Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)

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Contains spoilers for the TV show and for the novel

This is not a repeat! I say again, this is not a repeat.

200px-Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverYou may recall that a couple of months ago I handed out my somewhat less than enamoured views on the first two episodes of BBC One’s big new Sunday night drama adaptation Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and confessed that it simply hadn’t really been to my liking. The period tale of magical fantasy had been just a little too way out and weird not to mention somewhat over the top and florid for my liking, and my views didn’t really change over the course of the remainder of the seven-part series – although at least on the upside I did just about stick with it to the end. The final episode was the most difficult when everything was turned up to eleventy-stupid as far as I was concerned, but at the same time it also contained the single best scene of the entire series in the form of a quiet moment of simple honesty and reconciliation between the two titular characters just before everything went to Hell or thereabouts.

I admitted at the time of my original review that I hadn’t read the original novel by Susannah Clarke from which the television serial was adapted, and moreover added that I had no real desire to. That comment was picked up by a couple of friends of mine, who both insisted that I absolutely must do so. I was very resistant to the idea – why read a book when the TV version had not been to my taste in the first place? Plus I rarely read a book after having seen the film or TV version since I find that re-covering such recently trodden familiar ground is so tedious that I invariably lose interest and stop reading part-way through. However the friends in question are smart and frighteningly well-informed, and when I also found that the eBook was on special offer to coincide with the TV broadcast I realised I didn’t even have a financial leg to stand on to help me put it off. As a result I duly did as I was told and bought the book and gave it a go, wondering just how many chapters I had to plough through before I could in all honesty stop and say in good faith that I’d given it the good old college try and that my initial prejudices had been confirmed and that enough was enough and could I read something else now?

Of course, the really annoying thing about having intelligent friends with good taste is that they are invariably right about the things they are passionate about. I realised very quickly – just a couple of chapters in if truth be told – that I was actually really enjoying it. By the time I finished, I have to say that I flat-out loved it. It’s completely different from the television version; and yet at the same time – and I know this sounds somewhat paradoxical if not downright schizophrenic – it’s also one of the most faithful, respectful and loving adaptations I think I’ve ever seen of a book to the screen.

How to square this apparent contradiction? Well, the devil as is so often the case is firmly in the details on this occasion, specifically in subtle changes of emphasis on the part of the adaptor and in even larger part down to inherent differences of medium which influence what can easily be included in one that what must necessarily be left out of the other – for example, key bits of explanatory exposition – the absence of which triggers unforeseen consequences, and moreover how the things that remain often come over very differently when presented in words compared with moving pictures.

A prime example of the latter comes with the character of The Gentleman, the primary antagonist of the story. In the book he is an elusive, ethereal presence: there’s a description of him early on but thereafter he is chiefly referred to merely by his “thistle-down hair”, a cleverly chosen ambiguous phrase that allows each reader to interpret and picture differently in their own minds. His words are equally elliptical and hard to pin down, and his mood moves from playful to menacing to mischievous and conniving, from anger and ecstasy, hubris and servility, and from anger to joy almost in an instant as befits the traditional view of the light and ephemeral nature of a faerie. As a result we’re able to paint in our minds our own personal image of what such a creature would be like to meet in person.

However the nature of film and television means that everything must be definitively represented and portrayed: instead of our own picture of the Gentleman, we inevitably and unavoidably get the production team’s version whether we like it or not. And to be quite honest, quite how the producers came to translate the version on paper to the overstylised screen representation of the same character I really don’t know. Rather than light and fleeting, Marc Warren’s interpretation of the character is so overbearingly one-note intense and malevolent that it proves literally show-shopping. Director Toby Haynes even adds a creaking, groaning ambience to these manifestations to make it feel as though the very frame of the film is struggling to support the weight of the Gentleman’s presence and that at any point the screen and indeed the whole of reality will be unequal to the burden and will simply collapse around us.

They’re very striking scenes and much-used in promoting the series, but they are also very much Marmite moments. Lovers of the book will be disquieted how far from the source novel this has gone, while others like myself will just be put off by how disagreeably odd the whole thing is, especially with the Gentleman’s trademark coiffure reimagined from the nebulous “thistle-down hair” of the page to a bizarre backcombed creation and matching eyebrows reminiscent of those given to the Harkonnens in David Lynch’s 1984 screen version of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune, itself massively over the top even for its time. I’ve certainly known viewers who have given up on the TV version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell based purely because of this one character’s portrayal and I can understand why, as much of a fan of Warren’s work as I tend to be.

