Fall 2011 surprise success on Canal Plus, the series Borgia, co-produced by the French channel and created by Tom Fontana, faces competition fromThe Borgias by Neil Jordan and produced by the American Showtime. Let’s compare the two series, their way of telling this fascinating period at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and especially their approach to this mythical family that has become the Borgias. Intrigue, respect for the great History, differences between the characters,… Verdict?
Intrigue and great history among the Borgias
In Borgia, the action begins a little before the death of Pope Innocent VIII, that is to say in the middle of the year 1492. It is the same with The Borgias, but the big difference is that the election to the papal throne is dispatched very quickly, unlike the series by Tom Fontana. In the latter, the election is treated with a very clever suspense, showing all the intrigues and manipulations of Rodrigo Borgia to achieve his ends. On the other hand, at Showtime, the character played by Jeremy Irons succeeds in the first episode, and the shenanigans are quickly dispatched ... We prefer to insist on the reaction of the cardinals, and in particular on the attempt to poison Borgia by Orsini; the hired assassin is finally tracked down by Cesare Borgia, who orders him to kill his master. Surprisingly though, to get rid of someone as important as Orsini so quickly, especially having him play by Derek Jacobi. The big differences between the two shows therefore appear very quickly, and the choice of The Borgias to detach yourself from historical facts as well ... And that's just the beginning.
While Borgia develops a whole bunch of parallel plots - admittedly not always exciting or believable - thanks to a lot of fairly solid secondary characters, The Borgias focuses on the family, with a few exceptions. We follow, for example, the peregrinations of the assassin hired by Cesare to, pell-mell, silence a witness embarrassing for the Pope (she saw him join Julia Farnese in her apartments), or outright attempt to assassinate Della Rovere in Naples. The problem is that this assassin finally quite charismatic disappears almost from the fourth episode! The rest of the season, outside the family (we will come back to this when discussing the characters), is in fact focused only on the French danger, with the exception of the Djem episode (which we will also come back to, it's worth it) . This leads to a plot that often turns in circles, with a lot of repetitions on the troubled context, rather crude history lessons (a trap in which also partly falls Borgia), and finally a sluggish French arrival (even if spectacular at times), for an expedited end and in many aspects quite grotesque ...
Others Borgia, those of Fontana, benefit from a more structured plot, although it does not avoid episodes bordering on the ridiculous, especially with regard to Cesare and Lucrecia. But the historical context, whether in the entourage of the Pope, in Rome, or at the geopolitical level, is much better captured (despite a few confused passages), and the somewhat empty episodes less frequent.
The main difference in the scenario is the choice of the ending. In The Borgias, the season ends when Charles VIII has moved to Rome, and when he arrives in Naples he discovers that the plague has preceded him. Meanwhile, the entire Borgia family (including Vanozza and Julia!) Gather around… Lucrecia's baby! At Fontana, it is with the assassination of Juan and the negative consequences for Rodrigo's mental health that the season ends.
Let us now turn to the great history. Let's start again with The Borgias, which is quite easy given that historical facts are apparently the least of the writers' worries! Apart from a few attempts at lectures (including one given by Della Rovere to Charles VIII which could almost pass for a skit), history is generally trampled on. We have no idea of the dates, the chronology, and most of the geopolitical and historical issues, nor even of the forces involved (Spain is barely mentioned). The enormities are at different levels, and too numerous to list them all. A spectacular example: Machiavelli, the good quarantine, is presented as ambassador of Florence of the Medici! All the same, the authors did not dare to embed Leonardo de Vinci, but in our opinion they did think about it ... We can evoke other crisp details, like the canons of Charles VIII (some of which seem straight out of Austerlitz), or very 17th century decorations ...
The Canal Plus series is more faithful to historical facts, despite a number of shortcuts and approximations. There are no things as shocking as Machiavelli. The main issues are in the timeline and the fact that it doesn't feel like the series is going to be five years, not five months. We must nevertheless salute Fontana's attempts to show the context of the beginnings of the Renaissance, with the discoveries of the Laocoon and the Domus Aurea, or even the works of Alexander VI. The American series totally passes over it.
