Jonathan Strange Ber­tie Carvel

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Jonathan strange & mr norrell -

How does the script com­pare to the book?

It’s ab­so­lutely bril­liant, what the writer’s done, be­cause it’s a fuck­ing epic novel! I read it 10 years ago and loved it, and wanted to be in it, and never thought I would. I read the script fully ex­pect­ing that what would have hap­pened was a kind of boil­ing away: an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, and putting it into a tele­vi­sion box. What the writer has done is to ab­so­lutely pre­serve the scale and majesty of the story. He’s re­ally not left any­thing out. The team and the BBC have trusted, amazingly, that an in­cred­i­bly rich, com­plex, epic plot can be done in this for­mat. into one in the faerie realm of Lost- Hope by the ad­di­tion of a gi­ant tree... Other times, they’re con­struct­ing sets within the pala­tial spa­ces – Jonathan Strange’s house has been built in­side the sta­ble block. We walk through a door and an or­nate cham­ber which once played host to a vis­it­ing Ge­orge III is serv­ing as cos­tume and make- up; be­wigged foot­men and ladies in ex­pen­sive gowns stand about hav­ing ad­just­ments made. Past and present, aris­toc­racy and artistry have crashed to­gether, and the ef­fect is ap­pro­pri­ately mag­i­cal.

small screen

One of Toby Haynes’s fel­low Doc­tor Who alumni, writer Peter Har­ness (“Kill The Moon”) is the man charged with the daunt­ing task of adapt­ing the novel for the screen. It might have been tougher, mind: he could have been on­board when New Line Pic­tures were de­vel­op­ing a film ver­sion ( their en­thu­si­asm cooled af­ter The Golden Compass failed to set the box of­fice alight…).

“I can’t imag­ine how you would do it as a movie,” says Har­ness. “It wouldn’t be the same story; it would be el­e­ments of this story. I think seven hours is the right length for it.”

Though Har­ness’s start­ing point was to edit down chunks of the novel and “kind of bash it around”, sculpt­ing the story from there wasn’t as sim­ple as sim­ply chis­elling chunks off. He also had to flesh things out.

“In the book, char­ac­ters are just left for a while,” Har­ness ex­plains. “Well, you can’t just say, ‘ That hap­pened, and then we’ll pick them up in episode five or six.’ You’ve got to keep touch­ing base with them. So there’s been a fair bit of in­ven­tion in the evolv­ing of the char­ac­ters. That’s been the hard­est – build­ing up some char­ac­ters and sculpt­ing where they’re go­ing.”

Mak­ing ad­di­tions to a work that’s so high­lyre­garded must be a pretty nerve- wreck­ing busi­ness…

“It has to be a very spe­cific jig­saw piece that you’re putting in, and it needs to do a num­ber of things. It needs to match the imag­i­na­tion of the orig­i­nal. That is a bit scary. I don’t al­ways get it right first go, but it grad­u­ally evolves… You know what you need, and roughly what shape it has to be. Even­tu­ally, it be­comes the right shape.”

Har­ness has strived to pre­serve the dis­tinc­tive nar­ra­tive voice of Su­sanna Clarke’s novel, with its dry wit and ar­chaic phras­ings, rem­i­nis­cent of the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dick­ens: “A lot of her dia­logue is in the fin­ished script.” As pro­ducer Nick Hirschkorn points out, one of the benefits of that voice is that it helps to foster a sense of re­al­ism.

“By us­ing Austen- es­que lan­guage, what she’s do­ing is say­ing, ‘ This is truly au­then­tic.’ You feel like you’re read­ing that type of novel. Then when [ Marc War­ren’s] gen­tle­man pops up, you go, ‘ Where the hell did that come from?’ There­fore, it re­ally works. I think when­ever you’re deal­ing with fan­tasy, you’ve got to cre­ate a re­al­ity that is ab­so­lutely be­liev­able.”

That’s a credo they’ve also fol­lowed when it comes to the pro­duc­tion de­sign.

