Tag Archives: book adaptations

5 SFF Adaptations That Would Greatly Improve Genre Diversity in TV and Film

Another day, another list of upcoming SFF adaptations that is a big, depressing sausage fest.

I feel like the common wisdom on the issue of diversity in media is that things are improving, but it’s very telling when just a quick count of the properties listed on this list of upcoming or possibly upcoming book-to-film/television adaptations shows forty based on work by men, but only five based on work by women. It probably goes without saying, but there are also only a couple of people of color on the list.

Moving on to the subjects of the projects, things are somewhat better, but not much. A full half of the projects focus on men’s stories, more if you count ensemble projects whose main characters are men. Only two projects are primarily about women. It’s a depressing toll, especially when we’d all like to believe that television and film are improving in diversity. If this list represents any improvement at all, it’s not good enough.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what would be good enough, but there are numerous books and comics that I think would improve the film and television landscape. Certainly, any of these would be significantly more interesting than another crop of shows starring square-jawed white dudes.

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
    Space opera has gotten popular again, and this one is very good. I’d love to see it as an ongoing television series, though that would require some expansion upon the source material. However, the novel itself is very episodic in nature, being told as a sequence of vignettes, each one focusing on a different character. This would lend itself well to being adapted as a miniseries or as a short series on a digital platform such as Netflix or Amazon, or it could be easily streamlined into a long film. The major downside of this book is that the high number of alien characters would require expensive special effects to produce, but the right production company could create something really wonderful if they were willing to spend the money on it.
  2. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
    This book just begs to be made into a big summer blockbuster a la Independence Day. I want to see it at the drive-in.
  3. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
    Like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but more fun. Either film the book as it is for a delightful miniseries, or start where the book ends and continue the adventures of Prunella and Zacharias. Or both. Both would be good.
  4. God’s War by Kameron Hurley
    While I’m not often a fan of just lifting characters from a book and writing all new stories around them for television, Kameron Hurley’s Beldame Apocrypha would be perfect for that treatment. Nyx is an amazing character of a type that doesn’t often get to be female, and her shifting crew of associates would make great fodder for a gritty sci-fi bounty hunter sort of thing. The world and characters Hurley created in this series are more than strong enough to carry a long-running television show, which would allow some of the bigger plots of the books to be explored at leisure.
  5. The Just City by Jo Walton
    The goddess Athena gathers thinkers and dreamers from all ends of history in order to build Plato’s Republic. Apollo decides to become human so he can grow up as a child in the Just City. There are robots. And Socrates. And philosophical debates out the wazoo. I would watch this on TV, and I think I’m not the only one.

Obviously, I’m not saying no more square-jawed white dudes, ever, but all of these suggestions would make for a very nice change in the current landscape of entertainment. They would be even better if we could get more diversity behind the camera and in writing rooms for them as well.

The truth is that every time there are new surveys of the industry, it’s proven over and over again that the needle of diversity hasn’t moved much in thirty years. While there have been somewhat more actors of color in highly visible roles, it’s simply not true that things have really improved that much overall. The same can be said for the presence of women in cinema, and those who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary fare even worse.

Any (but preferably all) of the five works I suggest here would be a step in a better direction.

Lionsgate will be adapting Patrick Rothfuss’s ‘The Kingkiller Chronicle’

Patrick Rothfuss’s epic story of one boy’s struggle to pay his student loans will soon be made into, apparently, both a television series and a movie (or four, probably, since that’s how movies are made these days). Also video games. And the deal also includes rights to Rothfuss’s other work in the same universe.

Hollywood Reporter broke the news a couple of days ago, and the author has a lengthy post on his blog with much more actual information.

I’m actually moderately excited about this. I sort of love to hate the books, which are technically good and highly readable even though the treatment of women both by the main character, Kvothe, and by the author in the narrative is highly questionable. Can’t wait to write thousands of words about any movies or shows that get made.

Movie Review: The Martian

The Martian was never going to be one of my favorite films, just like the book was never going to be one of my favorite novels (although I did really enjoy it when I read it earlier this year). However, like the book, the movie was smart and funny and deeply enjoyable. Also, perhaps counterintuitively, it’s a pretty great advertisement for space travel.

