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Historical Accuracy in The Other Boleyn Girl

Updated on December 5, 2015

Perhaps the largest challenge in any book to movie script exploration is determining the value of significant events, how each event could best be portrayed in film, which events hold little value to the overall story, and which events would detract from the overall vision of the film. In choosing The Other Boleyn Girl for adaptation, the screen writers also faced the significant challenge of determining the historical value and intentions of events written by author Philippa Gregory. The novel itself is labeled as purely a fiction endeavor in the copyright information and script writers made note during the DVD special Translating Henry to Film that Gregory was fascinated by the untold story of Mary Boleyn and sought to capture the woman who most historians left unexplored in her fiction. From this, the script writers inferred that Gregory took great liberty from documented historical events in order to best highlight the lesser-known Boleyn sister. With that said, a close look will be taken into the events of the movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl to determine how the movie deviates from the book and the historical accuracy of both portrayals.

Main Events of the Movie

The movie The Other Boleyn Girl takes place in the 1500’s, a time of aristocracy and power, and focuses on the intertwining lives of Anne Boleyn (played by Natalie Portman), her sister Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson), and King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). It seems that Catherine of Aragon (Anna Torrent) has failed to produce a male heir for Henry VIII and the Boleyn family plots to force Anne into his bedchamber as his new mistress. Anne has no desire to be mistress to the king, knowing that she would never receive full rights as his queen, and knowing too the disgrace that could befall her for the scandalous intentions. In the meantime, Mary falls in love with a man named William Carey and the two get married. Mary’s father realizes that Mary has potentially ruined her life with such a match and changes plans, sending Mary to the court to play the role of mistress to the king instead. Inextricably, this moment sends the future of the sisters and their relationship into one of betrayal, heartbreak, and deception.

Both Mary and Anne become ladies in waiting to Queen Catherine, who, for her part, understands very clearly why the Boleyn girls have come so swiftly into her court. Henry begins to fall for Mary while recovering from a hunting accident while Anne sneaks off to marry a nobleman, Henry Percy, who happened to already be engaged to Mary Talbot. The marriage between Anne and Percy, of course, was doomed from the start. Anne confided in her brother, George, about the wedding, but he could not contain the secret news and speaks of it to their sister Mary. Mary is beside herself with rage, understanding the implications of Anne’s actions and knowing well how it could disgrace them all. The Boleyn family converges, annuls the marriage, and exiles Anne to France. Anne, for her part, swears to exact revenge upon her sister for this betrayal. Percy ultimately marries Mary Talbot as scheduled.

Mary eventually becomes pregnant with Henry’s child but is immediately bedridden due to the precarious nature of the baby. Anne is sent back to Henry VIII’s court to play the role of mistress once again and to keep Jane Seymour, a beautiful and seductive rival, from his bedchamber. Anne revels in her vow for revenge, playing with Henry’s mind until he swears to never lie with his wife Catherine, or to be near Mary again, despite her giving birth to a healthy son. Henry is so enamored with Anne that he gives up his only male heir on the chance that Anne’s womb represents to his throne.

Anne determines that she wants to produce a legitimate heir to the throne, and convinces Henry VIII to break from the Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife Catherine. Anne’s previous marriage to Percy threatens to send the whole plan into oblivion and Henry finds himself so distraught and angered with his new mistress, and the fact that she continues to refuse to bed him, that he brutally rapes her, the act eventually producing a daughter named Elizabeth. This marks the beginning of Anne’s demise. Her hold over Henry VIII was essentially that she could produce a male heir, and after miscarrying a son, she seeks her brother to impregnate her without the king’s knowledge so that she can secretly reproduce the child that has just been lost.

George loves his sister and is willing to do as she asks, but at the last moment, finds himself unable to commit the act. Unfortunately, his wife, having heard most of what almost transpired, rushes off to accuse the two of incest. Anne and George are eventually executed for their plans. Mary is spared by Henry VIII and marries a man named William Stafford, with whom she spends the rest of her life in the country with her son to Henry VIII. Eventually, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne, becomes the Queen of England and reigns for forty-five years, bringing the country to the height of its power and success. The irony, of course, is that Henry VIII did eventually get the heir he wanted; the only problem was that this heir was a daughter and not the son that he ruined his life, and the lives of many women, over.