The Gentleman’s appearances are relatively few, however, and the scenes in which he appears are otherwise still remarkably faithful to the book. Indeed everything in the script is faithful to the book, except the omission of those anecdotal diversions presented as footnotes in the novel which convey some tangential magical folk tale or other from England’s dark and medieval ages. In truth I don’t see any way that Peter Harness could have found to include these in the broadcast version: even with an extra episode and more money they simply don’t fit into any workable dramatic structure. Since they’re completely divorced from the main story of Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell (it’s why they’re in footnotes and appendices in the book to start with, after all) they’re low-hanging fruit when it comes to the unfortunate, messy but nonetheless unavoidable process of pruning back the story in readiness for the screen.

Unfortunately this is one of these little changes with big consequences, a ‘butterfly effect’ of literature if you will. Without this slow accretion of background detail from the relating of authentic-sounding traditional English faerie stories, suddenly all the burden of making the magical fantasy seem credible and acceptable falls squarely on the main narrative set in the early 19th century. The lack of the footnote diversions means there’s no basis of believability or provision of suspension of disbelief to support the magic that follows, which instead all starts to appear formless, ill-conceived and plucked out of thin air with no ground rules to follow. The lack of apparent internal logic to the fantasy that we consequently see means the whole thing just comes across as rather silly, frankly – which is indeed where I truly started to struggle with the TV adaptation.

The book turns that on its head. It’s full of anecdotal faux-detail of the past glories of magic, the role played by faeries and the dangers of trusting such creatures, and also details the legend of the Raven King – the King of the North, or John Uskglass. This invented pseudo-history is painstakingly built up by Clarke over the course of the novel and helps conversely illuminate the events of the main contemporary narrative in a way that gives coherence and credibility to both. And it’s what is almost entirely lacking in the TV version, which uses a dash of the old stories and the character of the Raven King for colour but without the ability to make it more than an extra accent of even further weirdness and surreality on top of the whole existing panoply. Far from helping, it just makes things more outlandish and difficult to swallow for the casual viewer.

strange-norrellFurthermore, in the book almost all of the instances of actual magic being done are rather downplayed, sidelined and to a certain extent irrelevant to the greater picture. They occur, certainly. but only to further the plot or as an illustration for something else going on in the story of an even bigger import. But when you transfer that to a visual medium – and moreover have to spend a goodly sum of time and money creating the visual FX to put it off – then these sequences inevitably become the tentpole spectacular moments that sell the show to a mainstream audience. They overwhelm everything else around them, and the viewers are so wowed by these impressively well done moments that the TV episodes start to become a matter of waiting for the next big bit of CGI to come along; the narrative bits in between pale by comparison and start to drag. In many ways the television version embodies the exasperation that Strange and Norrell feel in the book when everyone just wants to see the next party trick and isn’t interested in the serious discourse and philosophy behind it all.

There’s also a problem with the way that the television treatment tries to add depth and detail to the large supporting cast of characters. What’s surprising about the book is how few of these roles are actually anything more than quite basic archetypes drawn from English literary classics of the 1800s written by the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Really there are only two characters in the book that rise to fully-formed status: apprentice magician Jonathan Strange, and butler Stephen Black. Gilbert Norrell would be in there too, except that he’s such a convincingly insular and emotionally frozen person until near the very end that there is very little that he is able to contribute. Meanwhile everyone else – Sir Walter, Segundus, Lascelles, Vinculus, the Greysteels, even the aforementioned Gentleman – is there to provide period colour or else to serve a particular plot function, but in truth they are little more than caricatures and cameos. They are not the heart and focus of the story: it’s Jonathan Strange and the invented history of English magic that are.