The thing about The Martian–and this was also true of the book–is that there aren’t really many surprises. From the moment Mark Hadley (Matt Damon, who somehow manages to be both well-cast and almost entirely forgettable in the role) gets left on Mars, we know he’s going to survive and get rescued. The story, in both book and film, is about how he does it and about how his fellow astronauts and people back on Earth work together to bring him home.

Of course, a lot of the more technical stuff from the book was necessarily omitted from the movie. It’s probably for the best, though. Even on the page it often read like Hackaday, and a two-and-a-half hour how-to video would have pretty limited appeal. While this diminished some of the sense of danger on Mars–a big part of the tension in the novel was the series of disasters, both minor and major, that Mark had to figure out how to overcome–the sleeker storytelling left plenty of space for the far more interesting things that were happening on Earth and on the Ares spacecraft.

Speaking of the Ares crew, they were without exception wonderful. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Commander Melissa Lewis and manages to portray a complete and compelling emotional arc with relatively little screen time. Aksel Hennie’s Vogel and Michael Peña’s Martinez got some of the funniest lines in the movie. Kate Mara’s Johanssen and Sebastian Stan’s Beck were  a little underutilized, but their love story from the book was included in a sweet and subtle way that I really appreciated.

On Earth, most of the action is shot from the point of Vincent Kapoor, a character who was of Indian descent (and named Venkat, actually) in the book, but was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie. As much as I love Chiwetel Ejiofor and his performance, this is a strange casting choice, especially when there are so few roles for Asian actors in American cinema, and more especially when there doesn’t seem to have been much effort at diversity elsewhere in the casting process, either. Even Mindy Park (who I read as probably Korean in the book) was a blonde white woman, and all of the non-specified Ares crew were white. It’s not the worst movie in terms of representation, but I think there were definitely some missed opportunities–especially since by the near future when The Martian is supposed to take place US racial demographics will have changed pretty considerably. Frankly, a future as white as the one we’re shown in this movie is just damned unrealistic.

It was a good flick, though. Going into the film, probably my biggest concern was that the (extremely thematically important) collaboration with China would be left out, but it was included, albeit in an abbreviated form. The most significant changes from the book were actually on Mars, where the majority of Mark’s final journey was cut, but I found that I didn’t mind this very much. The material that was left out was mostly what was a little tiresome in the final quarter or so of the book, when the drama of Mark’s constant crises started to feel a bit overdone. That said, if they could have worked it in, I think the giant storm that forced Mark to make a major change of course in the book would have been cool to see as well as being a nice piece of symmetry to balance out the storm that got Mark left on Mars in the first place.

I don’t think The Martian is a movie that I’ll want to see over and over again, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it ages as we learn more about Mars in the next few years. It’s a beautiful film, though, full of gorgeously crafted shots of alien landscape as well as almost-but-not-quite familiar technology. It’s an optimistic story about a good possible future, and it’s the sort of movie that should make everyone who watches it want to be an astronaut. Be sure to take your kids.

I will def see The Martian if Neil DeGrasse Tyson tells me to

Full disclosure: I will definitely be seeing The Martian anyway because it comes out right before my birthday and I loved the book. But this new trailer thingy with Neil DeGrasse Tyson in it is really excellent:

I also read a couple of interesting pieces about the movie over the weekend:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “The Black Tower”

“The Black Tower” might be the single best episode of television I’ve watched so far in 2015. It’s superbly written on its own, and it shines as an adaptation of a much-beloved novel. What (remarkably little, actually) is lost in the translation from page to screen is more than made up for by the incredible performances of Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange), Marc Warren (The Gentleman), and Ariyon Bakare (Stephen Black). This is definitely the best episode yet for all of these characters.

There's no such thing as bad publicity?
There’s no such thing as bad publicity?

We begin the episode with breaking of two bits of Jonathan Strange news: his escape from jail and the publication of his book, The History and Practice of English Magic. The publisher is delighted, although he does point out that the one problem with having a fugitive author is that he doesn’t know where to send all the money they are raking in from the book sales.

