Film & TV
4 min read

Shardlake: the Disneyfication of the Monasteries

What works, and doesn’t, translating from page to screen.

James Cary is a writer of situation comedy for BBC TV (Miranda, Bluestone 42) and Radio (Think the Unthinkable, Hut 33).

Two men in Tudor clothing converse in a street
Shardlake, left, played by Arthur Hughes.

Have you ever had that sense of dread on discovering your favourite novel is going to be a movie or a TV series? Fans of CJ Sansom’s books have been divided on the adaptation of their favourite historical novels about a hunchbacked lawyer during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some have been delighted by what they’ve seen, and felt the four episodes of Shardlake on Disney+ were true to the original books. Others were appalled. 

The originals books are greatly loved. On The Rest is Entertainment podcast, Richard Osman read out comments from his own mother about how and why she loved CJ Sansom’s book so much. I was not so captivated. I read the first book, Dissolution, some years ago and liked it. But I didn’t like it enough to read more. 

So when the TV adaptation landed on Disney+ I was curious. My own reaction was relief that CJ Sansom had passed away only days before his first novel arrived in our living rooms. Sansom was committed to historical accuracy and authenticity. The TV Series? Not so much. 

But Shardlake is entertainment for the masses, not the bookish. Why shouldn’t sixteenth century monks have incredible teeth? Why shouldn’t they burn candles by the dozen in every room of the monastery, day and night, despite the fact that candles were eye-wateringly expensive back then? And yes, these monks should be going to church at least nine times a day, and spend hours in prayer and private study. But who really wants to watch that? This isn’t Wolf Hall on BBC2. This is mainstream global streaming TV: the Disneyfication of the Monasteries.

Given the differences in the media, why are both versions of Shardlake so successful? The secret sauce is the hunchback himself, Shardlake. 

As a screenwriter myself, I know all too well that the dynamics of twenty-first century television – aka ‘content’ – and novels are very different. (My failed novels have reinforced this lesson for me). Shardlake has to appeal to an international audience who have not read, and will never read, CJ Sansom’s books. They won’t even listen to Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook talk about the Dissolution of the Monasteries on The Rest is History podcast. 

Novels are fairly cheap to print. TV is expensive, burning money faster than the monks of St Donatus can burn candles. Shardlake is international TV, financed internationally and filmed internationally. Consequently, you are not looking at the Kent countryside. You are looking at Hungary, Austria and Romania for a mixture of reasons. Mostly these would be tax breaks, cheaper crews and financial incentives. 

St Donatus’s monastery is a mash up of the medieval Kreuzenstein Castle near Vienna and the gothic Hunedoara Castle in Transylvania. It looks brilliant. It just does not in any way resemble a medieval monastery – which were surprisingly uniform through Europe. The chapel at the monastery is comically small, whereas there would, in real life, be a hilariously large abbey. 

The New Stateman said, “This is not Merrye Englande. It is the Grand Anywhere we’ve come to know all too well in the age of streaming, and it bores me to death, my eyes unable to stick to it,” which seems a little over dramatic. Most of the reviewers were unconcerned by this lack of historical accuracy. The Guardian called it ‘magnificent’, others ambivalent. It scored about 80% on Rotten Tomatoes with both the critics and the audience. Overall, Shardlake has been a hit. 

Given the differences in the media, why are both versions of Shardlake so successful? The secret sauce is the hunchback himself, Shardlake. He is the sleuth, trying to solve the murder of a fellow commissioner in the service of the King’s ruthless right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell. The recipe for the Shardlake sauce is made up of two key ingredients. 

Shardlake bears his cross with fortitude, not bitterness. 

The first is his goodness. It seems like a bland attribute, but it’s rather refreshing, especially in a world divided both then and now. Shardlake is not complex character with inner demons. (At least that’s not how he’s presented in the first book or this adaptation.) When I read the book, my abiding memory is that Shardlake was one of the good guys. This was surprising at the time as normally Protestants were seen Philistines and cultural vandals who cynically changed their theology to strip the church of its wealth, before passing the churches on to their descendants who smashed the statues, whitewashed the walls and, eventually, cancelled Christmas. Shardlake may be in the service of Thomas Cromwell, but he knows in his heart of hearts that Anne Bolyen was innocent of the crimes for which she was beheaded. And in some small way, he makes amends for this. 

