Upcoming this summer, BBC America is going to present a mini-series called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. (Promos for it finally began running last week.) I read the novel it’s based on a couple years ago, and though I didn’t looove the book, I enjoyed it a lot – but, man, it’s going to be a hard book to adapt. It’s basically England in the 18th century, when "practical magic" is real but just has been lost over time, however two men bring it back, sort of as partner collaborators, sort of rivals. It starts small, and is attention getting, but soon their fame grows and so do their efforts. At one point, for instance, they help the British military in its war against Napoleon and…well, let’s say I hope the film company has a great special effects team. Because it grows from there. Ultimately, as practical magic reawakens the story becomes a battle between the earthly and spirit worlds.
What I liked about the book by Susanna Clarke is another reason it's difficult to adapt. The book is very literary – it’s written as if the story is real and its world true, almost like a history book in some ways, and the novel is therefore filled with footnotes referencing earlier books on magic and history (none of which are real). The footnotes are rich and fascinating, which fill out the universe of the story, making it believable. (There’s no way you can have that in the TV version.) So, even if the mini-series is done impeccably, it will still miss having those wonderful layers that are not only so entertaining, but keep the flamboyant story grounded. That isn't to say that the core story isn't fun -- it is (much fun) -- just that what I most-enjoyed is material that really can't make it on screen. But make no mistake, there's plenty else going on.
In fairness, I think the one thing that held me back from being overly enthusiastic when reading it is expectations – when I got the book, it was described as being in the style of Dickens (who work I love), and it’s not at all, only that it takes place in that period, though actually a bit before. So, I was expecting something that it’s not, nor even that the author necessarily intended. Just how it was promoted. If I’d gone in thinking more closely that it was largely a fantasy, I wouldn’t have had that hurdle to overcome, as I was reading it and scratching my head. Ultimately, it has much more “Harry Potter” to it.
But it’s a thoughtful, interesting, enjoyable story, and I’m intrigued by the TV version. The novel dances a fine line over not going overboard to ludicrous, and does that dance extremely well and successfully. But it’s a fine line. So, I can see the TV production being done quite wonderfully – or really stupid.
Here's the trailer. It looks like they've done a good job -- and indeed very good effects -- but the book was 800 pages, and the mini-series seven hours, a wee bit longer than this one minute. So...we'll see. And hope.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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