Disney Adapting The Best Mystery Novels Into A Series

CJ Sansom's Shardlake series has been picked up by Disney to be adapted into an original streaming series.

By Jonathan Klotz | Published

Mysteries are going through a renaissance now, with Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile) and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out franchise, both achieving success. A new report from Deadline details how Disney doesn’t want to be left out, and instead of bringing back the Great Mouse Detective, the media giant has acquired the rights to bring CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series to Disney+. The award-winning book series is not only a series of successful mystery novels, but it also doubles as historical fiction, checking off two genre boxes at the same time.

Flippant reasoning for Disney being interested aside, the seven book Shardlake series (with an eight arriving later this year) is actually quite good and worth reading. Following the adventures of Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer during the reign of King Henry VIII, the hunchback is first hired by Thomas Cromwell to solve a murder, setting off a long career in employ to the Royal Family. As the series progresses, the patrons hiring the lawyer increase in importance, eventually reaching Queen Catherine Parr and than Princess Elizabeth.

CJ Sansom has promised that the series, which is originally set in 1537 and has gone up to 1552, will continue into the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Tombland, the seventh and latest book, included Shardlake dealing with the events of Kett’s Rebellion, continuing the trend of the poor lawyer just happening to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Tombland was on the shortlist for the British Book Awards 2019 Fiction Book of the Year, following a series of Crime Writer Association nominations for earlier books in the series.

The Shardlake novels have not been adapted to the screen, either for television or film, despite a previous attempt 15 years ago. A BBC series was commissioned in 2007, adapting Dissolution, the first novel in the series. Kenneth Branagh was asked to star as Matthew Shardlake, but the actor/director turned down the role, instead starring in the BBC series Wallander. After the first failure to adapt the books into a television series, the BBC pivoted to radio, which is not only a sentence that is unlikely to be typed out ever again, but also a success.

becoming elizabeth
Becoming Elizabeth directed by Justin Chadwick

Justin Watkins (The Crown) voiced Matthew Shardlake in the 10-part radio play of Dissolution, while Justin Salinger (Hanna) took over the role for the following books. The series has not adapted the latest novel yet, ending in 2021 with Lamentation. With Disney acquiring rights to the books, the BBC Radio dramas may becoming to an end with one book (soo to be two), left to go.

Disney has already hired Justin Chadwick to direct the Shardlake series, with the director particularly adept at Tudor England historical dramas. Chadwick directed Becoming Elizabeth, and also The Other Boleyn Girl, starring Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson, and Natalie Portman. Nothing else has been announced about the series, but given the high profile of the source material, except a major announcement about the lead actor to be made as Disney wants to increase their slate of British programs.