Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Director: Toby Haynes
Synopsis: Three hundred years after magic has left England, two magicians appear. At first they are friends, later they are sworn enemies.
Overview: Adapting a novel is a tightrope. What do you keep? What do you discard? Do you consult fans or do you listen to instinct? Do you worry about offending the author? Or do you try to create something uniquely (sort of) your own?An emerging trend has been to take longer source materials and adapt them for TV rather than trying to take an 800 page book or a 60 issue comic books series and cram it into a two hour movie. This trend has given adapters more space to breathe and readers more hope that their favourite literature will get an adaptation worthy of it.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was originally picked up to be a movie. As a big fan of this book, when I heard that news, I despaired. The book itself, 782 pages with extensive footnotes, is a doorstop of a tome. It is heavy both in your hands and in its content. It is rich with period detail and acutely sketched historical research both real and imagined. It is the story of two magicians and a history of magic in England, as well as an excellent satire of Regency novels and an incredibly intelligent piece of historical fiction. It takes place over the course of ten years and has a cast of hundreds. The idea that it would be shaved down to fit into a movie’s length made me feel ill. I hoped that either the movie would languish in development hell or Peter Jackson would pick it up and say, “Let’s make a nine hour trilogy out of this bad boy.” In the end, the BBC came to my rescue and adapted it as an seven part miniseries that is now available on Netflix.
The story itself throughout Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell concerns an England in which magic was once commonplace but has since ceased to be. There are theoretical magicians, that is magicians who like to read about magic in books and can’t actually perform any of it, and street magicians who are con artists and charlatans. The story begins in 1806 when the reclusive Mr. Norrell performs a trick at York Minster and heralds the return of English magic. He travels to London but meets only hostility and mockery for his claims of being a magician, that is until he is tasked with performing an incredible trick which brings him fame and also brings something truly evil into the world. At the same time as all this, another man, Jonathan Strange, buys a pair of spells from a man sleeping in a hedge and discovers a talent for magic he never thought he had. Norrell agrees to mentor Strange but personalities, ideologies, and the Napoleonic war drive a wedge between the two. Also, there is a malevolent fairy with thistledown hair, a nameless slave, a book of magic that also might be a man, a mad king, and a few con men, cads, and lords and ladies in the mix as well.
I absolutely adore this book, and I approached the adaptation with trepidation. Once I had finished the final episode, I was furious with myself for waiting so long. It is a triumph. It manages to capture the tone perfectly by being like the child of Jane Austen and Neil Gaiman. It is a period piece rich in detail and the fantastic. It keeps a lot of the Regency style, though it adds more romance than the book in which things are more implied than shown. Like the book, though, it is rich in Gothic horror elements like Strange raising and interrogating dead enemies in France and the fairy kingdom of Lost-Hope. The art design is flawless with gorgeous costumes and lavish, lived-in sets. Mr. Norrell’s library is an incredible set full of tiny details and seemingly an infinite amount of books, and the King’s Roads and Faerie are chilling and beautiful.
Furthermore, the two magicians are cast perfectly. Eddie Marsan is amazing as the buttoned down Norrell, seeming to be constantly in a state of discomfort and annoyance, with brief flashes of real emotion. Bertie Carvel is a fantastic Strange. Where Norrell is a short, stout fellow with slumped shoulders and a quiet voice, Strange is a lanky scarecrow with wild hair and big, mad eyes. The interactions between the two are great and the two actors have an easy chemistry. Enzo Cilenti and Paul Kaye are also stand outs as Norrell’s servant Childermass (the best character in the book) and vagabond magician, Vinculus. Both characters are not as they seem and the actors embody them fully, Cilenti full of dark Yorkshire-ness and Kaye like a great showman who may be a con man or something much, much more.
If I had one gripe it would be with the ending and even then not with the whole ending. The conclusion of the book left you with a feeling of hope while the TV show makes it more dour. However, the rest of the ending has been changed to become more cinematic and that stuff works wonders. But as worried as I was about watching this show, it exceeded my expectations. It is a rich, delightful version of the book full of wonderful moments and incredible characters. I singled out a few actors above but really everyone does fantastic work here and director Toby Haynes – of Doctor Who and Sherlock fame – and writer Peter Harness – also of Doctor Who and Wallander fame – have crafted a fantastic miniseries in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that leaves me wanting more. Another series, another book, or maybe just magic to come back to the world once and for all.
Featured Image: BBC One