Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (miniseries).

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 best-selling novel and winner of the Hugo Award, in November of 2008, an experience so immersive and enjoyable that I can remember specific places where I sat and read it. It’s as perfect as any contemporary work of fiction I’ve encountered, with numerous complex characters; a soaring, multi-faceted plot; and the highbrow British-English prose style appropriate to its early 19th-century setting. I’ve read at least a half-dozen novels of a thousand pages or more, including some considered among the greatest novels of all time, but I’d still take Jonathan Strange over all of them, not least because there isn’t a wasted word among the over 300,000 in its text.

That experience with the book raised my expectations for the BBC adaptation of the book to unreasonable levels, even though the network chose to adapt it as a seven-hour mini-series rather than trying to cram its bulkl into a single two-hour film. The resulting series, available on iTunes for about $20 (it’s not streaming anywhere I can see; amazon has the Blu-Ray for $25), is one of the best TV series I’ve seen in years, better even than season one of Orphan Black or Broadchurch, even on par with The Wire for giving viewers so many well-acted, complex characters intimately involved in the central plot.

The titular characters of the novel and series are magicians in the early 1800s who endeavor to restore English magic, which has been lost from the land for about 300 years. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the mousy, pedantic, egotistical magician of learning who sets off the book’s events when he restores a dead noblewoman, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), to life by summoning a creature known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), making a bad bargain that reopens the door between England and the otherworld where magic resides. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is the young prodigy whose innate talent for magic draws the interest of Norrell, who wishes to tutor Strange in book-learning rather than in “practical” magic, only to set off a rivalry between the two when Norrell’s acts exact a very high cost on Strange and his young, beautiful wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the Gentleman, having regained access to this realm, lays his claim to Lady Pole, enchants the servant Stephen Black (Arikon Bayare), the “nameless slave” who is to become king under the prophecy of the fairy/magician known as the Raven King, who appears only briefly on screen and looks like a refugee from a Norse black metal band.

The series is remarkably faithful to the original text, preserving all of the essential characters, including many I didn’t mention above such as Norrell’s servant (and occasional practitioner of magic) John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, whose voice I wish to steal) and the vagrant street-magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), while limiting diversions from the book’s plot to minor changes of convenience. Yet the series is powered primarily by the command performances of its two leads, Marsan and Carvel, with Marsan playing Norrell as a sort of upper-class Peter Pettigrew, simpering yet also dismissive, while Carvel imbues Strange with the passion and exuberance befitting his character’s youth before the character’s disillusionment drives him to madness. The great performances extend to the actors I’ve cited here, playing secondary roles, particularly Warren as the predatory charmer The Gentleman, with clawlike fingernails and “thistledown” hair, and Kaye apparently having the time of his life as the staggering, filthy Vinculus.

The demands on the editors of this series must have been huge, with a variety of sets and settings and impressive special effects for a television series, leading to many potential points of confusion as the focus shifted from Strange to Norrell to the King’s Roads (the “otherworld” of magic and fairies) and back around. I’m of the lay opinion that editing is a lot like umpiring in baseball: you notice it far more when it’s bad than when it’s good, and if it’s really good, you forget it’s even there. It was only while watching the final episode that it occurred to me how seamless the transitions from scene to scene or even shot to shot were, even though the pacing had increased in the final two hours of the series. Once Strange has entered the King’s Roads and descended into the madness that drives all of the related subplots toward one huge conclusion, the story starts flying and the use of more magic within the story could easily create confusion for viewers unfamiliar with the story, but strong editing and camerawork ensure that the viewer never loses the perspective required to keep pace.

One of you mentioned some dismay that Strange’s time serving as the official army magician under Wellington was given relatively less time on screen than on the page, an understandable disappointment at a choice that was likely made either for budgetary reasons or because the writers didn’t want to bog the story down in a segment where Strange and Norrell are completely apart. I thought the portrayal of the sycophantic fraudster Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) was too much of a caricature, and the relationship between Strange and Flora Graysteel in Venice required some more on-screen explanation. On the plus side, the series did a better job portraying the book’s ambiguous conclusion than Clarke herself did on the page, and while I still wanted a happier ending, at least the series turned the vague resolution into clear images the viewer could take away.

I would still suggest anyone interested in the series start with the book, both for background and for the sheer pleasure of the experience. The novel has much dry wit that can’t translate to the screen, as well as copious footnotes that mostly add humor to the story, and Clarke’s prose sparkles in ways that will never come through on film. But the adaptation here is so thorough that I believe any viewer could approach it without the background of the book and still follow the entire story without any trouble, which, for a work this dense, is a major achievement. I know in the time of “peak TV” there’s tremendous competition for your eyeballs and nowhere near enough time to watch everything you want – I might see a tenth of the series I’d like to see – but if you’re going to binge anything this offseason, put Jonathan Strange on your list.


  1. Keith, thanks for the write-up. Agree with a lot of what you said. The first time I watched the series I was blown away by how much it felt like the book, which I thought would be impossible. Then I watched it again while reading along. And there were a few moments that weren’t included or that were changed that slightly disappointed me – I really missed the book version of Lascelles’ end, also thought the interaction with King George was a slight downgrade, and agree that the Venice part needed to be fleshed out better. But overall, it was a remarkable series that was a joy to watch and I was amazed at how much of the book got into the show.
    One thing the show did better than the book, for me, was make me feel a little more sympathy for Norrell, Marsan did a fantastic job showing Norrell’s glee when Strange arrives and then his loneliness when he leaves. Also, enjoyed the bits with Segundus and Honeyfoot, especially with Lady Pole.

  2. Thanks for a great review, Keith. I agree–it was an excellent adaptation of an outstanding book. My wife and I watched from two different perspectives, but we came to the same conclusion about one limitation with the miniseries, though. I read the book about 10 years ago while she finished reading it just before we started watching. Both of us thought the tone of The Gentleman in the book was more light-hearted and less menacing.

    The impact of The Gentleman’s actions are similarly damaging to the humans in both formats. He truly wreaks havoc with their lives. In the book, though, he seems more careless and fun-loving–like a young child innocently playing with an insect with joy and fascination without much thought or care that the insect will likely die from the encounter. The miniseries Gentleman, however, is portrayed as much more evil and menacing. Everything from the music to the lighting to the acting to the script rams this point home. Miniseries Gentleman felt more like an older child purposefully torturing a kitten and taking pleasure in it.

    We enjoyed The Gentleman in the book more. He was funnier, less predictable, and more morally ambiguous. I still recommend the miniseries wholeheartedly–I just think it could have been better by interpreting this character differently.

    What do you and others think? Did you have the same impression that we did or did we miss something?

  3. I really enjoyed the book, but have been delaying viewing of the series until I can give it full attention. Your comment on #peaktv is dead on, as I have to divide shows into buckets of those which have to be watched without distraction and those that can be on in the background.

    Here’s hoping SyFy’s take on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a winner. I’m sincerely hoping the show writers modify the juvenile verbal “banter” and emo moments of the first novel — I get that they’re teenagers, but I don’t know any teenagers that talk or act like that. Even if it were true to life, when the truth is that banal, I’ll take less truth, thank you!

  4. About to give this a watch based on the review. FYI, it’s available on Amazon streaming video ($2/episode) and also on vudu