‘Pillars’ miniseries comes to light

By Pablo Gorondi
Associated Press / December 11, 2009

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FOT, Hungary - Ken Follett made his name writing spy thrillers like “Eye of the Needle.’’ But the book that has won him the most critical, and eventually popular, acclaim is a nearly 1,000-page novel about the construction of an English cathedral in the 12th century.

Now, “The Pillars of the Earth’’ is being turned into a Ridley Scott-produced miniseries starring Donald Sutherland, Ian McShane, and Rufus Sewell; shot in Hungary and Austria, it is to air by June 2010.

Follett said that while he had received offers to turn the book into a two- to four-hour film, only Scott was willing to commit to an extended version that would capture the book’s complexities.

“Most people think it’s my best book and I felt very strongly that I should hold out for a long miniseries,’’ the British author said in an interview while visiting the set at Astra Studios here, just outside Budapest. “Ridley was the only person who was able to guarantee that.’’

The producers financed the project independently, and the question of who will eventually broadcast the eight-hour series - which can be shown in four or eight parts - is still to be determined.

The book was first published in 1989 and has gone on to become Follett’s best-selling book, getting a big boost in 2007 when Oprah Winfrey choose it for her book club.

The story centers on the building of England’s first Gothic cathedral in the fictional location of Kingsbridge and unfolds over nearly 40 years. It has dozens of characters, including monks, bishops, craftsmen, nobility, soldiers, peasants, and city dwellers.

Follett said he was very pleased with the screenplay for the miniseries written by John Pielmeier.

“What I liked most about the script was that the story remained strong. I was most relieved when I read it,’’ Follett said, adding that not all the films based on his books had been good and that gave him pause sometimes before agreeing to a new adaptation.

“You think you have to let your baby go, like sending your child to school, you have to put him into someone else’s hands. You know you’ve got to do it but it worries you anyway,’’ Follett said.

Pielmeier, the author of “Agnes of God,’’ also played monk Cuthbert Whitehead in the miniseries. He said the story was rooted in an age when people were willing to devote several generations to a single edifice.

“We’ve lost a certain amount of faith, not in a literal religious way, a faith in our future,’’ Pielmeier said. “The faith that people had to embark on an endeavor of such size . . . taking a job that you know you will never see the end of. It’s something people today wouldn’t be able to do.’’

Scott and producer Rola Bauer said that using studios and locations in Hungary had allowed them to save money and tackle the project without having to secure a US network to help with the finances.

“We are working outside the studio system,’’ Bauer said, which gave them greater creative freedom - albeit coupled with greater financial risks.

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