Tag Archives: Showtime

“The Borgias” vs. “Borgia” – Which was better?

“Borgia” vs. “The Borgias”

Canal+ vs. Showtime

Which was better?

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

I was very excited when Showtime announced that it had been working with Michael Hirst, of “The Tudors” and “Elizabeth I” to produce a show about the Borgia family, because I knew it would be visually beautiful. Nobody does costumes, sets and props better than Hirst. His actors are always top-notch, and this was no exception, with the inclusion of Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI.

Between the first and second seasons of the Showtime production, I signed up for Netflix Streaming service. I saw a production called “Borgia,” and thought it was Hirst’s. It was not. A completely different approach to the story of the Borgia family, it was produced by Canal+, a European company. It was and still is amazing.

The actual Borgias were a Spanish family, and when Rodrigo’s uncle became Pope Calixtus III he was made into a Cardinal. In 1492 he became pope himself, taking the name Alexander VI. He was popular with the common people, but deeply resented by the clergy, and his family was hated. He had at least six children, including the four that both shows represent, with a few more that are uncertain with later mistresses. Rumors spread about him and his children, including that he slept with his daughter Lucrezia and was the father of her children. The worst and most continually pervasive rumor was that his son Cesare killed his brother Juan because they were both sleeping with their sister and grew jealous. Cesare was deeply hated, known for his leaving a position as a Cardinal to attempt military campaigns, which killed him in the end. He was known to be cruel and unbending, harsh and arrogant, and may have been the inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” as the two were friends. He was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, who dreamed up weapons for him.

Cesare is more of the main character in both series, and with good reason. There is more information about him, and he is a very interesting character to use with as a writer. Pope Alexander is the next primary character, then Lucrezia and the rest of the family and their friends. Some historical information both shows got right, and some both got wrong.

When it came to casting, both shows seemed to have different objectives. Showtime’s series went after the best actors they could find for the parts, wither the actors resembled the portraits of the actual people or not. For example, the real Alexander was a large man, both in height and weight, but Irons is a thin man, and bares no resemblance to the pope. Every character was played with an English accent. Canal+ seems to have focused on appearance first. Each character looks like the portraits and other sources we have which show the appearances of these people. As for the accents, the producers of Canal+’s series pointed out that at that time Rome was a melting pot. They hired actors from all over and allowed them to, mostly, keep their accents. This works well in the Vatican and on the streets, but not so in the Borgia family. Rodrigo is played by an American, as was Jofre, the youngest; Cesare is played by an Irishman who takes an English accent; Juan was French; Lucrezia was Russian; their mother was the only one played by a Spaniard even though she was actually an Italian.

When it comes to the supporting cast, Canal+ covers them well. It presents the full compliment of cardinals, dukes, clergy, mistresses and friends, again with an array of accents. In Showtime’s production these are given only a cursory glance. We know that Alessandro Farnese is the brother of the pope’s mistress, Julia, but other than a few brief scenes we never see him. Farnese also became a pope, Paul III, and had a lifelong mistress named Silvia Ruffini and many children and grandchildren. We see him in an episode of “The Tudors” with the cardinals and his grandson, but in “The Borgias” we barely know who he is.

Lucrezia’s first husband and marriage are very misrepresented by Showtime, and more accurately shown by Canal+. She was only 13 when she was married to Giovanni Sforza, an illegitimate member of the Milanese family. Showtime has him taking Lucrezia to his home, where he rapes and beats her until she runs away. The reality is that she never left Rome, and the marriage was later annulled due to lack of consummation, which is shown by Canal+.

The final very important secondary character to be altered by Showtime and correctly represented by Canal+ was the “villain” Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere. Showtime has him running all over Europe, constantly looking for ways to kill the pope, who he resents for getting the papal throne which he believed he was due. While Della Rovere was never friends with Alexander, shortly after his election they began to work together, and he stayed in Rome. He was a political adversary, not a terrorist. After Alexander’s death, Cesare worked with Della Rovere and helped him become Pope Julius II. Canal+ shows them going from anger to friendship, which is never achieved by Showtime. In both shows he is an active homosexual, which he may have been.

