When the decision was made to produce for TV several episodes from her mystery series about Brother Cadfael, that 12th century crusader turned monk turned detective who has been, ever since his creation, one of the most compassionate and unusual sleuths of literary history, novelist Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) was not entirely happy. In fact, as the series' star, Sir Derek Jacobi, explains in the extra footage provided on the now-released DVDs, Ms. Peters had very mixed feelings about giving up her brain child and entrusting it to other people who went about cutting and adjusting everything, from the storylines themselves to the way the protagonists speak and even the Chronicles' sequence, to the necessities and limitations set by the new medium. But she eventually acquiesced and at one point promised that "the next one I write, I'll make sure it's easier for you all to film."
While the thirteen episodes that were eventually produced are, thus, not entirely true to the individual Chronicles they are based on, they are closer than many other movie or TV versions of famous works of literature. Most importantly, they maintain not only the core story lines but also the historical authenticity, atmosphere and spirit set by Ms. Peters's books in a marvelous fashion. And Sir Derek Jacobi brings both the wealth of his experience and skill and all of his own shrewdness, intelligence, sense of humor and empathy to the role of the medieval Benedictine sleuth and thus truly becomes Cadfael -- for the thousands of new fans who are discovering the series through its enactment for TV just as much as for us who loved the books before they were ever transposed to a visual medium. A tremendous cast of supporting actors rounds out an overall excellent production; to mention just a few, Julian Firth as the ambitious and narrow-minded Brother Jerome, Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radolfus and Sean Pertwee (and later Eoin McCarthy) as Under-Sheriff Hugh Beringar, who joins Cadfael in his investigations whenever, as is so often the case, these transcend the world of monastic life and require the administration of secular justice as well as clerical insight. Several episodes also feature noted guest stars.
The episodes are not entirely in the same order as the books; however, as most of the cross-references between the books have been eliminated in the screen versions, this is no great harm (although the lacking cross-references are probably one of the things avid readers of the books will find missing). The DVDs also provide background information on Ellis Peters, Sir Derek Jacobi and a number of the individual episodes' other actors.
Summary of the individual episodes:
"One Corpse Too Many" (second Chronicle): King Stephen lays siege to Shrewsbury Castle and, finally victorious, orders the surviving defenders to be executed. But then there's an extra corpse, who clearly wasn't executed. Whodunnit -- and why?
"Monk's Hood" (third Chronicle): Cadfael's and Shrewsbury Abbey's honor is at stake when a guest is found poisoned by Cadfael's own potions ... and the sheriff's sergeant over-eagerly jumps to the wrong conclusions.
"The Leper of St. Giles" (fifth Chronicle): A leper's grim fate is unexpectedly intertwined with the story of an orphaned heiress, due to be wedded for money's sake to a despicable old baron, and her lover; who is everybody's favorite suspect when the groom turns up dead.
"The Sanctuary Sparrow" (seventh Chronicle): A young singer is accused of robbery and murder and, hunted by a mob, seeks shelter in the Abbey.
"St. Peter's Fair" (fourth Chronicle): While traders arrive from near and far, townsfolk claim a share of the Abbey's dues from the annual fair. Then a merchant is found murdered -- but there's more to this than meets the eye!
"The Virgin in the Ice" (sixth Chronicle): After the sack of Worcester by Empress Maud, a nun, a young nobleman and his sister get lost in the Marshes. Cadfael rushes to the rescue -- and meets a messenger from his own past!
"The Devil's Novice" (eighth Chronicle): The Abbey accepts a novice with a troubling zeal for monastic life (but not its virtues), who may or may not be connected to the death of a cleric traveling through his home village.
"A Morbid Taste for Bones" (first Chronicle): The monks mount an expedition to Wales to retrieve the bones of a local saint after a young monk claims to have seen the saint in a vision in which she asked that her bones be brought to Shrewsbury. The mission runs into serious trouble when the local lord, who has opposed it, is found murdered.
"The Raven in the Foregate" (twelfth Chronicle): Cadfael must solve the mystery behind two deaths; one of a young woman who (unsuccessfully) sought his spiritual advice, the other of the priest to whom Cadfael sent her: the new priest in Shrewsbury's foregate, an ambitious, power-hungry cleric in direct allegiance with King Stephen.
"The Rose Rent" (thirteenth Chronicle): A grieving young widow, beset by suitors, gives her house to the abbey for a single rose's annual rent. But her gift of beauty turns bloody when the emissary delivering the rose, a young monk, is found murdered.
"The Pilgrim of Hate" (tenth Chronicle): A cripple, his sister and two brothers on a painful pilgrimage meet at the Abbey during the annual feast of St. Winifred. Soon, the question arises whether religion is primarily penance or faith in God's love of mankind.
"The Potter's Field" (seventeenth Chronicle): The discovery of the bones of a woman in a field once belonging to a potter turned monk leads Cadfael to unveil a harrowing tale of love, loss and a deadly wager.
"The Holy Thief" (nineteenth Chronicle): Competitors for the possession of St. Winifred's relics show up in Shrewsbury! Then the holy bones disappear, a monk is found murdered -- and a tonsured troubadour finds his lady love.