Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Episode 1

The BBC's 6 part adaptation of Susanna Clarke's epic novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, began it's US run Saturday night. I am a huge fan of this book and eagerly followed the progress of the production, and made my children sit down and watch the first episode with me.

I am not a stickler for complete faithfulness to the source material when adapting written work for the screen. Indeed, with it's many footnotes and meanderings, Jonathan Strange would take many more than 6 hours to execute with faithfulness. No, my rule of thumb for adaptations is: do the characters behave as they ought? Baz Luhrman's modern Romeo + Juliet works as it ought because the characters behaved. Joe Wright's Regency eye candy in Pride and Prejudice was undercut by Lizzy kissing Darcy on the moors. Uh no. Lizzy and Jane are defined by being all that is correct in their manners in direct contrast to their here and there-ian sister Lydia.

Circling back around to Jonathan Strange, the characters were almost exactly right: Jonathan is impetuous, Childermass is cynically knowing, Norrell is fussy and abrupt, Vinculus is manic and sly, The Gentleman is calmly sinister. Yet there is something wanting about the first hour and I think I know what it is: it doesn't let you rest for a minute.

Jonathan Strange, stripped of the footnotes and excursions into mythic past, has a huge amount of story to tell.  It is the story not of two, but three magicians: Strange, Norrell, and John Uskglass, the Raven King.  With the exception of Strange's courtship of his wife Arabella, it jumps from one plot marker to the next without letting the impact fall on the viewer. The stakes, the otherness of magic, the far off storm cloud of the Raven King, need to be built to a fine tension wherein you are longing and dreading for the hammer fall.

Three particular scenes could have been employed to better use establishing that otherness. First: in the York cathedral Norrell establishes his practical bonafides by making all the statues speak. In the book it begins with the face on the corbel decrying the murder of the girl with ivy leaves in her hair. The corbel face is the first and last statue to speak. It underscores the notion that all your secret sins are not hidden from magic and even the stones will cry out for justice. In the show, you are barely able to discern the delight, sadness, and captivation of the theoretical magicians as the behold the first practical magic in hundreds of years

Second: Of all the scenes, save the raising of Lady Pole from the dead, the most important is Vinculus meeting Norrell and Strange and his prophesying for them. Because Uskglass is the Once and Future King, and has not yet returned to England it is important that his proxy be given the space to give you his exposition. Whether or not Vinculus will be able to speak the prophesy to the third person it most impacts on the show I anticipate greatly. He mumbles some of it to be sure, but the poetic obscurity of the prophesy is best contrasted with the plain clarity of the prophesy in action.

Third: Childermass and Vinculus confront each other and it is revealed they are both more than they appear. Childermass tells Vinculus' fortune with Marseilles cards, revealing his own ability with magic. This suggests that both Strange and Norrell are not so isolated in profession as they believe. Further, Vinculus tells Norrell's fortune transforming Childermass's cards each into the likeness of the Raven King. It calls for a slower reveal at the beginning, picking up the pace as Childermass begins to understand that Vinculus is more than a scoundrel and a pick pocket - and that John Uskglass is not done with England.

I have hopes that the rapid pace of the first episode can be attributed to a need to establish a lot of things in the outset and will allow the eerie inevitablity that infuses fairy tales to infuse the show.