More than a decade after the book was first published, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell made its television debut on May 17 in the U.K., and is set to hit BBC America screens on June 13. Susanna Clarke’s award-winning, beloved book is a sweeping, fantastical story, set in an alternate history of 19th-century England, that over almost 1,000 pages makes you want to believe in magic.
Peter Harness is the writer charged with bringing this world to television. No stranger to turning popular books into TV, Harness has written both BBC’s award-winning Wallander series based on Henning Mankell’s novel series, as well as Case Histories, the series based on novelist Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. He’s also felt the weight of TV fan expectation, having also written episodes of Doctor Who. But perhaps the most intense pressure Harness felt for this new project came from within.
“I’d say it’s my favorite book, so it was challenging but such a pleasure to do,” says Harness. “There’s so much fantastic stuff in the book, so more than anything else it was a process of working out how to achieve carrying that kind of world, all of the imagination, character and humor of Susanna’s book into a form that works on TV.”
Here Harness breaks down how he translated the story to the screen.
Harness and the producers approached the series as one seven-hour film, or one film chopped into seven chapters. Even with all that time, given the size and scope of the novel, some things from the printed page can’t make it on screen. Harness says the most important part was to keep the tone and spirit of the book.
“Some writers have more of one thing and less of another, so if you’re adapting something you’re always having to do a different job on every book, and it’s a unique experience,” he says. “But what I always try to do is adapt books that I love, and try to honor the spirit of the book and make it as close to the reading experience as possible. Perhaps the story is different in many respects, but I try to make it so that if you have read the book, you’ll have part of the same experience.”
Clarke’s novel presents many opportunities for its TV stewards to have plenty of CGI fun, but Harness says that in deciding what scenes would make it to the series, story trumped all. “Despite the fantasy genre and having CG, we were very keen that it should be a proper, character-based, emotional story and the way we’d carry people through those seven hours is making them care about the characters,” he says. “The choices were always made from that point of view. A sequence or scene can cost $10 million and look very impressive but it can still be boring if it doesn’t help tell the story or involve you emotionally. So it was all about wedding all those things to a properly involved story and not just have it be a spectacle.”
To tackle the book material, Hanress says he started by simply breaking the novel down into distinct sections, in order to see it as more episodic.
“I just broadly cut the book into chunks, and basically thought, ‘well, that’s where we’ll start this episode, that’s where this other episode will end,’ and maybe moving one thing a bit further on, and something else a bit sooner,” says Harness. “The first three or four episodes I got through about 150 to 200 pages per episode, as the book gathered speed, so did we and we’d perversely use fewer pages. But it was also making it a compact narrative. I think it still has plenty of space to breath, spending time with characters, and isn’t afraid of being thoughtful, but we also wanted to make it move quickly and not have any slack in it.”
As Faulkner fans and anyone who’s ever been really disappointed by a TV or movie adaptation know, great as any novel may be, it still needs to be able to work in a visual medium.
“First and foremost, the key thing is to make sure it does work as a piece of film or television,” says Harness. “If you’re doing a piece of drama that works dramatically, that moves, has pace, conflict and proper characters. You need to approach it structurally, as you would writing an original TV show or film.”
Harness says he tends to take a book to pieces and then build a strong dramatic structure onto which he then assembles the building blocks of the film or TV series. “You need to get in there and do some real structural work to make sure it can stand in a different medium, then plaster over those cracks with details from the book, ideally in a way people won’t really notice because it will make them feel as excited, drawn in and connected with the characters as it did when they were reading the book,” says Harness. “That experience between viewer and program is obviously different than reader and book, and you have to appreciate you’re doing a different thing.”