will bring you. Or do you go to it with honor and respectability, and work hard and study hard to be as good as a man or better than a man. Try, in a sense, to work in straightforward way. These are questions that women have always asked and are still asking now.