I’m a bit surprised it’s taken so long for this book to make it to the screen, but after the wait I’m very glad that it ended up as a seven part miniseries with the BBC. For a start the BBC can generally be trusted to do a faithful adaptation, taking the tone and essence of a story while not being so tied to the details of the original that they reproduce flaws or fail to adapt for a different medium. Also seven parts, while a rather odd length, was perfect to show the evolution of the world and the characters, but avoided the slight dragginess of the original breeze block of a book.
What I loved most about the book and what this adaptation captured perfectly were the quirkiness and the sense of wonder. Susannah Clarke created a rich and deep world, and most importantly left elements of the history slightly muddled. Different people see and remember events differently; fact to one person is legend to another and the audience can never really know what the truth is. It’s wonderfully immersive and I never felt like I was stupid for not understanding something, or overwhelmed with explanations.
The other strength of the book that is beautifully recreated here is the complexity of the characters. Rather than the traditional simplicity of good guys and bad guys there are a collection of individuals with their own priorities, ambitions, flaws, courage and beliefs. Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are truly superb and show the complexity of their characters with impressive subtlety. It’s not really the plot about the restoration of English Magic, or the threat of the Fairy that is the centre of the story, but the shifting relationship between the titular Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Their story is epic, but is told in relatively small moments and acts, each character insecure and uncertain, acting and reacting until the immensely satisfying conclusion.
The production values are everything you’d anticipate from a period production for the BBC. It also matches the tone of the book perfectly, it’s not the hyper-realistic detail that you might be used to, but at times it feels very much like you’re looking at sets and manufactured locations. It’s sort of as if you’re watching a production, rather than watching something that’s supposed to be as if you’re there. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it makes it feel like you’re watching a tale being told, acknowledging that it’s a story. It works really well with the other-worldliness of the story.
I really enjoyed this series. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it’s also really entertaining with plenty of wit and laugh out loud moments. I can really see this becoming a classic.