The brilliant magic of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell": "I try and grab the audience literally by the eyeballs, and I don’t let go"

Salon talks to the writer, director and stars of BBC America's adaptation of the iconic Susanna Clarke novel

Published June 11, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

Eddie Marsan and Marc Warren in "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"      (BBC)
Eddie Marsan and Marc Warren in "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" (BBC)

BBC America’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” debuting Saturday night, is a seven-part miniseries bringing Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name to life. It’s an unusual number of installments for an unusual attempt—Clarke’s novel, a bestseller and award-winner here and in its native U.K., is populated with footnotes, asides and lovely turns of phrase. As our own Laura Miller wrote when she reviewed the novel, in 2004:

Clarke has invented an extensive history of English magic, complete with dozens of rare and learned texts, common misperceptions and even disappointments. “Like many spells with unusual names,” one footnote informs us, “the Unrobed Ladies was a great deal less exciting than it sounded. The ladies in the title were only a kind of woodland flower.”

In addition to being a mature, ironical look at magic, with a tone that is distinctly British, Clarke’s novel grapples with British identity itself—the warring impulses toward both order and whimsy; the people who weren’t white men; the desire to do what is right, coupled with the desire to see what is possible. With such idiosyncratic and beloved source material, adaptation is understandably difficult—with material as weighty and decidedly literary, it becomes a fascinating challenge.

I spoke to director Toby Haynes, scriptwriter Peter Harness, and actors Bertie Carvell (Jonathan Strange) and Charlotte Riley (Arabella) about the process of bringing “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” to the screen—and discovered enthusiastic fans of the novel who were engrossed not only in the characters and scenes but in the larger themes of disenchantment, progress and alienation. It’s difficult, when making a story about magic that is set in Britain, to avoid the specter of Harry Potter or even “The Lord of the Rings”; Haynes, the director, has imagined a world in “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” that has a version of magic and a sense of history that is quite different from both of those genre-defining works. The miniseries offers a subtler experience of magic and a more nuanced idea of heroism that is, as Miller put it in her review above, a mix of Harry Potter and nothing less than Jane Austen. It is a very English book, and therefore, a very English miniseries, but fortunately, English miniseries are very often a delight to experience.

How did you come to this project?

Peter Harness: Well, basically, I knew the book and it’s really pretty much my favorite book. It’s funny, and rich and imaginative, and it’s just the kind of book I’d like to read, really -- has everything that I’d want. It’s such a big and kind of full world … and the characters are so wonderful. I love everything about it, really.

Bertie Carvel: I loved this book when I read it, years ago, and never thought I’d get quite famous enough to get a shot at playing into a film. So, I kind of fell off my chair, when, 10 years later, I got an email saying they were doing it, and would I put myself on tape. I’m not the sort of actor that has dream roles, because one of the things that is quite fun about being an actor is not quite knowing what you’re going to do next, but this is kind of the exception, because I did dream about playing [Jonathan Strange] and had a very green notion of who the man was, way before I ever read the script. And then the script arrived, and Peter had written the most incredibly faithful adaptation, that would really kind of preserve the atmosphere but also keep the plot. So it was sort of a no-brainer for me.

Charlotte Riley: And for me, it was a quite different, really, because I hadn’t read the novel before, I’d heard about it -- and heard great things about it -- but I’d never come across it yet. And I read the script, and loved it, and found it a real page-turner, really didn’t want it to end.

Toby Haynes: You know, I always wanted to do a Dickens adaptation. A big adaptation of a Dickens novel. But it couldn’t be better for me that I didn’t get to do that and I got to do this instead, which has magic, has special effects, which draws you in, sort of bangs you over the head with it. Also to find a book that has such modern sensibilities within it that can — not in a wordy way, like “isn’t it terrible?” but in a way that is humorous and kind of ironic, and touching and personal — address these big themes of emancipation, and female emancipation as much as people of color.

When I read it — and I’m not a good reader, I’m dyslexic, so I used to have a method for books that I read and this was one of those books that just completely smashed that, and I felt completely immersed in it. And when I finished it, I felt that the characters and the story felt epic to me, and that was what was lingering in my mind.

It’s no accident that [Susanna Clarke] chose that time. It’s interesting, just the idea of arrogance of people who think order is the answer, and think it can all be summed up by places and — you know, the world, nature itself. Being dyslexic, you have to celebrate disorder — the way you see the world.

Did you end up consulting Susanna Clarke on any of the decisions you made, just to get her feedback?

TH: She did read the script, and she only ever said nice things. She’s been charming throughout. A lovely lady. But you know, the big decisions, Peter and I both made big decisions, which kind of divert from the book. But we were running to a different master and our masters were the characters and the stories they’re in. And that’s what adaptation is. Adaptation isn’t just slavishly reprinting the book on-screen. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to make big decisions sometimes. Because otherwise it would be boring. Then people would come away and say, “Well it’s not the book …” And you know, I wouldn’t want to be compared to the book. It should be totally new and totally different experiences. My ambition would be, for people who haven’t read the book—that they might watch the show, and go, “I might read that book.” That’d be the perfect response.