Alexander himself is played better by John Doman, even though is not as talented an actor as Jeremy Irons. Beyond his physical similarity to the actual Alexander, Doman plays the pope as a politically active, conniving man who has one singular purpose, to further the causes of his own family and his friends. Irons plays him as a mainly innocent man, who is bent by the wind of his family’s actions, nearly clueless as to the cruelty they inflict. In the first season he seems surprised that the other cardinals do not like him. In Canal+’s production we see more of who Alexander was, because the series opens with Rodrigo in his position as Vice-Chancellor for the previous pontiff, Pope Innocent VIII, who then dies and opens the path for him. Showtime starts with the election, so we only see Rodrigo as Alexander.

Cesare is a very different man in both series, and this is one place where I think that Showtime excels. Firstly, they correctly place Cesare as the eldest of Rodrigo’s children with Vannozza de Cattanei. I do not know why Canal+ swapped him and Juan in birth order, except perhaps because it seems odd that the elder brother would be forced to go into the church while the younger would carry a title. It only makes sense once you realize that Cesare was not the eldest son of Alexander, and that their family was one built on the church. The eldest son was Pedro Luis, from Rodrigo’s relationship with an unknown mistress, as well as the eldest daughters Isabella and Girolama. They remained in Spain, and Pedro Luis had the title of Duke of Gandia, which was passed to Juan upon his death.

In Canal+’s show, the Cesare of the first season is whining, tortured and weak. He acts out of desperation and lives in regret, constantly complaining and committing harsh acts of penitence for his previous actions. In the second season, now seeing the way to free himself from the church, he becomes more calculating and less reactionary, and the true hardness of the actual Cesare begins to show. In Showtime’s production, Cesare is constantly calculating, willing to do anything at anytime so that he can further his and his family’s interests. He makes the harsh choices without regret, owning everything he has done. In my opinion, this cold and brutal man is more in line with the historical Cesare.

Lucrezia is a different woman in both shows. In Canal+’s production, she is just as calculating and cruel as her brothers, in some cases worse than they are. In Showtime’s she is a gentle, innocent girl who just wants equality with her brothers. The real Lucrezia had as much political savvy as her brothers, and knew how to position herself and her family to their benefit. She was the subject of many, many rumors, including affairs and illegitimate children, which are not believed to be actually hers. I believe she is more like Canal+’s character and less like Showtime’s.

There is one major plot point difference between the two shows. While the siblings in Canal+’s show flirt and proclaim their love, physical love nearly happens once, but it does not go far and none of the children are lovers. Showtime decided to take the rumor of Lucrezia and Cesare being lovers and make it real. In the 3rd season, they sleep together, and act like lovers at all times afterward.

While the costumes and sets for the Showtime production were beautiful, Canal+’s were a bit more honest. When you see the cardinals in Canal+’s show, their robes are different, varying colors and fabrics, which is more realistic. Not every cardinal was wealthy, and some may not have been able to afford the fabric dyed as richly as others, nor of materials of equal luxury. They seemed to have used fewer costumes and jewelry, and you see the same gowns repeatedly, which is also more honest. Even the very wealthy could not afford to only wear a garment once. The makeup is very natural, and I was surprised to learn that many of the characters are wearing wigs- the quality is very good, and it’s hard to pick out who is wearing one without already knowing. The only character whose hair I do not like is Lucrezia, who is played by an actress with red hair when she was a blonde.

In the end we will have three seasons of both shows, but because Canal+’s moves much faster I hope that we will have the total story of the family, at least to the point of Alexander’s death, if not after. Showtime pulled the plug on “The Borgias” close to the end of the 3rd season, and the story was never really finished. I have wondered if their choice to give credence the incest rumor led to the downfall of the viewers and support for the show.