At his house in Hanover Square, Mr. Norrell opens his copy of Strange’s book, which is beautiful (a nice detail kept from the novel, where Strange insisted that part of his goal with the book was for it to be a work of art). The shot of Norrell weeping as he reads it is, I think, the most human and sympathetic we’ve seen him since his final tea with Strange, and it’s definitely the best we see of him in this episode.

Mr. Norrell casting his spell to destroy Jonathan Strange's book.
Mr. Norrell casting his spell to destroy Jonathan Strange’s book.

It’s clear that Norrell has mixed feelings about the book, but he truly believes it to be dangerous enough that he puts down his copy at least long enough to magick all the other copies of it out of existence. The way they show this spell is kind of uncharacteristically (for this show, anyway) silly, as the books just start disappearing–each with an audible pop–but it’s a welcome bit of levity in an otherwise very dark episode. And, honestly, I suppose that for many bibliophiles, this tiny bit of comedy isn’t going to distract from what an enormous crime it is for anyone to censor any book as completely as Norrell does Strange’s.

Jonathan Strange in Venice.
Jonathan Strange in Venice.

In Venice, and completely unaware of Norrell’s destruction of the book, Jonathan Strange is hard at work trying to summon a fairy, and he’s looking much the worse for wear. He’s also, frustratingly, consistently successful at summoning the Gentleman. He just can’t see him. My favorite thing about these first scenes of Strange is how perfectly realized his Venice workshop is. It looks like exactly the sort of place that a wealthy and slightly mad and extremely single-minded fugitive magician on a mission might be hanging out. My only criticism is that it looks like he’s been there for years rather than for only a couple of months, and so it becomes another sort of example of the show’s struggles with conveying the passage of time.

Jonathan Strange has lunch with the Greysteels.
Jonathan Strange has lunch with the Greysteels.

I was super excited to see that they managed to squeeze in the Greysteels, and it turns out that Flora is at least as delightful in the show as she ever was in the book. Jonathan Strange’s first meeting with Flora and her father is excellently done, if a little rushed. They managed to get Clive Mantle to play Dr. Greysteel, and literally every look on his face is my favorite. He is so fed up with Flora’s shenanigans, but she’s clearly a force of nature he can’t control even a little bit. The Greysteels have been visiting with Mrs. Delgado, the crazy cat lady from the book, and have I mentioned how happy I am that they didn’t cut Venice and the Greysteels from the show?

"All you men leave me in peace."
“All you men leave me in peace.”

At Starecross, Vinculus is trying to convince Stephen Black to let him out of his cell, and Lady Pole is just fucking done. She’s exhausted with trying to communicate with people about her situation, and she’s disheartened (though not particularly surprised) to learn that Jonathan Strange has fled the country. It seems that she has finally given up on their ability to be of any help to her at all, and she intends to sleep so that she may keep watch over Arabella at Lost-Hope.

Well, this is embarrassing.
Well, this is embarrassing.

In Parliament, we get to see a great shouting match, as Sir Walter Pole and Lord Liverpool have become pretty unpopular these days. Basically everyone is pissed off about the magicians, and they blame Sir Walter particularly for promoting them.

At Hanover Square, Mr. Norrell is desperate to learn what Jonathan Strange is doing, and this precipitates a trip to the prison to ask Drawlight about it. Poor Drawlight is looking even more poorly than Jonathan Strange these days, but he’s still managed to glean some gossip about the magician and his doings in Venice. To learn more, Norrell sends Drawlight to Venice to spy on Strange in person. While this is basically what happened in the book, I felt like it was out of character for Norrell to threaten Drawlight in person the way he did here. In the book, it’s Lascelles who retrieves Drawlight and sends him on his way alone, because Norrell doesn’t get his hands dirty with that sort of thing. I suppose I understand why it might be easier to film it the way they did in the show, especially in an episode where Norrell has relatively little screentime when compared to Jonathan Strange, but still. It’s a small departure that actually makes a fairly big difference in the way we understand Norrell’s character during this part of the story, and I don’t care for it.

Mrs. Delgado.
Mrs. Delgado.

