Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Norrell and Strange: The Miniseries ("Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings")

So, Saturday while taking a break from putting together my presentation for the Christopher Tolkien roundtable (that is, a roundtable at the Medieval Congress in honor of C.T.), I found out that the BBC has made a seven-part adaptation of Susanne Clarke's JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL [2004]. Here's the link:

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/may/09/jonathan-strange-mr-norrell-susanna-clarke

This is interesting to see, because I don't think there's any question that Clarke's book is the most important work of fantasy of its decade, yet it's surprisingly unreadable. That is to say, I found myself getting bogged down when reading it, and in the end could only get through the story by borrowing an audiotape version from a friend (thanks, Bill).* Upon which I discovered that it's the main story, with Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange, that's the problem. The worldbuilding is superb, and the writing v. well-done, but this is a novel in which the footnotes are better than the main ongoing story. Just going through the audio cd, in which each footnote has its own track, and listening to the embedded stories of magicians of olden days and past encounters with magical folk is like reading Child's Ballads or a really good collection of short stories that really capture an elusive something (the best novel version of which is Mirrlees' LUD-IN-THE-MIST). This is reinforced by the excellent of her short story collection, LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU, which is a marvellous read: well-written, evocative, and engrossing (and, again, better as an audiobook).

Jo Walton, whose collection of blogposts I recently read,  WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT, at one point asks the question of why Clarke's book [2004] hasn't been widely imitated. I think it has, but badly: there's a slew (or perhaps it shd be slough) of Jane-Austen-meets-fantasy books out there (Kowal, Becker**), which all fall apart on the grounds that their authors aren't, in fact, Jane Austen. Austen makes what she does look easy, but it's not (reading through her juvenalia is one way to see that). And the best way to see it's not is to read her imitators, from the dire DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY to Kowal, Becker, et al.

So soon we'll see if they were able to pull off a worthwhile adaptation -- one better than 'Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings' (the tag-line of their pitch to the BBC) would indicate.

And here's hoping that Clarke is working on another book that plays to her strengths.

--John R.
--still on the road, about to head over to the Amtrak station.


*the audiobook version, by the way, is extremely well done; highly recommended

**the one attempt I've seen at this kind of thing that pulled it off was Wrede & Stevermer's epistolary pastiche SORCERY & CECELIA, and even they faltered on the sequel

1 comment:

Doug Kane said...

Probably my favorite book written in my lifetime. I've read it upwards of a dozen times, and love it each time. I'm looking forward to the mini-series with some trepidation, as I am doubtful that even the BBC can capture the peculiar charm that Clarke achieved.