Both programs use nudity and violence, but Canal+ does not make the violence humorous, nor the nudity illicit. It uses more nudity, and nearly every actor in the production has removed their clothes, but it is properly situational, and natural bodies are celebrated. The violence is brutal, but very realistic and accurate. There are several criminal executions, which I cannot watch because they are exactly as they were done at the time.

Each show chose a different culprit for the murder of Juan Borgia. I will not give it away, but as the murder was never solved, I like the direction Canal+ took for its creativity alone. Both show Lucrezia having an affair with a boy, who impregnates her and is killed, in Showtime’s by Juan and in Canal+ by Cesare. This did not happen, though there was a rumor that she had an affair with Pedro Calderone, shown in Canal+’s show, but while the rumors say that Giovanni Borgia was her son, it is believed that he was in fact Alexander’s son.

Both shows have wonderful opening titles. The music used in the first season of “Borgia” is an outstanding piece of work in its own right, and the second season and all seasons of “The Borgias” have wonderful music as well. In the first season of “The Borgias” several pieces from “The Tudors” and other Hirst productions were mixed in with famous paintings that had been slightly altered, which I found both lazy and distracting. You see Henry VIII stroke Anne Boleyn’s neck, and all I could think was that Hirst needed filler. The first season of “Borgia” contains a bit of nudity, the heaving chest of Julia Farnese, but it works so well with the music and show to not be offensive. I have to give the edge to Canal+.

So, in the end, which is the better show? They are equally inaccurate, in different ways. Just as Showtime gave us a show that was practically rose-colored, Canal+ gave us a show that was gritty and dark. In the end, it is Canal+’s production that I watch over and over again, which I enjoy every time. I cannot wait for the 3rd season to come to Netflix, so I can watch the end of the story.

Both shows are available on Netflix Streaming, and are available on DVD.

My main sources for the history were:

Bradford, Sarah. “Lucrezia Borgia.” 2004. Viking, New York.

Hollingsworth, Mary. “The Borgia Chronicles; 1414-1572.” 2011. Metro Books, New York.

And my husband, who found this family perpetually fascinating and devoted much study to them.

 

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The Tudors: Season One, Episode Two

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

There is a lot going on in this episode, which covers the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the arrest and execution of the Duke of Buckingham, the birth of Henry Fitzroy, and the affair between Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn. I am going to focus on a few points there were either accurate or inaccurate about this episode.

I became very distracted at the Field of the Cloth of Gold by the actions of Charles Brandon. This event happened at Calais in June of 1520. I will go more into the difference between the historical Brandon and the fictional one in future episodes, but at this time he was not some roaming stud looking for French women. Why not? Because he was married to Henry’s sister, Mary, in 1515, and she didn’t die until 1533. I went into this in the first post, but for me it was just hard to move past while I was watching.

While in France, King Francis I points out Mary Boleyn to Henry, and calls her his “English Mare,” because he “rides her so often.” Henry becomes jealous that a member of his court is sleeping with Francis, and sends for her himself, beginning an affair with her. Mary may have been Francis’ mistress, but she did not become Henry’s mistress at Calais. She had returned to England in 1519, when she was married to William Carey, and was in the household of Queen Katherine. We don’t know when she became Henry’s mistress, but estimates have their affair starting in 1521, after the summit. Later in the episode, Henry tosses her away seemingly out of nowhere- “leave.” In reality their affair ended sometime between 1524 and 1526, though since it was never publicized we do not know the exact date. We do know that it was longer than a few months. We know there was a relationship because when Henry petitioned the pope for a dispensation to marry Anne Boleyn in 1527, the reason that was given as to why a dispensation was needed was Henry’s familial knowledge of her sister. And we all know how that turned out…

When they all return to England, Henry is furious because Charles V of Spain has been named the Holy Roman Emporer. This is out of the timeline. In reality Charles was made Emporer in 1519, a year before the summit.