Historical Points

Historically, it is documented that the two sisters were ladies in waiting in King Henry VIII’s court and that both shared his bedchamber. Mary did give birth to a son, whom she named Henry, although he was never “acknowledged as such. The reason for this was that Henry had already fallen in love with her sister Anne” (Elizabethan-era.org.uk). Little is written about Mary’s life outside Henry VIII’s court, but records indicate that she did marry William Carey in 1520 and that she was immediately taken into the royal court and away from her husband. In 1534, Mary married a man named William Stafford and it is documented that Anne “was absolutely furious. Mary had married without permission and below her station” (Elizabethan-era.org.uk). In both the movie and the novel, Mary marries William after both Anne and George have been executed and King Henry VIII has banished her from his land. The reason for this deviation is unknown, but it can be considered that the writers wanted a more seemly end for the relationship between Anne and Mary. Many aspects of both the movie and the novel focus on the roots of betrayal that grow between the sisters, but in the end, their relationship has grown and evolved and they have come to reasonable terms with the events that have transpired. Historically, their relationship may have been wrought with hatred until the very end, but thematically the deviation works well for the big screen, adding more emotion to the concluding act in which Anne loses her head while Mary watches on in horror.

The historically documented facts for Anne Boleyn are similar as depicted in both the movie and the novel. She was sent to King Henry VIII’s court, but fell in love with a man named Henry Percy. Accounts suggest that they never actually married Percy because Cardinal Wolsey knew that Henry VIII had intentions for Anne (TudorHistory.org). Anne was always clear in her relationship with Henry VIII and “eventually it evolved into ‘Queen or nothing’ for Anne” (TudorHistory.org). From this point on, Henry VIII sought to remove himself from the Catholic Church in order to legitimately marry Anne, but the proceedings lasted for years. Eventually, Anne became pregnant (history does not suggest rape) and Henry married Anne in 1533 to ensure a legitimate birth, despite the legal fact that he was still married to Catherine.

After giving birth to Elizabeth, Anne miscarried two sons and “she had to have known at this point that her failure to produce a living male heir was a threat to her own life, especially since the King’s fancy for one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, began to grow” (TudorHistory.org). From here, allies of Jane Seymour stepped into action and began Anne’s downfall, charging her with treason, incest, and of plotting against the king’s life (TudorHistory.org). While both the movie and the novelized version chose to focus on Anne’s downfall as the moment when she and her brother are overheard plotting to create a son, historically, the deviation is related to actual events. The rise of Jane Seymour is certainly suggested at in both the novel and the movie, though she is not depicted as the ultimate undoing of Anne and her brother.

The Purpose of Deviating a Movie from the Book

Both the novel and the movie focus on the moment in which Anne convinces her brother George that he must lie with her to produce a male child so that Anne will not be executed by the king for her miscarriage. This scene seems to be singled out to add to the emotional drama that Anne finds herself in after ruining the King’s life in an attempt to have a legitimate marriage and child. Her pleas are entirely understandable, and though the audience might watch on with eyes half-closed in horror at what may transpire, the grief and desperation that motivates Anne becomes ultimately clear. Indeed, historical records are unclear as to whether or not George and Anne actually concocted the plan or went through with it, but both were tried for incest (among other crimes) and executed, which lends weight to this moment as having some historical fact.

However, in truth, “very little is known of the events of those times, and…the history of Henry’s first divorce and of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has still to be written” (Burstein). Historical records indicate that Henry VIII had relationships with both Anne and Mary but “much of what we do know is buried under political or theological polemic” (Burstein). It is easy to speculate on the bounds of historical fiction and the thematic presentation of the movie, but the result is purely that. Records indicate that these women were a part of the royal court and nothing more. The dramas and stories that played out on the big screen are essentially nothing more than an idealized version of what the historical documents suggest may have occurred more than four hundred years ago.

Overall, Philippa Gregory wrote The Other Boleyn Girl as a tribute to the lesser-known Boleyn sister in an attempt to highlight the difficulties that women faced during the reign of King Henry VIII. Many historical works document the tragedies that befall women who cannot produce an heir for their king, but Gregory hits the emotional aspect—illuminating precisely what women were capable of doing to remain in their king’s favor—to immerse the reader in a world of deception and betrayal. The movie version stayed true to the main aspects of the novel, with a few deviations for the purpose of better highlighting the drama of King Henry VIII’s court. In truth, the historical implications of both cannot be fully determined—though it can be said with certainty that Mary Boleyn was a consort of King Henry VIII, she produced an unacknowledged son with him, and she was passed over for her sister Anne who was later executed for the crime of incest. What the novel and the movie provide, as is the purpose of historical fiction, is a look into the past. Moreover, the drama and story are meant to immerse the viewer into a world long gone and anachronisms will always be present; but with that said, even a historian could watch the movie or read the novel and find some enjoyment in the portrayal of secondary events that may or may not have occurred.

References

“Anne Boleyn.” TudorHistory.org. 17 April 2009 web. 25 September 2009 < http://www.tudorhistory.org/boleyn/>.

Burstein, Elizabeth. “The Fictional Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: How to Do Things with the Queen, 1901-2006.” CLIO 37.1 (2007): 1+.

Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Pocket Books, 2001.

“Mary Boleyn.” Elizabethan-era.org.uk. n.d. web. 25 September 2009 <http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/mary-boleyn.htm>

The Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Perf. Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Bana. Columbia Pictures, 2008. Film.

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