It’s such a literary book -- full of footnotes, for example -- so I imagine adapting that to the screen must have presented quite a challenge.

PH: Yes, it did. It wasn’t easy to adapt—but it was extremely enjoyable to adapt. I’ve not really had any bad days writing “Jonathan Strange,” because, you know, these are characters I kind of adored spending time with. They’re all so memorable and real and so believable, and speaking as someone who is a dramatist, they’re kind of predictable in a good way, because I kind of jot them into a different scene and you know them so well that it’s easy to see how they’ll behave. So, we tried to make it character, an emotional drama, and with all the kind of magic and the period elements and all those other kind of whistles and bells. They’re in there to stir those character journeys, and that relationship between strange and normal, and the love story between Strange and Arabella, and all of those different personal stories which basically interweave and form one big narrative.

Everyone involved in this show seems to feel very strongly about the characters. In the book, or in the production you made, what were the character stories that stuck really strongly with you, the ones you felt like you identified with or you felt like really mattered? 

TH: The one we really fought for was Stephen Black’s journey. He doesn’t come across very well to the casual reader of the book or the people who look at, maybe, the plot summary: “Why are we following this character?” things like that. We felt very strongly to have his story in there, because somehow it feels like the spine of it, and he’s this incredibly tragic character, who gets pulled in things, and gets pushed around, used by all sorts of different masters. And his whole story of emancipation felt like the heart of the piece. So we really fought for keeping him -- and by fought for, I should say: People aren’t saying cut it because they don’t like it, but rather because it’s an expensive character [laughs]. But that sequence is very much what I feel is a very defining sequence for the show.

Which sequence?

TH: It’s the slave ship sequence, toward the end of episode three. It’s a very interesting piece of drama, a very unusual piece of drama you never normally see on TV, and by that point you completely are riveted. And it’s sort of dangerous to use the imagery of slavery — it’s a sensitive piece — and yet, without it, it’s as if you’ve told an incomplete history. And that is a part of history, and it is real, and the actor playing Stephen Black [Ariyon Bakare] said, you know, “We’ve got to go strong with this piece.” It’s the heart of his story. The director has to love every character, and make sure that they’re whole — that everybody has a beginning, middle and end to their story.

I think that’s what is really unusual about this piece of drama as well. When you start a new show, you think, well maybe I’m going to see a beginning, middle, for each of these characters, as the season goes on, but you never expect to see an end because there’s like, six or seven seasons unless the show gets pulled, but we’ve got an end. We can show every character we introduce to an end, give them all a beginning, middle and end. I don’t think there’s a character in this that doesn’t get some kind of journey.

I don’t think “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” and the Harry Potter series have that much in common, but I do think it’s difficult to make a story of magic without having the Harry Potter books in mind, especially when you’re making a British story about magic. Was that something you thought about? How do you tell a story about magic, which — even outside of the realm of Harry Potter — we associate with youth and with children, in what is otherwise such a mature story?

PH: Personally, not really, because I haven’t read the Harry Potter books and I’m not really interested in them. The way we thought of the magic, we never wanted to use it as something that could be controlled by a magic wand. It was always something that was complicated and difficult to control, and that nobody really knew how to control it. And it would do things in ways that you didn’t understand, and it would also be destructive and erode people and relationships and things.

And I think that as the series progresses, you see the magic almost seeping in the cracks of people’s personalities. and gradually splitting them apart. You start to appreciate, perhaps, what Norell has been saying, about that which is unrestrained being so very dangerous, is actually right. It’s a powerful, kind of amoral force, which never does as it’s told. And I think it’s… perhaps a more unfriendly treatment of magic than being just something wonderful, where you click your fingers and there it is. It’s a bit horrifying. It doesn’t really work properly.

BC: One the things this story is about is that sort of moment in our history we decided magic didn’t exist. And the story asks, what would happen if we didn’t decide that? And I think we’re at a time in our culture right now when people are starting to be interested in that sort of thing, because we realize that we can’t explain everything we thought we could quite so swiftly by science, and there are more things in heaven and earth than are in our philosophy. This is a story about the meeting place of the rational enlightened movement that tries to box the world in and up around it and something else—something more romantic, something more.

So, for me, that’s a real question at the heart of the story — and for my character, who is described as having “talents but no skill.” He’s somebody whose understanding of the world is instinctive and idealistic rather than scientific. I read somewhere that the progress of the Enlightenment led to the disenchantment of the world. This is a story about re-enchanting it, and asking, what if that project hadn’t succeeded quite as totally as it seems to have done?

