Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell heads for the small screen

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellIn November last year the BBC quietly announced plans to adapt Susanna Clarke’s multi-award winning novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, as a mini-series of 6 hour long episodes. The BBC broke the news so quietly in fact that we missed the announcement of what could well be a television highlight of 2014.

Never mind, we now know all about it thanks to the much bigger splash made this week by the announcement that the BBC’s younger sibling, BBC America, has come on board as co-producer… While that’s not particularly interesting of itself, it appears that since November the mini-series has grown by one hour long episode. Cuba Pictures is producing the adaptation by Peter Harness (Wallander), with Toby Haynes (Doctor Who, Sherlock, Wallander) at the helm.

Clarke’s sprawling debut novel (some 800 pages) was an ambitious and endlessly inventive blending of fantasy, alternate history and historical fiction set in a re-imagined 19th Century during the Napoleonic Wars. The setting is an England where magic once existed and is about to return under the influence of two very different men: the reclusive, scholarly and austere Gilbert Norrell and his sometime pupil, rival, colleague and friend, the dapper Jonathan Strange, a man who is drawn to the wilder and more perilous aspects of magic. The narrative centres on the relationship of these two men (giving us a beautifully realised character study of the two along the way), but this is just one of several dualities which structure the narrative: others include North/South (of England that is) and reason/unreason. SF critic John Clute describes Clarke’s novel as a novel of the fantastic about the myth of England and the myth of the fantastic and the marriage of the two (although it might be more accurate to say that Clute criticises Clarke for really only beginning such an undertaking with her novel).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was both critically lauded (with some reservations about its leisurely pacing) and widely popular. Published in 2004, it was nominated for numerous awards (including the Man Booker Prize) and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel amongst many others. Although some years have passed since I read it, I recall it as a sprawling, beautifully written tome, endlessly inventive and lyrical if, indeed, a little leisurely in its pacing. The frequent footnotes with which Clarke has laced her narrative are double-edged in this – they give the whole fantastic enterprise an air of realism with their encyclopaedic commentary on the characters and events – but they can be a distraction, slowing down an already slow narrative. Ultimately however, the lyric quality of Clarke’s writing outweighs any such complaint and it’s more often simply a pleasure to be carried along at the narrative’s leisurely pace, enjoying the experience.

Clearly, with a literary style more akin to Jane Austen or perhaps, given the supernatural subject matter, to Charles Dickens than to George R.R. Martin, this mini-series will be no Game of Thrones (with nary a nipple to be seen, I wager!) but given the dearth of quality adaptations of fantasy fiction for the screen, the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell should be a welcome addition to our small screen viewing.

If you’re unfamiliar with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, you’ll find a good potted summary of the plot and themes on Wikipedia, although I’d highly recommend reading the novel instead. With pre-production starting later this month and a premiere some time in 2014, you should have just enough time to complete reading the novel before the premiere of episode one… Filming will take place in the UK and Canada, and as yet there have been no cast announcements.

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