Returning to Venice, Jonathan Strange has decided to pay his own visit to Mrs. Delgado. He offers to give her her heart’s desire if she will teach him to be mad. The deal is quickly struck; Mrs. Delgado is turned into a cat, and Jonathan Strange has concentrated all of the old widow’s madness into one dead mouse. He tries to eat the mouse whole, but finds that Mrs. Delgado’s madness was even stronger than he expected it to be, so he returns to his laboratory to try using it a different way.

Marc Warren gives great face as the Gentleman in this episode.
Marc Warren gives great face as the Gentleman in this episode.

After steeping the dead mouse in some water (and I’m not sure if this is more or less disgusting than the way he ground up the dried mouse and mixed it with water in the book), Jonathan Strange drinks a few drops of the mouse liquid and continues on with trying to summon a fairy. Sure enough, Jonathan finds himself able to see the Gentleman on his very next summoning attempt, for all that he is nearly too mad to realize at first what he’s done.

For his part, the Gentleman is just absolutely furious, although quietly so, and as soon as Strange releases him from the summoning he goes to complain to Stephen Black about it. Still at Starecross, Stephen Black decides after this visit from the Gentleman to listen to Vinculus, who promises that he knows how to free Stephen from the fairy. When Stephen leaves Starecross, he has Vinculus hidden in the back of his cart.

Back in Venice again, Drawlight has arrived and is rather conspicuously lurking about in the background as Flora Greysteel helps Jonathan Strange shop for a dress for his wife. Clearly in high spirits following his first successful contact with a fairy, Jonathan is practically effervescent as he fills Flora in on his plans to revive Arabella and restore magic to England. Flora asks if he will teach her, and Strange affirms that he will teach “all the women and the poor men,” and this affirmation is an important piece of the characterization of Jonathan Strange as having a much more egalitarian philosophy than the very class-conscious and chauvinistic Mr. Norrell.

The second meeting.
The second meeting.

Jonathan Strange’s second meeting with the Gentleman doesn’t go nearly so well as he’d hoped. Strange is prepared to negotiate for Arabella’s resurrection, but the Gentleman’s reply is a flat no. He cannot resurrect Arabella because of “certain circumstances”–obviously, to the viewer, the fact that Arabella is not, in fact, dead at all. Unfortunately, Jonathan Strange knows nothing of this, and his pain is palpable. However, this leads Strange to question the Gentleman about his previous interactions with English magicians, and this is how Jonathan Strange discovers the secret of how Mr. Norrell resurrected Lady Pole.

Lady Pole at Lost-Hope, disappointed again.

Denied his wife, Strange demands that the fairy bring him a token from his last dealing with an English magician, and he receives Lady Pole’s finger in a box. Using the finger, Strange is able to travel through a mirror to reach Lost-Hope, where he finds himself at one of the Gentleman’s balls. Strange is greeted first by Stephen Black, who is aghast at the magician’s appearance there. Then he is met by Lady Pole who at first, hopefully, asks if Strange has come to rescue them, but quickly becomes deflated when she realizes that he had no idea that she or Stephen or Arabella were even there.

Jonathan Strange faces the Gentleman alone.
Jonathan Strange faces the Gentleman alone.

When Jonathan sees Arabella, he becomes distraught and yells for the Gentleman to release her, but the fairy instead dispels all of the revelers except Stephen Black. All of the fairy Gentleman’s anger at the magicians is released in one terrific spell. Though it drains much of his strength to do it, the Gentleman curses Jonathan Strange with eternal darkness and deports the magician from Lost-Hope.

Before we see what happens to Jonathan Strange, Stephen Black wakes up back in the English countryside, where he is still traveling with Vinculus. As they prepare to continue on their journey, Stephen confronts Vinculus about the prophecy and demands to see the book that Vinculus claims to have, at which point Vinculus strips off his shirt to show that he is the Book of the Raven King.

Stephen Black and Vinculus.
Stephen Black and Vinculus.

