A departure from author Ken Follett’s usual thrillers, The Pillars of the Earth hit bookshelves in 1989 – a mammoth chronicle of the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. Well-loved upon publication and through the years, Pillars was followed by the 2007 sequel World Without End – which enjoyed a more muted, but still positive, reception. It’s sensible, then, that Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free production banner would adapt the two books into prestige miniseries of eight episodes each (in 2010 and 2012, respectively).

The Pillars of the Earth

The show changes significant elements of the book, especially the ending, and omits several characters. However, Follett himself appears in a cameo so he can’t have considered it that bad. Still, that makes it fair to review the series in its own right. With a $40 million budget, this is Thrones-level storytelling before that was a proven hit. 

More than a little was likely spent on the show’s cast, which boasts Ian McShane, Matthew Macfadyen, Rufus Sewell, Hayley Atwell, Sarah Parish and, in a cameo, Donald Sutherland. Those performers are the main reason for the miniseries’ success, as the writing is at times quite unsteady. McShane and Macfadyen particularly find the core of their characters and work wonderfully onscreen, driving the story’s drama as well as being joys to watch. Eddie Redmayne is in this, too, and he’s … fine.

The story follows Tom Builder (Sewell), who arrives with his family to look for work in the town of Kingsbridge. By mysterious happenstance, a local cathedral in disrepair burns down – ensuring Tom will build what the series infers is one of the first Gothic Cathedrals for the local Prior, Phillip (Macfadyen). Pillars unfolds against the backdrop of the English Civil War and adjacent figures involved in building the cathedral and running the town – from the local power-hungry bishop (McShane) to the daughter (Atwell) of a deposed local earl eager to win back her family’s fortune.

Strong editing weaves these narratives together well alongside the cathedral’s construction and offers a thick slice of life in medieval times. Great sets and location shooting reinforce these vibes as well, letting audiences sink into the time period. It’s another strength amid a script that can be, for lack of a better term, soapy. Excepting the great McShane, the villains are one-dimensional and plot points telegraphed a mile away. Atwell also rightly won an Emmy for somehow believably conveying that her character would be romantically into Redmayne’s character.

No matter where you came down on Thrones, it’s easier to see the seams of this production in its wake. It’s still an engaging, fun watch – especially for fans of medieval history. You’ll certainly understand and learn more about cathedrals than you have before and remark “Wow” every time you see one. The Blu-ray disc looks great as well, with subtitles and a couple behind-the-scenes bonuses.

World Without End

In book form, The Pillars of the Earth had soapy elements and plot contrivances more aligned with airport novels than the grand historical tome it aspired to be. World Without End, then, feels like a fanfic sequel to Pillars with more open airport-novel ambitions.

The setting remains Kingsbridge, some 200 years after Pillars but a similar era of civil and military strife in England. (I mean, it is medieval times. Strife was standard.) Here, there are hidden lineages, betrayals, villains and oh look, it’s just Pillars remixed. This may have worked better on the page, particularly as the story follows some of the previous book’s descendants. But the story feels more like straight lifting than poetry that rhymes, and there’s also no central cathedral to tie it together. The villains aren’t fun, just mean. There’s no cool introductory sequence a la Pillars. The acting is far inferior; even Redmayne looks Oscar-worthy lined up against his comparisons here. But one element made me simply stop watching.

TW: Sexual Assault

World Without End has so much sexual abuse that, in the second episode, all four main female characters are abused at least once. You might think the show is saying something about the treatment of women in that era, but it feels so very gratuitous. Super gross, super in your face, super not serving any real purpose. 

Thus, World Without End did not get the follow past episode two because it simply cratered so hard. Between its lacklustre cast, missing central hook and poor treatment of its female characters, there was simply no reason to watch. It’s hard to imagine the rest of the series would do deserved justice to World’s decade- and continent-spanning tale.

In the end, ViaVision’s Follett double pack is really more of a Pillars set with World tacked on if you can stomach its awfulness. Thankfully, though, Pillars is worth the view, and fans of this kind of thing owe it to themselves to check it out.