But Shardlake’s goodness is only half of the recipe. The other half is his hunched back. In the sixteenth century, this makes him an object of ridicule and shame. It is not flipped around to become a strength. It is an affliction with which he has to cope. Given Shardlake’s world steeped in religion, we are reminded of the ministry of Jesus, who attracted the sick, the crippled, the lepers and the blind. They were, of course, healed and Shardlake is not so fortunate. 

Shardlake bears his cross with fortitude, not bitterness. Likewise, Jesus Christ himself bore his cross as a victim of injustice on trumped up charges, beaten and executed as one cursed alongside criminals, saying ‘Father forgive’. Shardlake, like Christ in the gospels, is a suffering servant. And now Disney may see the Gospel According to Shardlake spreading all over the world.

4 min read

What makes fans tick?

Fandom’s remarkable fusing.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Scottish football fans wearing kilts march down a street singing and waving their arms alogt.
Scotland's Tartan Army of football fans.

"A fat, sarcastic Star Trek fan: you must be a devil with the ladies." 

This put down of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons neatly sums up a prevailing attitude to fans.  To be a committed fan is to devote yourself to a niche pastime; to be weird and nerdy and, simply, not cool.  At its worst, the fan becomes a fanatic, from which the noun is derived; an obsessive who stalks the object of their passion online and, at its most dangerous, offline. 

Times are changing, though, and the internet is chiefly responsible.  Where once fans could feel isolated and able only to relate to fellow afficionados slowly via the postal system, now they can find people who share their love in a handful of clicks and build relationships in real time.  A lot of anguish is spent on how the internet allows people to find extremist chat rooms where abhorrent behaviour is normalised; less attention is given to the wonder of being able to find fellow lovers online of Massey Ferguson tractors, Australian mullets or Rubik’s Cubes.  Many fans feel less alone online, building a new sense of belonging and purpose – a realisation that others will take them seriously. 

Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

In Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging (Picador, 2024), the academic Michael Bond gives a perceptive and generous insight into the world of fandom.  There are Beliebers, Directioners, Trekkers, Swifties, Janeites, Ricardians.  For the uninitiated, that’s lovers of Justin Bieber, One Direction, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, Richard the Third; though strangely one of the biggest bases of all simply goes by the title Star Wars fans.  Bond spends some time looking at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson.  Professor Gayle Stever has researched the pop star’s fans and found them, like many other fans, to be ‘normal people carrying on normal lives with functioning relationships and jobs, who just had this passion for Michael Jackson’.  Despite the discomfort of idolising a celebrity who lived, and died, with serious child abuse allegations made against him, they saw Jackson as ‘the target of racist abuse and unwarranted criticism throughout his career’. 

Fans often identify very personally with their idols.  Cosplaying conventions allow fans to reinvent themselves and Houston University studies have shown that people can ‘feel less lonely and less anxious in the face of rejection simply by thinking of a favourite TV show’. 

But what of football fans?  Many find the aggressive tribalism involved hard to accept.  I have observed young male fans of London Premier League teams chanting loudly at train stations in a way that made young women nearby shrink away, making me wonder whether my opening line from The Simpsons ought to be re-purposed.  The ritualised conduct of football crowds – the fist pumping, jumping and embracing at a goal, the verbal and hand abuse of opposing players and referees, and the chants that defy pre-match announcements about tolerance at games – can look bizarre and scary.  Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

‘... the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.’ 

Emma John

The deeper the love for a club, the greater the joy and the pain at success and failure.  It is a high-risk investment that many stake because it makes them feel so alive.  The peerless interpreter of football fandom, Nick Hornby, says that football is a context where watching becomes doing’.  Anyone whose leg has involuntarily jerked as a player reaches for the ball will grasp that. 

I wonder if some football fans who identify as Christian struggle with the secret reality of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend?  Should a win on a football pitch matter that much, when so many things are so much more important?  They may aspire to the whimsy of Ecclesiastes (there is a time to win and a time to lose, the author nearly said) but feel the coursing testosterone of Samson instead. 

God made us playful, and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play.  There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of its finest exponents, like the choreography of Michael Jackson himself.  If we are called to life in all its fulness, isn’t this also a part of that fulness (even if some games are a stretch)?  

In recent interviews, Nick Hornby has said he couldn’t write Fever Pitch again, his pained love letter to Arsenal FC; middle age has brought a new perspective.  Writing in Prospect magazine (May 2024), sports journalist Emma John says: ‘I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory…the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity’. 

At least, until the final penalty shoot-out, when for the diehard fan it’s absolutely all about the earthly moment of victory.