As well, when they return to England Bessie Blount gives birth to Henry Fitzroy, the king’s bastard son. This is juxtaposed against the treason of Buckingham, as the noblemen are giving Henry his Christmas gifts when she is in labor. The real Fitzroy was born in June of 1519, a year prior to the summit in Calais. In comparison, the Duke of Buckingham was executed in 1521, which is shown later in the show, and seems to be in the correct time.

One of the biggest errors that drives me nuts is the interaction between Charles Brandon and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, when Brandon presents him with his father’s ring and makes a vague threat against him and his son’s futures if he fails to give the verdict of guilty against Buckingham. Norfolk says that his father was executed by Henry VII. There were two Thomas Howards that were the Dukes of Norfolk, the 2nd and the 3rd Dukes, father and son. Because Anne Boleyn later calls him “Uncle,” this makes him the 3rd Duke of Norfolk. It was the 2nd Duke who presided over Buckingham’s trial, and it was the last thing he did before retiring from court.

So here are the actual facts- The 1st Duke of Norfolk, John Howard, died at Bosworth in 1485. It was his death that may have pushed Richard III into his “suicide run.” His son, the 2nd Duke, was restored to the peerage by Henry VII, and died in 1524. This was Anne Boleyn’s grandfather, the father of her mother. The 3rd Duke was Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, who was active in court before and after she was queen. He was also a Catholic, who put his other niece, Catherine Howard, forward as Henry’s future mistress and queen. Henry VII did not execute any of the Dukes of Norfolk, and it was not Anne Boleyn’s uncle who presided over the trial of the Duke of Buckingham. Therefore, this entire interaction makes no sense. There seems to be an inability of TV shows to put forward the line of the Duke of Norfolk accurately. The 1st Duke was left out of “The White Queen,” and in the “Six Wives of Henry VIII” he inaccurately states that his father was executed by Henry VII as well. I do not know if this is because the 2nd and 3rd were both named Thomas, or if the Howards are just disliked, but these little changes do not make any sense to me.

I am not sure which pope is supposed to be shown dying in this episode, because none died in 1521. The pope at that time was Leo X, Giovanni de Medici, who reigned from 1513 to 1523. When the cardinals speak of how the next pope must be an Italian, it confuses the issue further, because the following pope, Adrian VI, was Dutch.

One of the best moments in this episode happens in two parts. It starts with Cardinal Wolsey telling Sir Thomas More about how he will have to give up what he treasures most to keep the love of a king. It culminates at the end of the episode when Wolsey and Henry are approaching Wolsey’s new palace and Henry pushes the cardinal to give it to him. Clearly it was what Wolsey treasured, and to keep the king’s affections he had to give it away.

There was a lot to comment on in this episode, so I had to explain the parts that bothered and impressed me the most. Was there something that bothered you, that I failed to mention? Please leave a note in the comments!

 

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The Tudors: Season One, Episode One

WARNING- Contains spoilers

Any work of fiction, either on film or in a book, has to show you what normal is before the real plot can begin. Plot arcs must start low before rising in exposition. If the audience doesn’t understand how the characters normally act and what their lives have been like there is no way to understand how much change happens once the plot begins to move.

This episode does a very good job of showing us what “normal” was for the character “Henry VIII” and his court. We see a young king who spends his days working on the problems of the realm and international politics, while playing games with his friends, interacting with courtiers and spending time with his wife and mistress. At the end of the episode we get the first look at Anne Boleyn, but Henry has not seen her or her sister Mary yet.

The very beginning of this episode shows an English ambassador being murdered by French soldiers while at the court of the Duke of Urbino. This man is later referred to as Henry’s “uncle,” which immediately causes confusion. Henry had no blood uncles. His father, Henry VII, was an only child, and his mother’s two brothers went missing in the Tower in 1483 and were believed to be dead. The only uncles Henry had were from the marriages of his mother’s sisters, or his half-great-uncles from Margaret Beaufort. After looking at the husbands of the sisters of Elizabeth of York the only one that could be a candidate for this position was William Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, but he was not stabbed to death in Urbino and this show is too late to show a reaction to his death. He died in 1511 of “pleurisy” and was buried at Blackfriars. I believe this was invented to give the show more drama to the show, to give Henry more of a reason to hate the French and seek war against them as revenge.

