Over the weekend, the long, long, long-awaited BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell finally began its seven-episode run. The downside? Across the pond, we’ve still got an entire month before it premieres on BBC America on June 13. We know time operates strangely in Faerie, but we feel like we’ve been waiting forever already.
All the buzz so far surrounding the miniseries has been excellent (and has only gotten louder since the British debut). After seeing the tantalizing trailer the BBC put together, we can see why. (If I had to pick Mr. Norrell’s voice out of a lineup, that actor’s would have been it. Casting brilliance.)
There are dozens of scenes we are psyched to see come to life—all the sweeping period drama that drew us into the book, quite frankly. The London ballrooms of Regency England, the wild windswept moors of Yorkshire, the muddy trek of the Napoleonic campaigns, and a moody Byronic Venice. But Clarke’s gorgeous text has some particularly unforgettable moments we can’t wait to see translated onto the screen. Here’s a list of our most anticipated.
(Beware—there be spoilers ahead!)
The Yorkshire Cathedral comes to life
In this incredible scene from the start of the book, Mr. Norrell stakes his claim as the only practicing magician left in England, a title he chooses to demonstrate by bringing all the statues and gargoyles inside York Cathedral to yapping, complaining, accusatory life, as they spill the secrets and petty arguments of centuries to an awestruck crowd of magical scholars. This is the scene that convinced me Clarke’s magical world was going to be unlike anything I’d seen before—this magic was no substitute for technology. This was magic as a form of self-expression. An art, rather than a craft or science, one whose quality and purpose is entirely shaped by its user. It was a deeply human magic, embedded in everyday squabbles and cultural mores and, as a product of the early 19th century English, often deeply provincial, petty, and thoroughly convinced of its own superiority. (How perfect is it that one of the most lasting legacies of this incredible act of magic is a lawsuit and an extended fight about zoning?) I put my trust in Clarke after this scene; I knew that wherever we were going with magic, I had never been there before. I can’t wait to see how the filmmakers strike a balance between the surreal and the mundane to create this same sense of wonder in viewers.
The introduction of the Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair
Then there’s this guy, who makes those talking gargoyles look cute by comparison. So much of what is wonderful about Clarke’s exploration of magic relies on the creeping horror of this tantalizing character, and everything that surrounds him. His summoning, coming as it does as a last resort in the midst of Norrell’s desperation to prove himself to an important man who just won’t listen, proves magic is a dangerous drug. Every one of his scenes is a surrealist masterpiece, and the Mad Hatter dream logic he employs turns repeatedly upends the narrative, until you become as lost as the characters. This is the scene that shows us how the evil gets his foot in the door. Like a vampire: you invite him.
Jonathan Strange moves mountains…for England!
I love the Napoleonic War sequence so much. It’s like that fun montage you always get in a movie, when things kick into high gear and we dance-party our way through whatever comes next. Jonathan Strange is discovering all the weird and wonderful possibilities of magic, and so are we. We know it’s just the honeymoon period, and we don’t care at all. Strange gets to run around the Peninsula moving rivers and mountains, creating fake blockades, and raising helpful French sentries from the dead (they have a lot of…uncomplimentary things to say about the English, as you’d expect), all in the service of Mother England. Even better, he’s got Wellington there with him, delightfully grumping and grumbling about supply trains and those damned Frogs. It should be a great caper amid the series.
You know how people tell you to not skip the footnotes? Most of the time, I get it, but OH MY GOD, I hope the writers didn’t listen. Because if not, they are going to miss out on some of the best folktales, legends and “historical” anecdotes I’ve ever read. There are tales of girls lost in Faerie for decades, of scholarly magical squabbles centuries old, of the battle of magician kings and faerie servants, even the tale of a defamation lawsuit against a man who was accused of being a faerie. Granted, I have no idea how they could work them in (Dream sequences? Surreal chronological time-warps? Fragments wrapped up in flashbacks?), but I hope they can. And hey, if they can’t, and need a whole OTHER miniseries just to do those, I wouldn’t complain.
The Ball of Lost Hope
While all this historical exploration is lovely, I really can’t wait to go down the rabbit hole and into Faerie. The Ball of Lost Hope should be one of the major spectacles of our time there. It’s described in the book as the ultimate embodiment of the seductive despair of Faerie, and how, even though most of its participants are aware it’s no party they’re attending, they are obliged to maintain the fiction that it is. Stephen Black’s wanderings through Faerie observing its workings are wonderful, moving metaphors, and scenes that should make us want to crawl out of our own skin.
Strange’s Eternal Night
Late in the book, Strange is cursed to wander abroad in a decaying Venice, engulfed in Eternal Night no matter where he goes, fighting the worst of magic and his own nature to save those he loves. This is one of Clarke’s best uses of magic, woven seamlessly into time and place. Sitting as it does smack in the midst of England’s transition from Enlightenment thought and the somewhat cruel, comedic, brooding trends that would rule the styles of the Romantic era, it makes sense that we weren’t going to close this tale without delving there ourselves. (And brooding a little with Byron, of course.) I hope that the filmmakers bend magic as nimbly as Clarke does; that we too feel that somehow, we’ve taken something deeply human away from this otherworldly tale.
What scenes do you want to see in the series?