With his 2004 history Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, John Guy sought to reclaim the legacy of one of history’s most fascinating figures. If Mary’s rise to power as a woman leader was remarkable, her story is doubly fascinating in that it ran parallel to—and was often in conflict with—the other great female monarch of the time, Queen Elizabeth I. Using Guy’s book as a factual roadmap, screenwriter Beau Willimon creates for Mary Queen of Scots a moving story of two great women constrained by their fates from forming the friendship they so fervently desired. “There was a lot of drama to be had,” notes producer Tim Bevan about the story's history, but also the chance to present “strong women wrestling with power, with politics, with love, all the things we still wrestle with today.”
With Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots opening in select theaters on December 7, we invite you to open up Guy's page-turning history, then see the movie, and tell us what you’ve discovered on social with #FocusBookClub.
A young, beautiful and intelligent queen had returned to take up her throne, and within months was well on the road to success. The questions were: Would her charisma be enough, given the inequality between Scotland and England?
As a teenager, John Guy was fascinated with history. By the time he entered Cambridge University, his fascination turned into a passion for the Tudor period, whose iconic figures—from Queen Elizabeth to Cardinal Wolsey to Mary Queen of Scots—he explored in a number of award-winning books. With Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, as with his other work, Guy uses his meticulous research to upend conventional theories to find the hidden historical truth. “Reassessing reputations and retelling seemingly familiar stories from a new standpoint is a truly invigorating experience,” explains Guy. For centuries, Mary Queen of Scots had been portrayed as a tragic victim of fate, a description that Guy found to be not only woefully misleading, but manufactured by the men of Mary's time. “Mary had been subjected to a systematic campaign to discredit her by the English, masterminded by [Queen Elizabeth's chief minister] William Cecil,” explains Guy. Guy’s 2004 history—which The New York Times describes as “enthralling as a detective story”—reclaims Mary as a fiercely independent and politically savvy leader. Guy’s book won the Whitbread Biography Award and the Marsh Biography Award before being picked up to be adapted into a narrative film.
To transform Guy’s detailed history into a compelling drama, the filmmakers turned to Beau Willimon, whose widely successful Netflix series House of Cards, “felt like a kind of Renaissance drama,” explains Rourke. Not only does Willimon write “women brilliantly and with great psychological complexity,” adds Rourke, but “he understands the cost of power, which is the theme at the heart of this film.” For the two Queens who anchor the film, Rourke cast Saoirse Ronan—who’d wanted to play the role for nearly six years—as Mary and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. With a remarkable cast, which includes Guy Pearce, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, and David Tennant, Mary Queen of Scots whisks the viewer back to an epic moment in history, a world of court intrigue, political pageantry, and heroic battles set among the natural beauty of Scotland. At the same time, this historic drama resonates with contemporary issues. As The Hollywood Reporter exclaims, “Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie shine in this exceedingly of-the-political-moment telling of a compelling story.”
In his book, Guy revises previous histories of Mary and Elizabeth to recognize them as smart, complicated world leaders. In the film, Ronan and Robbie were tasked with bringing that vitality and intelligence to life. While these two queens have been played by such greats as Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Bette Davis , and Cate Blanchett, Ronan and Robbie brought their own stamp to these figures. “What I got from Mary is the fact she took that responsibility on her shoulders and really found her own way,” explains Ronan. Robbie found her Elizabeth by finding the person beneath the throne. “Once I stopped thinking of her as the Queen and thought of her as a woman, I was able to relate and understand her,” explains Robbie. For critics, the two have more than risen to the regal challenge of their roles. “Bow down to Ronan and Robbie for taking two legendarily complex characters, who have been reborn countless times in film and television, and completely owning both roles,” writes The Wrap.
History Vs. Fiction
To uncover the truth about Mary, Guy sifted through reams of original letters, official documents, and historical artifacts. To bring that story to the screen, the filmmakers had to transform that historical truth into a compelling drama. To do this, the screenwriter worked closely with Guy, who proved "invaluable in giving us the guidance to make certain choices that took us away from exact detail but captured an emotional truth and atmosphere that goes to the core of these two women’s story,” remembers Willimon. To make the drama work, decades had to be condensed, actual events altered slightly, and even some episodes, like the two queens meeting, reimagined. In the end, according to Awards Watch, “Rourke strikes a smart balance between the history we know and the representation we want or even what could have been. It’s sometimes only through taking liberties that we can see another truth.”