By contrast the TV version recruits an impressive star cast and Harness accordingly does his commendable best to expand the text to give them richer and more fulfilling parts. He does this triumphantly in many cases – the obsequious Drawlight for example is barely worth mentioning in the book, but in the hands of Vincent Franklin (The Thick of It, Cucumber, Twenty Twelve) he becomes a genius comedy grotesque. His affected mispronunciation of ‘Norrell’ is frankly one of the best things in the entire show. Harness also manages to pad out the parts of Arabella (Charlotte Riley) and Lady Pole (Alice Englert) into something approaching fully-rounded status compared with the book where they are little more than passing ciphers, but here with markedly less success. The TV version ends up introducing interminable scenes featuring the pair set in the Gentleman’s faerie residence, and there are few such corresponding scenes in the book until they’re needed at climactic moments.

Unfortunately Harness’ significant upgrades to the characters are also achieved at the cost of the adaptation as a whole. Even when developed into proper personalities the underlying story still leaves them with little more to do than their originally designated plot function. We get invested in compelling enigmatic characters such as Enzo Cilenti’s scene-stealing turn as Childermass only to find they don’t really go anywhere in the larger dramatic sense. In the meantime the extra time given over to creating this rich Dickensian array of supporting characters takes the focus away from the arguments over the philosophy and history of between Strange and Norrell that is the core of the novel, reducing it in the TV version to just one of several storylines competing for attention rather than the very spine and purpose of the tale.

Overall therefore it seems to me that television series has done a commendable job of accurately essaying the precise intricate details of the book while at the same time largely missing not only the point but the spirit of the novel. For me it was a surprise to open the first page of the book and find that Clarke is having so much fun with her prose: moments of deliciously arch satire sparkle amidst a light-hearted pastiche of the tales of comedy of manners and societal etiquette written by Austen and the Brontës, and latterly falls into some post-modern epistolary storytelling all of which shows firmly that none of it is to be taken too seriously. It feels like a delightful dance full of smiles and cheerful artifice where everyone is in on the fun and the secret that this is all a lovely deceit, and that they are enjoying themselves tremendously all the more for it.

The television version by contrast is too determined to make this a serious high drama full of high-stakes action and danger. Although it has some individual great comedy moments such as Drawlight, it repeatedly takes itself too seriously for its own good and strives for anguish, depth and profundity where none was originally intended. It makes viewing much harder work and much less fun than it should be, whereas reading the book is oddly effortless and a genuine pleasure.

An example to illustrate what I’m saying here comes with Arabella’s death. In the book, Strange is naturally crushed by the death of his wife but after a respectable period of mourning moves on albeit changed and made darker from the loss like any number of Victorian-era romantic heroes, as he throws himself into his life’s work studying magic. He even seems on the cusp of beginning a new life with a fresh relationship in Venice. But this is not enough for the TV series, which needs Strange to be progressively unhinged by his grief, labouring for weeks to find magic to revive his wife’s corpse. Even when she is buried, his bereavement drives Strange in his obsessive pursuit of the help of a faerie to bring her back to him. You can see why this approach makes sense as it gives a tighter and more driven construction to the latter part of the series, a reason for Strange to end up seeking out the distillation of madness rather than pure academic interest. It heightens his sense of loss and makes Arabella’s part in the narrative much more important, but it also forces the story into becoming a full-blown tragedy too early and is just one more thing that takes attention and significance away from Strange’s feud with Norrell.

I’m being harsh on the television series, I know, and I refer you back to my original review of BBC adaptation for a better look at the show’s undoubted strengths in terms of direction, production and performance – and also the writing since in all fairness Peter Harness really has done impressively well to achieve all that he has done here. In comparing with the source novel I obviously end up picking at the bits that don’t work and wish had been different, but one shouldn’t ignore just how much the TV show gets right as well.

However at the end of the day, the bottom line is this: I found the television serial hard work and not to my taste. If I had ended up rewriting it as a book to my own preferences that I could truly love, then I would have ended up with something very much along the same lines as the sensibility (though clearly not written with anything like the same skill or to the same quality, obviously) as Susannah Clarke’s existing novel. Which, for the record, I thought was superb and quite the most perfectly pitched and well-judged magical fantasy/adult fairytale I’ve ever come across to date or am likely to in the future.

Thank goodness I read the book after all. Or rather, all due credit and thanks to my friends who insisted that I must; they were irritatingly quite right about the whole matter, as good friends so often tend to be.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is released on paperback and eBook. The TV series was released on DVD and Blu-ray formats in the UK on June 29, 2015.

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