“I’m re­ally into mag­i­cal re­al­ity,” Hirschkorn ex­plains. “I made a film be­fore­hand called

Skel­lig, with Sky. That was very gritty, very down- to- earth; then the magic re­ally pops. I felt the same phi­los­o­phy should be ap­plied to this. [ Pro­duc­tion designer] David Roger’s way of deal­ing with pe­riod is in­cred­i­bly au­then­tic, but has such depth and rich­ness that it also lends it­self to a fan­tas­ti­cal en­vi­ron­ment as well. We were very purist about what the time

“It re­ally works. I think when­ever you’re deal­ing with fan­tasy, you’ve got to cre­ate a re­al­ity that is ab­so­lutely be­liev­able ”

is: what type of fur­ni­ture we’re us­ing, what type of wig. It’s got to be ab­so­lutely spot on. We’ve paid a lot of at­ten­tion to de­tail.”

And when it comes to the de­pic­tion of magic, they’ve been care­ful not to do any­thing which might un­der­mine all of that hard work. The book fea­tures plenty of won­drous events: the stat­ues in York Min­ster com­ing to life ( filmed in the ac­tual cathe­dral); a for­est grow­ing in the canals of Venice; an “Eter­nal Night” which fol­lows a cursed man about… But the pro­duc­ers were keen to avoid “show­ing off ” with ef­fects set­pieces that might dis­tract from their pri­mary pur­pose.

“We can ex­pect to see some pretty large, spec­tac­u­lar mo­ments,” Nick Hirschkorn says, “but we’re deal­ing with them in a very un- Harry Pot­ter- es­que kind of way. That’s all about ‘ the ef­fect’, and it does over­whelm the story a lot of the time. This is fo­cused al­ways on the hu­man drama.”

So, for ex­am­ple: episode two opens with a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment from the novel, where Nor­rell gets his foot in the door with the Estab­lish­ment by us­ing his magic to aid the war ef­fort, cre­at­ing il­lu­sory “rain ships” to flum­mox the French fleet.

“It’s very stormy, it’s very shades of grey. You can’t re­ally see it per­fectly,” Hirschkorn ex­plains. “It’s bril­liant, be­cause it in­forms you im­me­di­ately, the way that we’ve played it, that Nor­rell has achieved what he set out to achieve in episode one, which is to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with Par­lia­ment, and to help with the war – which he was told he couldn’t do. Im­me­di­ately you open up on some­thing like that and you know where your main char­ac­ter is be­cause of that ef­fects se­quence. All of those se­quences are feed­ing huge char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ments.”

So: Clarke’s much- loved nar­ra­tive has been given room to breathe – and a bud­get be­fit­ting its breadth. Changes nec­es­sary for it to work in an­other medium have been made, but the spirit of the novel has been pre­served. And the ef­fects are not shout­ing “Look at me!” but work­ing in the ser­vice of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. It sounds like all the pos­si­ble pit­falls have been skil­fully swerved. Proof of the pud­ding, of course, will come when the se­ries fi­nally airs. How will the book’s le­gions of fans re­act? Per­haps the au­thor’s own re­sponse can pro­vide us with a clue…

“She’s been in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive and pos­i­tive and lovely,” ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Nick Marston as­sures us. “She re­ally wants to know that the adapter is ab­so­lutely in­hab­it­ing the book. And the sec­ond thing she wants is that it should work on its own terms within its own medium. When we first showed her the scripts it was an enor­mous mo­ment – my heart was in my mouth…”

“… And she didn’t throw it across the room,” smiles Peter Har­ness.

Is this fan­tasy for a ma­ture au­di­ence?

It’s about magic and ma­gi­cians and it is a fan­tasy, but re­ally it’s about peo­ple; and they’re very sharply drawn peo­ple. The char­ac­ters have real arcs. They’re real peo­ple. It’s a fully imag­ined world in which magic ex­ists, but it’s one that’s still recog­nis­able, with hu­man be­ings in it. One be­lieves in their mo­ti­va­tions, and that’s re­ally what the drama’s about. Some ex­tra­or­di­nary things hap­pen, but the way peo­ple deal with those ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions is some­thing you can be­lieve in. It’s grown- up drama. It’s se­ri­ous about tak­ing it­self se­ri­ously!

We’re pretty sure you shouldn’t have an open flame near that much hair­spray. Jonathan Strange & Mr Nor­rell be­gins on BBC One in May.

“Can you check my ton­sils for me? How about if I open my mouth like this?”

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