“Our meaning is written in our skin,” Vinculus intones, to which Stephen Black says that his skin means that he will always face racism and oppression. Vinculus replies that his skin says the opposite, and that Stephen Black “will be raised on high” and become a king. It’s a powerful scene, and Ariyon Bakare’s performance is note perfect. The show has often struggled with doing justice to the character of Stephen Black, but I think they really nailed it here. It also helps that in this episode they finally shot some Stephen Black scenes outside of poorly lit English houses so we can see a bit more of Ariyon Bakare’s face, which is highly expressive when not in shadows.

Flora Greysteel enters the darkness.
Flora Greysteel enters the darkness.

In Venice, an enormous, swirling tower of darkness has appeared over the city. While most of the city’s denizens are fleeing, Flora Greysteel runs towards it–because of course she’s the sort of woman who runs to the danger instead of away from it. She finds Jonathan, who tries to send her away, but Flora is desperate to help her friend. Strange tells her that she will know what to do when the time comes for her to help him, but she is only persuaded to go when her father comes to escort her to safety. They pass Drawlight on their way out, and when they get back to their own apartments, there is a mirror waiting there under a blanket.

The Black Tower.
The Black Tower.

Unable to learn anything from the Greysteels, Drawlight tries to leave town, but finds himself being chased by the tower of darkness, which is calling his name. The poor man finds himself pulled to the center of the darkness, where he comes upon Jonathan Strange, who promises not to harm him if Drawlight will take three messages to England. First, the box with Lady Pole’s finger and the explanation for it must be given to Childermass. Second, there is a letter for Lady Pole herself. And the third message, as it was in the book, is for Mr. Norrell and is simply, “I am coming.”

Once more at Hanover Square, Mr. Norrell is preparing to leave for his home and library at Hurtfew Abbey when Sir Walter and the Lord Liverpool arrive with a final commission from the government: stop Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell upbraids the Ministers for encouraging Strange in the first place, and then says that he doesn’t even know if he can stop Jonathan Strange or even what Strange is capable of doing.

Childermass notices the mirrors first.
Childermass notices the mirrors first.

While Mr. Norrell’s household is finishing packing up his belongings, Childermass notices strange sounds coming from the mirrors in the house–like faint scratching or the pecking of birds. After the Ministers have left, Norrell is examining a large mirror more closely, when it smashes open and a flood of ravens bursts out of it, which is terribly dramatic and a striking visual effect.

The episode ends with Vinculus’s meeting with the tree. As soon as they arrive at the out of the way place–a sort of canyon, with just one tree in the center of it–Stephen Black points out that this is not a friendly looking place, but the camp out to wait anyway.

Vinculus and the Gentleman.
Vinculus and the Gentleman.

Soon enough, the Gentleman arrives, visiting Stephen for the first time since he cursed Jonathan Strange and still in a peculiar mood. When he realizes that Vinculus can see him, the Gentleman seems to turn his residual malice on this new target, suggesting that they kill Vinculus and then go do something else. Vinculus informs the fairy that he will find that Vinculus is “a hard man to kill,” but, while Stephen Black weeps helplessly, the Gentleman hangs Vinculus anyway. Keeping with the tarot card symbolism that was so common in the book, “The Black Tower” has as its final image a hanged man in a tree rather ominously covered with ravens.

The Hanged Nan.
The Hanged Nan.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “Arabella”

Compared the the first four episodes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, not a lot happens in this episode. Instead, “Arabella” is a slower-paced hour focused on character development and feelings. Overall, I think it’s a strong episode, but there were a couple of odd adaptational decisions that I’m not thrilled with.

Jonathan Strange pulling water from the well. I DO love the look of the magic in this show.
Jonathan Strange pulling water from the well. I DO love the look of the magic in this show.

The episode begins with Jonathan Strange at the Battle of Waterloo, which doesn’t feel anywhere near as epic as it did in the book. We see nothing of Brussels. Instead the action takes place in an almost comically tiny fort surrounded by a veritable sea of CGI army guys, although most of the actual action in the wide shots is obscured by an enormous cloud of smoke and the whole battle is over in just a couple of minutes.

At the end of the battle.
Wellington, Strange, and Grant at the end of the battle.

