Susanna Clarke published her epic fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2004. Her first and only novel to date, it is epic in size (782 pages) and scope, amounting to a kind of allegory of early modern England. It has at last been visualized by the BBC, in an seven-part adaptation written by Toby Haynes and directed by Peter Harness, that has just wrapped up on BBC America about one month after its original British broadcast. The challenge of adapting the novel is twofold (threefold if you count special effects): its size and its voice. Clarke wrote in something like the style that prevailed in the time she wrote about: early 19th century Britain. Her mock erudition extended to extensive footnotes that by definition could not be adapted for TV unless you wanted the show to sound like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Since Haynes and Harness do without a narrator after the first scene, it's up to the actors and their writer to sound like authentic creatures of their age, not to mention the authentic creatures of Susanna Clarke. Part of the entertainment of the novel is its recreation of a golden age of English prose -- I rather like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series of novels about the Napoleonic wars fought by dragon-riding armies for the same reason. The cast of the TV Jonathan Strange succeeds in bringing that language to life while dispensing with the narration. I'd like to say I took this success for granted from a British series, but I'd watched The Musketeers too recently to make such an assumption. This time everyone involved was clearly holding each other to a higher standard and the result is a largely faithful adaptation of a great novel. The funny part is that some of the episodes and incidents of the book that I remember most vividly didn't make it onto TV. All that means is that people turning to the novel after watching the show have even more of a treat in store for them.
Though billed second in the title, Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the first of the two English magicians we see in the story. A solitary Yorkshire researcher, attended only by the vaguely menacing but ultimately benign John Childermass (Enzo Clienti), Norrell becomes a public figure by intervening dramatically in the debates of the local Friends of English Magic, who are little more than a discussion group. Norrell offers to demonstrate that he has mastered magic on the condition that the society disband and its members renounce magic. All but John Segundus (Edward Hogg) do so and feel justified by Norrell's apparent animation of a cathedral's statuary. The magician hopes to leap from local notoriety to national fame and national service. Despite his obvious discomfort, he strives to insinuate himself in English society to further his goal of rendering English magic "respectable." As the story develops, we learn that the respectability toward which Norrell aspires depends on purging magic of any dependence on the legacy of John Uskglass, the semi-legendary Raven King who flourished about 300 years earlier, or upon the power of the fairies whom Uskglass mastered. To succeed, however, Norrell becomes a hypocrite. When the wife of Sir Walter Pole, a Cabinet minister, dies suddenly, Norrell resolves to resurrect her and win Pole's support for his project. To restore her, Norrell must make a bargain with one of the fairy creatures he despises and fears, an arrogant character with thistledown hair known only as "the gentleman" (Marc Warren). The gentleman resurrects Lady Pole (Alice Englert) on the condition that he have half of her remaining years -- he knows she'll live to be 94. Rather than take a chunk of years, he takes her sleeping hours, forcing her to dance in an endless ball of Burtonesque boors in his manor at Lost Hope, leaving her virtually insane by day. He also co-opts the Poles' butler, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), at once intimidating him and tantalizing him with the prophecy that a once-nameless slave -- Stephen had been rescued from a slave ship as an infant -- will become a king.
Meanwhile, a random encounter with a mystic tramp Norrell had chased out of London inspires Jonathan Strange of Shropshire (Bertie Carvel) to try his hand at magic. Inspired by his copy of A Child's History of the Raven King, Strange is curious about realms of magic Norrell would rather see closed off. He proves such a prodigy, however, that Norrell accepts him as a student and assistant in his contributions to the war effort against Napoleon. Norrell is a grudging teacher, reluctant to let Strange see any but a few of the books in the vast library he's accumulated. It becomes apparent to the viewer (or reader) that Strange will be more powerful than Norrell, if he isn't already, but Norrell is troubled less by Strange's power than by his curiosity. Strange's desire to learn more about the Raven King and the "King's Roads" he built through the fairy realm, with mirrors serving as portals throughout England, threatens to ruin all Norrell has done to make English magic respectable. Goaded by his co-author and literary agent (John Heffernan), Norrell uses his magic to censor a rival volume by Strange, making the text disappear from every copy published. Meanwhile, Strange's wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) catches the eye of the fickle fairy gentleman, who affects contempt for Strange's magic while clearly fearing the newcomer's unsounded potential. He schemes to replace Arabella with a changeling, stealing the real woman to Lost Hope where, unlike Lady Pole, she rapidly loses her memory. The changeling proving short-lived, Strange appeals to Norrell to teach him how to resurrect her. Norrell's refusal causes a definitive break between the two magicians, driving Strange to Italy, where he experiments in madness in hopes of gaining access to the fairy realm and the knowledge he expects to find there. He succeeds mainly in destroying the barriers Norrell had merely cracked open but forces the gentleman to use nearly all his power to expel him from Lost Hope and place him under a curse that surrounds him with a funnel cloud of darkness.
If the TV series drops the ball at any point, it's in the final episode which drastically understates the crisis into which Strange has plunged all of England. The final part of Clarke's book is in part an allegory for the post-Napoleonic period of reaction that climaxed in the Peterloo Massacre, just as Norrell all along has represented a reactionary form of Enlightenment obsessed with control rather than freedom, while Strange embodies Romanticism (inclusive of the Gothic), the reckless genius to Norrell's cautious scholar. The TV series has jettisoned or truncated a military figure who becomes a major antagonist late in the book, and while the abandonment of historical context may have been a necessity of time constraints, the fates of Strange, Norrell and their circle are more than enough to keep everyone interested, especially those who don't know what they're missing. Whether the BBC America audience fully appreciates the meta-English context is open to debate. If they've stuck with the show, it's because of the action and the acting. Eddie Marsan (who was Inspector Lestrade in the Ritchie-Downey Sherlock Holmes movies) takes top honors by conveying the at-once ambitious and cowardly, arrogant and insecure and ultimately well-meaning Norrell, tough Marc Warren, who may be remembered as the Dracula in a very bad recent TV production, nearly steals the show with one of the strongest TV villain performances I've seen in quite a while. If he'd put more of that into his Dracula we might have had something there. Also deserving of special mention out of an overall superior cast are Alice Englert as Lady Pole, whose righteous indignation is only compounded by the spell that cripples her ability to articulate it, and Vincent Franklin as Drawlight, a toady who takes credit for introducing Norrell to society and deteriorates during the series from Augustan pomposity to Dickensian wretchedness. I could be at the keyboard all night praising everyone who deserves it for this series, but to leave just the tip of an iceberg showing seems appropriate for a program that has the same relationship to its source material. I don't mention that again to diminish the miniseries. In fact, when I see an adaptation of something I've read that leaves out so much or changes so much and can still recommend it (in cinema Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans comes to mind), it's really one of the highest recommendations I can give.