You might say that there are essentially two kinds of people: Those who can make a cathedral’s stone statues come alive thanks to great concentration, study, and laborious effort; and those who conjure up giant sand horses to save a sinking schooner simply by sticking their hands into the shore. And when it comes to early 19th-century magic — the kind practiced by the title characters of BBC America’s extraordinary new miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — the dedicated scholar and the dilettante are indeed capable of forming a partnership, one that complements the others’ blind spots. Such a fruitful bond may only be temporary, of course, and its dissolution might have a few unintended consequences…like, for example, the possible total destruction of England.
But as fans of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 bestseller know, anyone who’d claim that this is merely a tale of two men is giving an epic story short shrift. There are assassination attempts in London, fake naval fleets attacking France and bloody battlefield skirmishes in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. There are zombie soldiers, dancing damsels raised from the dead, and an evil spirit known as the Raven King, who resembles the world’s most devilish Oompa-Loompa. There’s the exploitation of unique talents for military purposes and the fickle vapidity of celebrity. (Plus ça change.) And above all, there’s an attempt to capture as much of Clarke’s 782-page alt-history lesson in all of its Dickensian density and allusion-filled glory over the course of seven hours — while, in the process, offering some of the most fantastic imported TV you’re likely to view this year.
“This could never have existed as a movie,” producer Nick Hirschkorn says, who read the book shortly after it’d been published and had immediately wanted to bring it to the screen. “It’s a giant of a novel, a great literary work and covers way too much ground to be a two-hour film — or even a trilogy of films, for that matter.” Which is originally what New Line Cinema, fresh off turning The Lord of the Rings into an Oscar-winning blockbuster phenomenon, had in mind when it bought the rights to Clarke’s magnum opus as it was climbing up the bestseller list. When their plan to turn Jonathan Strange into another three-part franchise fell through after the company was absorbed by Warner Brothers in 2008, Hirschkorn and his producing partner Nick Marston eventually stepped in to pick up the reins, with visions of small-screen glory in their heads. “I knew some folks who’d been working on the first season of Game of Thrones before it had aired,” he says. “And they were telling me, ‘This could be huge.’ So I thought that a wave of adult-fantasy works might be around the corner, and the BBC loves historical dramas; this needs to be a TV miniseries.”
After convincing the network to sign on, Hirschkorn recruited writer Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes, both Doctor Who veterans, to help him wrangle the book’s sprawling, tangent-heavy narrative into something screen-friendly. And they set about finding actors who could bring the dandyish magical newbie Strange and the reclusive, owl-like Norrell to life. The former would prove to be quite a task; the producer says they had been “interviewing all the usual suspects for a leading man on a British television show” before someone suggested Bertie Carvel, a theater actor who’d attracted attention — and a Tony nomination — playing Miss Trunchbull in the musical version of Matilda. (Anyone lucky enough to have caught SundanceTV’s series Babylon can attest that there’s no working actor who can better communicate contempt with just a single I-just-ate-a-rotten-egg look.)
“I actually hung out with a lot of warlocks and goblins in my youth, so I was well-prepared,” Carvel jokes; he spent a lot of his formative years doing live roleplaying with friends, which the actor describes as “running around caves, pretending to practice the Dark Arts.” He was also a huge fan of the book, having been given a copy by friends as a gift and, after cracking it open one rainy afternoon, “devouring the whole thing in about a week. It appealed to my love of history, and Strange is such a great character: He goes from being this dissolute wastrel to someone who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. After I read the book, I thought, ‘If only I was famous enough to play him.’ And then, having cast every spell I could, I guess the part came to me.”
As for Norrell, the producers immediately thought of Eddie Marsan, a distinctive-looking character actor who’d appeared in everything from Miami Vice to Spielberg and Scorsese costume dramas to the Sherlock Holmes movies. (He’s Inspector Lestrade.) Except Marsan remembered doing an adaptation of Little Dorrit for the BBC back in 2008, and wasn’t keen on the idea of seeing another mammoth novel diced up into chunks. “It wasn’t until I came over to America to do Ray Donovan that I changed my mind” he says, referring to the Showtime series in which he plays the former boxer /Ray’s brother Terry. “I had started catching up on all those cable dramas while I was filming the show, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad. And that’s when I realized that TV was really able to tell longer stories and cover a greater period of time; you could do bigger productions now. So I read the first four scripts, and suddenly, you could see exactly how ambitious this project was.”
“Ambitious” is a word that comes up a lot in conversations around the miniseries, given that it interweaves the supernatural with historical recreations of the Napoleonic Wars; features the kind of extravagant set pieces and special effects that are usually associated with summer multiplex fare, only done on the equivalent of a blockbuster’s catering budget; and boils down a beloved bulletstopper of a book into something that moves along smoothly yet sacrifices as little of the source material as possible. The common phrase that people have used to describe the adaptation is “Harry Potter meets Pride & Prejudice” (“We prefer ‘Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings,‘ thank you very much,” Hirschkorn jokes), and while that doesn’t begin to capture the scope of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it does hint at the way the project melds two genres into one perfectly calibrated epic.
So far, fans who’ve seen the first four episodes that have already aired in Britain have praised how Hirschkorn & co. have channeled the novel’s blend of scrupulously researched facts and tales-of-mystery-and-imagination fantasy. Even Clarke, who wasn’t involved in the miniseries — “She had been tentatively involved with [New Line’s] film and found it exhausting, so she stayed away,” the producer says — has gone on record as saying she was impressed with seeing her characters so vividly brought to life. For those who haven’t yet cracked open the imposingly thick book, the show’s immersive deep dive into the mystic is likely to leave jaws on the living-room floor even as it taps into something remarkably familiar.
“Kids read superhero comics because its gives them a sense of empowerment,” Marsan suggests, “and stories about magic do the same thing for kids and adults. There’s a reason the Harry Potter books were popular with everybody. They may have been about a young boy going to a British boarding school, but they are really the story of someone trying to control a chaotic world around them, trying to transcend. That’s this story in a nutshell.”
“Two hundred years later, we still find that science and rational inquiry pose more questions than they can answer,” Carvel adds. “I think people are attracted by the notion that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”