During the battle, Jonathan Strange magicks some water out of a well to put out a fire, whips up some vines to keep some guys from climbing the walls of the fort, and almost gets blown up. In a moment of desperation, Strange uses his magic to make a huge mud hand and squishes a guy that was about to kill him–very clearly violating his own earlier statement that a gentleman would never kill anyone with magic. It ought to be a huge deal, but everything happens so quickly that I didn’t really feel the weight of this moment. Even the wide shot of the devastated battleground and a long look at the melancholy faces of Wellington, Strange, and Grant as they observe it just feels off–probably because Wellington ruins the gravitas of the moment by wondering aloud what will be done with them now. I suppose this could be read as ironic, but I just didn’t like it. It would have been better to just stick with the three men silently looking at the horrors of war.

When Jonathan Strange returns to England, he goes back to residing at his country house, Ashfair in Shropshire. He’s obviously quite changed by his experiences in the war–his hands shake, and he’s got a touch of gray in his hair–but he seems focused on rebuilding his life with Arabella and writing his book. I like these quiet domestic scenes, and I love that Arabella is the illustrator of her husband’s book, but I feel like everything goes a little too quickly back to something a little too close to normal after Jonathan’s trauma at Waterloo. Mostly, while I think the gray in his hair and the tremble in his hands are nice, subtle ways of showing the change in him, Jonathan’s final decision to use magic to kill is not really commented on in any specific way, but ends up sort of smushed together with the whole war experience.

One thing this show does nicely is create gorgeous, atmospheric scenery, even if it does feel a little out of place. I loved this shot, but it doesn't really fit the tone of what follows.
One thing this show does nicely is create gorgeous, atmospheric scenery, even if it does feel a little out of place. I loved this shot, but it doesn’t really fit the tone of what follows.

Back in London (introduced in this episode with the above shot), Mr. Norrell is denouncing Jonathan Strange to anyone who will listen and frantically trying to find a way to prevent the publication of Strange’s book. I was happy to see the show include the publisher, Murray, who practically laughs Norrell out of the room when Norrell and Lascelles try to bully him.

Moss oak Arabella.
Moss oak Arabella.

While the moss oak Arabella we saw at the end of the last episode wanders the countryside freaking out honest folk, Lady Pole dreams that Arabella will be taken by the Gentleman and tries rather unsuccessfully to communicate her fears to Segundus and Honeyfoot. Lady Pole beseeches them to send a message to Jonathan Strange, but it is too late. Stephen Black comes in the night and spirits Arabella away to Lost-Hope.

The border between England and Faerie is another gorgeous bit of scenery.
The border between England and Faerie is another beautiful piece of scenery.

This decision to have Stephen be the one who actually, physically kidnaps Arabella is one that I just can’t get on board with because it seems so out of character. We’ve seen Stephen hanging around with the Gentleman quite a bit, but he always seems reluctant at best and more often revolted by the fairy. We’ve even gotten to see Stephen Black’s subtle resistance of the Gentleman, even though Stephen becomes increasingly hopeless and despondent as things continue on. Even in this episode, there are times when Stephen refuses to do the Gentleman’s bidding while they are in the same room together, so it doesn’t make sense that Stephen would kidnap Arabella on his own, without any evidence of his being compelled to do so and with such evident guilt and shame about doing it.

In the novel, it’s actually left somewhat mysterious exactly how the Gentleman manages to steal Arabella away in the night, and I think that something similar could have been done on the show. Or they could have had some random fairies do it. Or they could have had the Gentleman in the carriage as well. Or literally almost anything except having Stephen Black be the sole kidnapper.

Enchanted Arabella is almost creepier than moss oak Arabella.
Enchanted Arabella is almost creepier than moss oak Arabella.

One thing I like about the way that Arabella’s enchantment is handled is that it’s made very clear exactly how Jonathan Strange is tricked into renouncing his wife. I’ve never felt that this was particularly well done in the book, but in the show it’s pretty unambiguous. However, then the show turns right around and does another thing I don’t like: has Arabella enchanted in such a way that she doesn’t remember her life before Lost-Hope at all.

Lady Pole at Lost-Hope.
Poor Lady Pole.