The historical atmosphere of the two series is precisely very different. While Borgia is often in the midst of a dirty and debauched people, in the narrow streets and brothels of Rome, in a sober Vatican still in reconstruction, The Borgias takes place in a small and almost empty Rome, the people absent or far away (a few scenes excepted), while the decorations which surround the Pope, from his room to the Sistine Chapel via his apartments, are all sumptuous, and for the mostly anachronistic.
But, and this concerns both shows, the story is overall even more abused through the characters. Characters who, in either series, can be totally different, even opposites!
The Borgia family
We can speak of shock when we compare the two Rodrigo / Alexandre VI! That of Borgia (played by John Doman) is solid, charismatic, manipulative, intelligent, but also loving and overall cohesive, except maybe at the end, where his “rocking” is perhaps a little too brutal. That of The Borgias, yet played by the great Jeremy Irons, is cheeky, indecisive, quite weak with women, refuses violence one episode, orders a murder the next, is sometimes bigot, sometimes less, ... It is in fact very difficult to understand how it works, its motivations, its moods, the why of its decisions. The character does not seem to have been constructed, not completed, and above all very far from what we know as much as what we imagine of Alexander VI Borgia. Let's be frank: this character is totally missed in The Borgias. But is he the main character of the series?
In fact, no, it would be more of Cesare. In The Borgias, played speaks the Canadian François Arnaud, he is… the eldest son! Why ? Certainly, Cesare and Juan were only a year apart, but why this choice to reverse their age? It’s also totally inconsistent with the way their father treated them! Cesare is therefore the eldest, and we have the impression of seeing the "finished" Cesare who inspired Machiavelli (they meet in Florence, moreover, almost ten years before they actually met ...): he generally knows where he is. goes, he protects his father, who thus seems dependent on him, which is far from being the case in Borgia. His love affair with Ursula, a wife of a nobleman whom he kills for insulting her mother, is of little use, and the young woman quickly ends up in the convent. Calm and composed, he is the reverse of Borgia's Cesare (played by Mark Ryder). The latter is young (even if two years older than in reality), elated, even hysterical and often unbearable. He doesn't know what he wants, manages to have a child, which he eventually abandons, and is raped by Orsini. His father does what he wants with them, even if he makes him more and more jealous of his brother Juan. Such a cowardly and pathetic Juan in both series, but perhaps a little more constructed and tragic in Borgia (Weber's son Stanley got the part and is doing quite well). In the American series (it's David Oakes who plays him), on the other hand, apart from sleeping with Sancha from Naples (sublime Emmanuelle Chriqui), he doesn't do much. The rivalry between the two brothers is much more built in the series of Fontana, which makes it a central plot, while Jordan is probably reserving it for the second season.
Lucrecia are also very different. That of Borgia (Isolda Dychauk) is a real turkey for a good part of the season, and one wonders what she is for. But, ultimately, the results are not so negative because the psychological progression of his character (influenced by Julia Farnese) turns out to be quite interesting, despite a slightly exaggerated acceleration at the end (attempt at poisoning, temptation with Cesare, …). Historically, it seems more faithful in any case to the real Lucrecia than that of The Borgias. The performer, Holliday Grainger, is not in question, but his Lucrecia is too quickly mature and manipulative; the fact that she was raped by her first husband, a Sforza, arguably explains a lot. There, we are very far from History, especially in his relationship with his father (much more complex in Borgia). His attraction to Djem is laughable and not believable, and his history with the groom seems straight out of the Arlequin collection. And when she manages to bamboozle Charles VIII, you don't believe it at all.
The entourage of the Borgias
Without detailing all the secondary characters, we must come back to the most important. First Julia Farnese, known as the "Bella", considered the most beautiful woman in Italy at the time. The choice of the two actresses (Marta Gastini at Fontana, Lotte Verbeek at Jordan) is very good, with a small preference for that of Borgia. It also goes with his character, much more developed by Tom Fontana. His Julia is more charismatic, has a more marked character and is above all much more active (a bit too much) in various intrigues, sentimental as well as political. The character is so important that she stays in the Pope's entourage long after what actually happened (in fact, Julia was sent back before Charles VIII arrived in Rome). That of The Borgias is too little exploited, but we can predict that it will be more important in season two.