Many other writers have already pointed out many things from this episode that are inaccurate, such as the lack of a historical Anthony Nivert or how Katherine of Aragon was actually a redhead or that Thomas Tallis was not at court as a young man. I am going to try to give those issues limited space.

My best guess as to the date of this episode comes from Bessie Blount’s pregnancy. Her child was born in 1519, and after she was married to Gilbert Tailboys. This means that the episode takes place in 1518 to early 1519. This will create many problems in future episodes, because Henry’s sister Mary was widowed by Louis XI of France in 1515, and married Charles Brandon in the same year. This means that the entire setup for Bradon’s character (played by Henry Cavill) is inaccurate, even before his marriage to “Margaret Tudor” is shown in upcoming episodes.

Henry had always had mistresses, and according to The Other Tudors by Philippa Jones (2009, Metro Books), Henry was a man fueled by romance and was a serial monogamist. He had regular and long-term mistresses, often staying with one mistress for years. This is not the Henry we are given in The Tudors. We are given a lusty and whoring king, more along with the reports of the sexual appetites of Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV. I have read several authors who believe that Henry’s later appetites for food and women were an attempt to emulate his grandfather. Did Henry have meaningless one-night-stands with random women at court? Perhaps. But in his account ledgers he is shown as giving gifts to one specific mistress at a time who was well-known at court and in rumor.

Jones also points out in her book that Henry seemed to sour on his mistress when she would become pregnant, quickly finding her a husband and having nothing to do with her again. Her argument is that he may have found the production of a child as a betrayal since he had spent years of bed sport with these women without ever making a child, showing that they were using some form of birth control. He may have seen these pregnancies as a deliberate way to try to force his hand in their relationship, and he may have resented it. Of course this is speculation, but we do know that the pregnancies of his mistresses appeared close to the end of their relationships. The show does display this well, and when we learn that Henry’s paramour Bessie Blount is pregnant, Henry pretends he is learning who she is for the first time. In the history we know that married Sir Gilbert Tailboys and had three children with him. The marriage seems to have been a happy one that was entered into after the birth of her child, so the character’s statement that her husband was threatening her with scandal and the convent is a fabrication.

I have to admit that there is a point of confusion for me when the Duke of Buckingham makes a comment that Henry’s only claim to the throne was a “bastard’s on his mother’s side.” I am not sure if he is referring to Richard III’s claim that Elizabeth of York and her siblings were bastards, or if he is referring to Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, since she was the only blood claim to the English throne that he had. The Beauforts started out as bastards and had been barred form the throne by Henry IV after they had been legitimated by Richard II and the pope. Buckingham’s comment works in both ways, even though his father had rejected Richard’s claim of bastardy of Elizabeth of York when he helped to plan the rebellion against Richard that we associate with his title, the Rebellion of 1483. In the same way he showed that he did not care about Henry VII’s Beaufort blood being a bastard line, because he agreed that if his rebellion had been successful he would have welcomed Henry of Richmond to the throne. We have no way of knowing if he was serious or if he planned to take the throne for himself, as he was executed for his efforts in the rebellion.

The girl who plays the child Princess Mary is just too darn cute! I adore the actress Sarah Bolger, who later plays an older Mary, and I became very excited when I heard her work on the video game “Bioshock.” But little girl Mary is adorable, and a wonderful casting. Wrong hair color, but I don’t think they could ask a child to dye her hair.

One of the biggest plot points of this episode is the setup for the Field of Cloth of Gold. This expedition to France happened in 1520. The other was the introduction of the lovely Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. I will be discussing these topics more in future episodes.

