The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

When Fiction Fails: Dissecting The Other Boleyn Girl

Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief

Image Back when Showtime’s drama The Tudors first came out, it seemed to me nothing more than a sensationalized nighttime soap opera tarted up to look “sophisticated” by placing it within the parameters of Tudor England.  However, after seeing the film adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl, I have a newfound respect for what that show actually accomplished. While Showtime at least attempted to include as much historical fact and biographical background as possible, using the sex and nudity as titillating filler for those who aren’t interested in history, this latest film chooses not to bother with anything approaching authenticity or accuracy. 

As an avid fan of the Tudor story, I feel I need to set the record straight.  I realize nobody but a history buff would notice or even care about the egregious errors in the movie, but some of them are so blatant they have to be adjusted.   Hollywood typically treats material like this as stuffy period pieces in desperate need of “sexiness” infusions, but there is a pretty broad line between adding a bit of steam, and grossly distorting a true story just to get asses in seats.

The following are the five biggest problems with The Other Boleyn Girl.   Please note I include some pretty sizeable spoilers (although the end should be common knowledge for anyone who attended a junior high history class).

(Also, for those who haven’t seen the movie or attended a junior high history class, I will provide the real version of the story in every case where I take issue with where the film strayed from the facts.)

Who is Mary Boleyn-In The Other Boleyn Girl, the character of fair Mary Boleyn is not only the sister of the future Queen of England, she’s the King’s love and mother of his first son, albeit a bastard.  That would indeed be an impressive resume for one woman to possess, however this Mary seems to be a combination of both the historical one, as well as Henry’s first mistress Elizabeth Blount. Blount was the lady-in-waiting for Henry’s first wife Katherine, and she also bore Henry a son who he was grooming to take over the throne despite his not being legitimate. By contrast (and based on various sources), Mary Boleyn became Henry’s mistress only after the affair with Blount had ended. Mary then was not his first mistress, not his great love (she was apparently removed from court almost as soon as he pulled out), and not the mother of his son.  I

Why Does He Marry Anne– This is a question that was actually very simple, rendered far too complicated in the movie. In real life, disillusioned with his barren wife and attracted to a young woman in her entourage, Henry petitioned the pope to annul his marriage, while simultaneously beginning his affair with Anne. When the pope refuses the request, Henry takes matters into his own hands. He had England break away from the Vatican and founded The Church of England. He got his desired divorce, and made an already-pregnant Anne his wife and queen soon afterwards. If you squint, it kind of looks like a romantic story.

In the movie, Henry wants to sleep with Anne, but she refuses unless she is made queen, so any offspring that result from the union will be legitimate heirs to the throne (in other words, a servant girl…refusing a King.). He spends an hour (of film time, anyway) begging her to give it up, and ultimately ends up raping her. After that, we cut to the two of them getting married, and he then spends the rest of the movie resenting her.

My problem with this is subtle. If Anne really was Henry’s mistress, and the two really did grow to love each other (as it appears they did), then it makes complete sense why he would go to such extremes to make her his queen. However, if she was really holding out as the movie claims, then he might want to do her, but there’s no chance that he’d want any more than that. Also, why would he rape her, and then go through with the marriage? The filmmakers clearly needed Anne pregnant for the wedding (as she was in fact), yet couldn’t have them happy with each other, as it would make the rest of their movie anti-climactic. Therefore, rather than tell the real story, they invented a fiction that defies all logic.

Hundreds of Years, Matter of Seconds-If the movie’s timeline were to be taken at face value, Henry spends months courting Anne, then divorces his wife, separates from the Catholic Church, marries Anne and crowns her Queen in a matter of days. Anne’s reign seems to last about a month, followed by a lightning-fast trial and same-day execution. I understand that movies necessarily must truncate stories like this for the sake of the runtime, but this vital plot point is sorely underdeveloped. In reality, Anne’s reign lasted for years, and was about as stormy a situation as you can get. She spent her time on the throne hated and reviled, and her story of perseverance through this time is nothing short of fascinating. Anne Boleyn was a truly complex and compelling person, and yet the film make her look like nothing more than a social climber who one day lost her head.  

Add Some, Lose Some– Another thing that tends to happen in movies like this is that the characters populated by the biggest stars get more credit than they deserve for the events, while other vital figures are truncated or excised altogether to give those stars more screen time. The most egregious example of this is with the role of Henry VIII, the person around whom all of the events of this movie revolve. Eric Bana gets a surprisingly small amount of screen time in this movie, and when he does appear, he is in one of three situations: a) striding through the halls, b) sitting in his room moping and/or seething, and c) eating or attending an event with Anne while moping and/or seething. Simply put, this is not an accurate or a believable Henry VIII, and Bana seems to agree, as he looks bored half of the time. Beyond this, several important players in this story are all-but removed completely. Cardinal Wolsey was Henry’s papal legate. He had as much power as the pope, and helped the King deal with, and ultimately separate from, the Catholic Church…and yet he had all of one line in the movie. Thomas Cromwell was the person responsible for digging up the “witnesses” at Anne’s trial, and is one of history’s greatest real-life villains…yet he doesn’t appear at all. Simply put, why remove characters (or reduce their impact to nothing) when the result makes the story worse?

When All Else Fails Use a Rumor- There are two rumors about Anne Boleyn that run rampant to this day. The first is that she had a sixth finger on her left hand, and the second is that she had sex with her brother. One of these two rumors was included in The Other Boleyn Girl, and surprisingly, it wasn’t the one that would have rendered Natalie Portman physically imperfect! My problem with the incest storyline is not that it was included, since Jane Parker – Anne’s brother’s wife – did in fact testify at Anne’s trial that this occurred. My problem lies in the fact that every piece of evidence points to this being a total fabrication, and yet the movie pretends that it was the truth. Jane Parker admitted after the trial that she never saw the things she claimed, and up until the moment of his execution, Anne’s brother George maintained that incest never occurred. The filmmakers distorted many facts to paint Anne as a crazy whack job (would it shock you to know that she didn’t, in fact, miscarry a baby during the night, and have her sister burn the fetus to hide the evidence?) but by recasting lasting rumors as true, they have distorted Anne’s real story to the point where it might never recover. We actually see Anne attempt to bed her brother (a thought that sends literal chills up my spine), and it all points to a concerted effort to make the film as salacious and scandalous as The Tudors. The Boleyns’ story has plenty of real sex and intrigue to its credit…why bog it down with fake stuff too?

I will always maintain that fiction will never be a match for real life, and the real story of The Tudor family proves this to a tee. The Other Boleyn Girl features gorgeous women in tight bodices doing scandalous things, yet it ends up feeling as false as the story that they end up with. One day, I hope, Hollywood will realize that certain stories are perfect just as they are, and when they do, I will be the first in line. Until then…I’ll still be the first in line, but I’ll be there with poison pen in hand.  You’ve been warned.