TH: “Harry Potter” is geared to make magic wonderful, and what you find out in reading “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” is that magic is wonderful, but greatly transformed can be quite awful. Maybe like the way we look at money or something like that -- everyone wants to be rich, but then the reality being it can be awful and very destructive. It’s as strong as the character blessed or cursed with it. I think that ultimately what it was is a story of human frailty, of character, of male ego, and the insanity of order. I think there were certain tonal things I did as a director to make sure we weren’t doing anything that felt Harry Potter-y. We never really had flashes of light as part of our magic or lightning or anything like that. I really thought hard about how the magic would come across. It had to come across in a physical way, it’s something that felt physical and I didn’t use CGI in a way that would make it too — we had to use it in a way to make sure it felt defined against Harry Potter. It’s an adult story about using magic, how that sort of corrupted them.

It sort of seemed like the magic was, in a way, not the focus of the story, even though it seemed superficially that it’s the focus. It was more about people using magic to serve their own motivations—whether it’s to get the girl that he loves, or further your own career. It could have been about early science. The fact that it’s about magic was, you know, brilliant for me because I like magic, and I love Harry Potter and I love “The Lord of the Rings,” and here was an epic book which people had failed to adapt, so the opportunity was incredibly exciting.

So we just thought, let’s develop the story as the book has it, and, you know, to hell with whether people get it or not! I always knew that people would love it, because I loved it, and I thought if people could see what I was seeing in my head and what I was responding to — if people could see even a tenth of what I’m seeing — then we’re on to a winner, we’re going to be fine.

And the realization of the magic … you know, in my head, I had a rule, I didn’t want to do anything that felt very Doctor Who-y or Harry Potter-y, or something else that we’d seen before — and also we had such budgetary limitations as well, so we were forced in a certain way of doing things cheaply, and I think that’s a really good place to start.

And in fact the magic was for me always grown out and organic, and so even the sound design — it wouldn’t have just kind of Sci-Fi-y sounds, it was all sounds that came from nature, like thunder or trees screeching or creeks of magic rope at the end. So like if you were in the valve of a ship, and you’re lying at the bottom of a wooden ship that’s at sea, and it’s creaking and you could sort of feel this mass moving around you … that kind of stuff that would help to reinforce a magical motif, a filmmaking logic — you light a candle, it flutters, you hear some creaks and The Gentleman [Marc Warren] appears.

It’s true: The visual power of the magic is pretty restrained — it almost creeps into the frame in regular ways. The mirror magic is what I’m thinking of in particular. It feels very, casual, I guess is the word for it?

TH: I’m trying to sneak it in, trying not to hit people over the head with it, and you know, with a drama -- and this applies to “Sherlock” [Haynes directed “The Reichenbach Fall”] as well — I try and grab the audience literally by the eyeballs, and I don’t let go, and I pull them along, and I like them to think when the film starts, when the program starts, “Well, I’d like a cup of tea while I watch this,” and then forget to make it. I suffer from a very short attention span — I’m very easily bored by life, everyday stuff. So I know that if I’m interested, if it keeps me, it’ll keep anybody.

One of the things that struck me about the story is that, in opposition to this very male and very magical rational world, the arc of Jonathan and Arabella is a love story. That’s what connects the beginning and the end of the novel.

CR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really the love and truth that they have for each other that carries them through that world.

BC: The love story is what gives it a spine, really, that’s the thing that pulls the story together. But it’s also a story about how men and male ambition sucks them all apart, and actually the women in the story are the ones who sort of do the rescuing. My character is ostensibly rescuing his wife but, in fact, she rescues him. So it’s quite a 20th century, feminist angle, which seems to reflect the world we live in. I think that it’s a modern story as well as a historical one.

CR: The character of Arabella is interesting because there are very few women in the piece and it isn’t often that the female characters are described — well, the period can make all of its characters a little bit dry. But I just thought she was really, really her, and her relationship with Jonathan brings the heartbeat to the piece. And I thought this was a really interesting challenge, to meet Bertie and think: How are we going to work? How are we going to make sure that there’s plenty of juicy romance between the two of them?

BC: It is quite a modern relationship that they have, it’s a nice kind of foil to this being a period piece -- we’re doing a kind of historical drama, but it’s rotated 90 degrees with the magic. Peter’s given a very modern voice to the women in the piece. As Toby said, and as Peter was saying just this morning — how important it had been to give the women, and the character of Stephen Black, the black manservant -- to think about those characters who were marginalized, women, people of color, at that point in history, and actually get the story about how those people were pushed to the margins and really forgotten about by the white men at the center of the story. And so it really becomes … you hear that really strongly.

How did you come by this cast?

TH: I feel that the cast we put together is a snapshot of the very best of British acting at the moment. Do you remember a show called “Our Friend From the North”? It’s from the mid-'90s, it had Daniel Craig in it, it had Mark Strong in it. If you look at that cast, everyone from that cast now is a huge actor. You would not get that cast back in the same production -- you just wouldn’t be able to afford them -- I believe that’s true for this cast. We have this embarrassment of riches, of incredible actors. It’s just a feast for drama lovers. And we’ve got them in the same room, same production, acting impeccably, and I don’t think we’ll get the same cast together again.


By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

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