JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL Review: One Of The Best Literary Adaptations Ever

Yeah, I said it.

Last week, the seven-episode miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell concluded here in the States, a note-perfect finale to what has been a nearly perfect adaptation of Susanna Clarke's brilliant novel. This is everything a literary adaptation should be: faithful but not obsequious, ambitious in scale but not over-reaching, and in utter harmony with the spirit of the words that inspired it.  

In every way, the BBC series captured that spirit, even in ways that weren't precisely accurate to the letter of the source material. Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel might not look exactly the way readers envisioned the characters, but no performers could so wholly embody these characters as Marsan and Carvel have done. Marsan's Norrell is fretful, small, neurotic, until the moments that call him to be brave and generous, and then he is just that. Carvel as Strange is charismatic and irresponsible, while hiding untold depths beneath a breezy surface. All of the casting, all, is sublime. Some of the highlights include Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, Paul Kaye as Vinculus, Alice Englert as Lady Pole and Edward Hogg as Segundus, but to list any does a disservice to the whole, because this is such an incredibly strong ensemble. 

One character in particular is actually improved by her performer, and that is Arabella. She is a charming, intelligent woman in the novel, but Charlotte Riley gives such breadth and profundity to the character that Arabella becomes much more than just Jonathan Strange's wife, or Lady Pole's friend. Riley's done quite a bit of television acting in the UK, but her performance here cries out for acclaim. Give this woman notoriety, give her many more roles. She took a beloved character and made her even more so. She took a cypher and made her a person. 

The writing of the series is something of a miracle. This is a thousand-page novel with passionate fans, fans who have read the book multiple times and could revolt at any discrepancies or omissions in its adaptation. Playwright Peter Harness' script, coupled with Toby Haynes' direction, feels like such a complete entity, not a fractured tribute to some other, better story. This is the story, the story we already love brought to life. Most preclusions from the novel are given at least a wink here, nodding to fans without taking up the valuable real estate of the miniseries' runtime. Even the footnotes are suggested, a dusty, shadowy history to the magic we see unfolding onscreen, as thorough as the library at Hurtfew. The only glaring omission, as far as memory serves, is Stephen Black's little romance with the shopgirl, but Stephen's storyline is hardly neglected here. Ariyon Bakare is powerful and poignant as The Nameless Slave, a man who trades one master for another before shaking free of his shackles forever. 

And, really, liberation is the greatest theme of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, one that plays out for Stephen but also for Lady Pole, who is shuffled between men who want something of her before she finally, forcefully, makes her own way, transforming perceived hysteria into an immovable inner strength. Mr Norrell is enslaved by his precious collection of books; Strange is enslaved by his father and then his own dangerous magical obsession. It would be so easy to adapt Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell without capturing these deeper meanings, delivering the texture and detail of the story while missing its heart. But this miniseries is so much more than a visual representation of a great story - it actually augments that story. 

But if we're talking about texture and detail, the series certainly gets that right, too. Could this production possibly look better? I want to live in this world. I want Lego sets and video games and RPGs and action figures of this world. That one story, told twice, could feel like an extensive, livable universe is a credit to Clarke, certainly, but also to Haynes and Harness. Translating the magic of the written word into a visual medium is always a tricky endeavor, but when we're talking literal magic, that becomes even trickier. The magic of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell truly feels like magic - at first, the polite, modern British magic of Norrell and then the fierce, uncivilized magic of John Uskglass. We are increasingly convinced of both, until the final episode boasts great, dangerous, insane feats and we buy every second of it. We've lived seven hours in this world, and we are indoctrinated. 

A viewer doesn't need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to appreciate the series. Read it first, if you'd like, or watch it, fall in love with it, and then read it because you can't get enough of this world. Whatever your introduction, through page or screen, you'll be better off for it.

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