‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ Casts An Entertaining Spell That Doesn’t Quite Bewitch

The popular, dense, magical novel by Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, that they said couldn’t be adapted, has been made into a seven-part series that will premiere on BBC America this weekend.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fantasy that suggests a period in history, much like our own, but where magic and the magicians who practiced it had been real but they went underground until people forgot about them and they simply slipped into a land of mythology. And at the time the story is set, some time at the beginning of the 1800s, the populace believes them to be either thieves and liars or simply a group of men getting together to talk about the theory of magic.

But there really is a man, Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan), who can perform practical magic, which he learned from his extensive magical library. He may not look as you’d expect a magician to look, but the frightened little man can certainly make miraculous things happen. And when he shows that to a group of men in Yorkshire, his quiet life of study changes. But when he comes up against his limits, instead of making the right decision, he makes a Faustian pact, something that’s going to have sweeping consequences later on.

Norrell’s life continues to get complicated when he must also deal with a brand new magician named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), who has natural ability and more talent, despite not having the books from which to study. He takes the young upstart under his wing as a way to keep the competition close, and thus begins their rocky relationship.

Series writer Peter Harness (Doctor Who and Wallander) talked to io9 about what to expect from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

“I think that it’s very much what you’d expect from a lavish BBC period drama — that world and that kind of comedy of manners, and those interesting characters — but within it it’s got this sort of ancient, legendary scope weaved in, elements of horror and fantasy. And wonderful special effects! The way I always thought of it was like a Jane Austen book with magicians in it. It starts reasonably slowly, and then gathers speed and gathers momentum as it goes. It’s not a ‘story of the week’ thing, it’s one epic seven-hour story, which we just wanted to build and build and build on. It rewards — and obviously I’m going to say this — but it rewards [by] sticking with it. It surprises you, I think, it goes to places you don’t expect and if you invest in spending some time in that world and with the characters, eventually the story of Susannah Clarke’s book starts to exert some kind of spell on you. It’s something where we don’t explain it all at once for you, so there’s plenty of mystery and things that aren’t laid on the table at the beginning. It’s something that if you stick with it, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy it more and more as it goes. I would say that though, wouldn’t I?”

Harness also talked about how he and the BBC brought Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to life.

“There is a really complete world [Susannah Clarke] builds around [Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell], and I think Susannah’s world-building is the best I’ve ever come across. It’s a completely authentic world, and that was really something that we tried hard to replciate. We wanted it to feel authentic, we didn’t want it to feel detached from the human reality [of the story]. We worked very hard to make it look authentic, to get the dirt under the fingernails, and to show the reality of the situation. Also, much more so than anything else, we worked on making it a real human drama, you know, about what it would actually be like for a human being, with all of their foibles and flaws, to go through the experience Strange and Norrell do.”

The difficulty with all adaptations is that the fans of the book are going to want to watch the series but are going to be hyper-critical of how true it stays to the story they fell in love with in the novel. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is 782 pages long with footnotes aplenty, and even though the series is seven hours long, it is a different medium and therefore requires pacing changes and paring down. As such, a fair amount of the novel’s story doesn’t make it to the screen, which could be disappointing.

But you must put the book aside and look at what Harness has woven together — a dark Gothic world where you might expect Heathcliff and Catherine to wander off the moors and into Hogwarts to have a wand-to-wand duel with Harry Potter.

That’s interesting but, at least in the first episode, the show lacks the dark oppression that pulls the reader into Wuthering Heights, and it’s also short on the wonder inherent in the magical school of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. But even though it doesn’t reach those heights, it does contain enough of both to be a charming magical spell that holds the promise of something even more engaging to come as the series goes on.

Take a peek at the trailer and tune in to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on BBC America on Saturday night.

[Image courtesy BBC via The Doctrine Magazine]

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