Shardlake Writer Explains Major Character Change from the Book

Jack Barak isn’t in the first Shardlake novel - here’s why he was drafted in.

Anthony Boyle as Jack Barak in Disney+/Hulu series Shardlake
Photo: Disney+

New four-part historical murder-mystery Shardlake is adapted from Dissolution, the first novel in CJ Sansom’s seven-book crime series about 16th century lawyer/investigator Matthew Shardlake. Dissolution sees Shardlake sent by religious reformer Thomas Cromwell to investigate a killing at an English monastery.

In the novel, Shardlake is accompanied to the monastery by his young assistant Mark Poer, the son of his father’s farm steward. As a teenager, Mark came to live with Shardlake, who secured him junior legal clerk positions in the London courts.

In the TV adaptation, written by The Last Kingdom and Baghdad Central’s Stephen Butchard, there is no Mark Poer. His character has been cut entirely and replaced by that of Jack Barak, played by Masters of the Air and Ordeal by Innocence’s Anthony Boyle. Jack, a henchman of Thomas Cromwell’s with an eye for the ladies, is a returning character first introduced in book two of the Shardlake series, Dark Fire.

Speaking exclusively to Den of Geek, Butchard explains the swap:

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“Mark Poer wasn’t a challenge for Shardlake. He effectively worked for him. He’d come to him as a boy and he’d helped him out and was kind of a servant, so besides telling him off, there was nothing for Shardlake to do with him. If you’re looking for drama, Mark wasn’t the place to go. He serves a purpose in the book because there are a lot more internal things you can do in a book, but when you want something on screen, you very much need two people to butt up against each other. It felt the correct thing to do from a dramatic point of view.”

Not only was Mark too submissive to Shardlake, but their views were also too similar, Butchard continues:

“Shardlake is very much a reformer, but he wants to reform in the proper way. He’s a very honest man and doesn’t like corruption. Mark was kind of against the augmentations [reallocation of land and wealth confiscated from religious houses dissolved in Henry VIII’s reformation] and there were elements of Mark that didn’t like the corruption, so that stole from Shardlake’s character.

“Bringing Jack Barak in sooner allowed a bit of antagonism between the two, they made more of a couple, more of a duo really, there was friction between them but there was a direction and a friendship there to grow.”

Far from going against the wishes of Shardlake novelist CJ Sansom, who sadly died this week following a long illness, Sansom would likely have welcomed the change. Speaking to The Guardian in 2010, he explained that he “soon realised Mark wasn’t going to be a successful character.”

“He was a bit wet, really; I had to get rid of him. And I enjoyed creating Barak, whom I like enormously. He stands up to Shardlake; they’re very different but they get on despite their quarrels.”

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The differences between Barak and Shardlake are a key driver in the TV series, says Butchard. “From a dramatic point of view, it was better for Shardlake as a character to have someone to butt up against and also someone who was different to him, with Jack Barak being confident and attractive. He’s got the thing with the codpiece and all that. It was almost as though they’re entirely different men but at the same time they could admire what the other person had.”

The Matthew/Jack pairing reminds Butchard of a key duo in his previous historical TV adaptation.

“Like The Last Kingdom, I was looking at the pairing of [King] Alfred and Uhtred, and for me that’s what that was all about. It’s similar here when I’m describing Barak and Shardlake. They’re different people like Alfred and Uhtred are different people, but they each admired what they lacked in the other person. If we go forward and we’re lucky enough to get a series two, I’d love to grow that relationship.”

Shardlake is streaming now exclusively on Disney+ in the UK, and on Hulu in the US.