Rodrigo's wife, Vanozza, is a little more present in Fontana (played by Assumpta Serna), but her character seems close to that of The Borgias (Joanne Whalley). We just do not understand why the latter brings to Rome her second husband (who is beaten by Juan) ... The vile Cardinal Della Rovere (future Julius II anyway) is a little more interesting and present in The Borgias, where he is played by Colm Feore (and by Dejan Cukic in Borgia). In Fontana's series, the Borgias are surrounded by many characters, such as Cesare's cardinal friends (including Julia's brother, or the young Giovanni Medicis, future Leo X), while in The Borgias, there is hardly anybody; even the famous assassin, a character with potential, is ultimately not exploited.
Finally, let's focus on two historical figures: Djem and Charles VIII. The first, the fleeing brother of the Ottoman Sultan, is hardly present in Borgia. Played by Nicolas Belmonte, his appearance bewildered (he is bald), then little seen until he leaves with Cesare and the French troops for Naples, generously offered to the King of France. His death from illness in the camp seems fairly close to historical facts. It is quite different with the Djem of The Borgias (Elyes Gabel): We see him hanging out with the family a lot, and Lucrecia even seems to have a soft spot for him. And then the Pope decides to have him killed because his death will bring more! Because Cesare refuses to lend his killer, Juan (who seemed to be having a lot of fun with the Turk) hires an unskilled poisoner. The work is sloppy, Djem suffers martyrdom, and Juan has to finish it himself! History is far away ...
As for poor Charles VIII… For Fontana, the King of France was a young impetuous a bit effeminate and especially Parkinsonian (played by ??? - impossible to find his name, even on imdb), easily manipulated, and fearing his wife. For Neil Jordan, Charles VIII had the features of Michel Muller (Should not invite him!), so nearly forty-five (the king died at twenty-seven ...), and he was very ugly (we insist a lot on that, the king included), vulgar and rude, rather liking war, even if he had a lucid and cold (even cynical) vision of it. On the other hand, it seems a little less manipulable than that of Borgia. It's already that.
The opinion ofHistory for all sure Borgia and The Borgias
What is the outcome of the confrontation between these two series devoted to the same subject? The Borgias She has the budget for her, it is obvious: the image and the settings are sumptuous, and some scenes benefit from a staging to the height, especially in the first episodes. But it ultimately lacks breath, except for the big ceremonies (and more). Even the few battles are soft, despite some welcome gore effects. The sex is not too present, with the exception of episodes six and seven, where the scenes follow one another without any interest, for two almost useless episodes ... The big disappointment of The Borgias, they are the characters (even if for the most part they are rather well interpreted): they seem sloppy and incoherent, beyond even the disrespect of the historical characters. History is more than incidental anyway, just like history is elsewhere. Because the main failure of the show created by Neil Jordan is without hesitation the plot: poorly built, without tail or head, going around in circles, with big drops in rhythm, it most often causes boredom ...
Fontana’s series is much better structured, as are the characters, although everything is far from perfect. Special mention all the same to Rodrigo Borgia and Julia Farnese (and their interpreters). Cesare is much less convincing… The realization on the other hand, without being mediocre, is a little cheap compared to that of The Borgias, and not just because sobriety is more respected than in the Showtime series. Only the last two episodes are more polished, trying to do a little Godfather… Violence and sex are much more raw than in The Borgias (with the exception at Jordan for damage caused by French guns, guts in the air). As for respect for history, the record is passable, well above Jordan's show at least.
The balance sheet is therefore in favor of the series Borgia, by Tom Fontana. Without being exceptional (we are very far from Rome for example), it is on most points greater than The Borgias, which most often resembles the bad episodes of You sleep…
- Borgia, series created by Tom Fontana. Available on Canal + Séries and on DVD and Blu-Ray.
- The Borgias, series created by Neil Jordan. Available on Canal + Séries and on DVD.