Additional Reading:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

The Tudors Wiki

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The Tudors- Background

In 2007 Showtime began the produce and air the historical drama The Tudors. The show takes place over 4 seasons, between the 1520s and the 1540s and focuses on the life of King Henry VIII. It begins with Henry’s youth and intrigue with Anne Boleyn and ends with the production of the famous Holbein painting just prior to Henry’s death in 1547. With the title saying “Tudors” plural, I half-expected the show to continue in future seasons with the lives of Henry’s children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, but it did not.

This drama comes from Michael Hirst, who cut his teeth in historical costumed dramas with the feature film Elizabeth I in 1998. I remember going to that film in high school (receiving extra credit in my English class for seeing it), and and I loved it. Michael Hirst guarantees a visually-stimulating show, with unbelievably beautiful costumes, sets and props. His productions often blend the line of fact in fiction because while he attempts to keep to the history he deliberately breaks from it for story or to make production easier. Hirst got rid of Henry’s sister Mary, blending a general idea of her person into Henry’s sister Margaret (this causes several problems later in the series), because he didn’t want two “Princess Mary Tudor”s on the call sheet- the king’s sister and daughter shared the same rank and title at one point in their lives. After the cancellation of The Tudors, Hirst went on to create Camelot, The Borgias, and Vikings.

The show cast Irish star Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, and Henry Cavill of Superman fame as Charles Brandon. Cavill apparently auditioned for Henry but in the end was cast as the rakish Brandon, as whom he gives an a commanding performance. Especially towards the end of the show, as Brandon ages Cavill becomes the sexiest men on the show, at least in my opinion.

Casting Meyers as Henry caused several problems in the show. Firstly, he doesn’t have the full presence of the actual king. Henry VIII was more of his grandfather, Edward IV, than his father, Henry VII, but Meyers looks more like VII than VIII. Meyers just isn’t a large enough man. His physical appearance became more of a problem as the show went on because Meyers would not gain weight and refused to wear a fat suit. I can’t imagine that he took the roll without thinking that one day the character was going to have to be fat. It is not as if he could claim that he had no idea that Henry VIII was fat towards the end of his life, when he couldn’t ride and play sports anymore. I’ve always wondered if Cavill would have put the suit on?

Natalie Dormer was one of the break-away stars of this show. She went on to feature films and Game of Thrones, but continues to be the mental image for many when they think of Anne Boleyn. A stunningly beautiful woman, Dormer dyed her hair a dark brown to play Anne. According to Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Anne’s “dark features” did not mean that her hair was almost black in color. On the contrary, her hair being called dark just means that she was not a blonde, which was the popular “romantic” hair color. Bordo believes that Anne’s hair was in fact light brown, as it is shown in the National Portrait Gallery portrait.

Some of the worst deviations from the history happen due to what I call a “Hirst wink-wink.” This happens in all of his productions. The show will diverge and a character will make an announcement that “nobody must know of this having happened,” as though the history is wrong and Hirst alone stumbled into the truth. “This is what really happened, wink-wink, but the history was deliberately changed, wink-wink, which is why you’ve never heard of it before, wink-wink!” Whenever you hear a character comment that nobody must ever know that this happened you are viewing an alteration to the know history.

But what is it that can make a viewer, even one like me who knows better, watch this show again and again? Because we want to think that we are flies on the wall to what happened. It may be flawed, but it is the best chance we have of watching Henry VIII live and love, at least until a time machine is invented. The story, the train-wreck knowledge that the wives of this man are going to end badly, that he will get fat and sick and mean, keeps us watching.

The show is available on Netflix Streaming, and the DVDs are available for purchase. At times Showtime will include it in their On Demand offerings for subscribers.

One note about watching- this show is one that you want to watch in HD. The costumes are amazing pieces of work, and in HD you can see every little thread and texture. The jewels and sets have amazing details, as do the hairpieces, and if you can you’ll want to be able to see every one of them.

Another note is that every time I watch it, our puppy Henry Rex goes nuts when he hears his name coming from our speakers! It’s very, very cute!

EDIT: Susan Bordo has pointed out to me that she believes Anne Boleyn had dark auburn hair. I apologize for the error.

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