In the book, Arabella and Lady Pole are both very aware of what has happened to them, and while this doesn’t exactly give them any agency or control over their stories, it does give them distinct personalities. Lady Pole simmers with fury and frustration. She resents Mr. Norrell for his abuse of her and she has no good opinion of Jonathan Strange for what she sees as his neglect of his wife. Arabella, on the other hand, is trapped entirely in faerie instead of dealing with the stress of living in two worlds like her friend. Where Lady Pole has no faith in the magicians’ ability (or desire) to rescue either of them, Arabella holds onto hope that her husband will come for her.

I actually really hate that we are losing this dynamic in the show. After all the show has done to treat these two women fairly in the narrative, even expanding upon Lady Pole’s role quite a bit, it’s deeply disappointing that they’ve sort of senselessly cut out this part of their relationship. If nothing else, it kind of cruelly deprives Lady Pole of the comfort of her friend, and for no real reason.

At Ashfair, Jonathan Strange doesn’t notice that Arabella is gone until a neighbor arrives to tell him that she’s been seen wandering the countryside again. When it’s discovered that she’s not in the house, Strange first attempts to use magic to locate her but is confused when his scrying says that she’s not in England, Scotland, or Wales. Strange and a search party go out to look for her, and they soon find moss oak Arabella and return her to the house. After extracting Jonathan’s assurances that she is his only wife, moss oak Arabella dies in the night.

Dead "Arabella."
Dead “Arabella.”

When Jonathan Strange wakes up to find what he thinks is his wife’s (rather gruesome-looking) corpse, I think it’s fair to say that he loses it. By the time his brother-in-law, Henry Woodhope, arrives, Strange is well into searching through what books he has looking for a clue for how to return Arabella to life. In desperation, Strange even writes to his old tutor begging for help, offering to give up magic entirely if only Mr. Norrell will tell him how he brought back Lady Pole.

Childermass is starting to lose patience with Mr. Norrell's shit.
Childermass is starting to lose patience with Mr. Norrell’s shit.

In London, Mr. Norrell has still been trying to figure out how to prevent the publication of Jonathan Strange’s book, but for some reason he barely entertains the idea of helping Strange–even with Strange offering not to publish. We see in these London scenes just how much Norrell is under Lascelles’ thumb, and we also see some of the stress that this puts on Norrell’s relationship with Childermass. In the end, Norrell never even replies to Strange’s letters.

Arabella's funeral.
Arabella’s funeral.

A full week after Arabella’s death, Jonathan Strange is finally forced to admit defeat. Even the spell he used to reanimate the Neapolitans has no effect, and Norrell’s silence leaves him with no hope of help from that quarter. In perhaps the most moving scene of the show so far, Henry Woodhope finally convinces Jonathan that they must let Arabella go, and she is finally buried in a familiar, snow-covered graveyard.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Alice Englert as Lady Pole? She just nails her performances over and over again.
Have I mentioned lately how much I love Alice Englert as Lady Pole? She just nails her performances over and over again.

Meanwhile, at Starecross, Honeyfoot and Segundus are perhaps making a breakthrough with Lady Pole’s treatment. Honeyfoot recognizes some of the stories Lady Pole tells because they are similar to fairy tales that his mother collected when he was a child, only Lady Pole’s stories are from the fairies’ point of view. While Stephen Black is skeptical of the magicians’ methods, Lady Pole is insistent that they do what they can to make it possible for her to communicate what she’s been trying to for years. Unfortunately, just as they seem to be making some headway in understanding her, they are distracted by someone dropping Vinculus off at the madhouse.

Mr. Norrell.
Mr. Norrell is still determined to stop Strange’s book.

After Arabella’s funeral, Jonathan Strange returns to London to finish his book. He meets with Sir Walter, who warns Strange of the danger of writing too favorably about the Raven King. After telling Strange that “we do not require English magic to be restored any more than it already has been,” Sir Walter promptly reports to Norrell on his conversation with Strange.

Next, Childermass is sent to speak with Strange. Spotting Childermass hiding in some shadows, Jonathan Strange greets the other man warmly and invites Childermass back to his house to discuss the book and to see the illustrations Arabella produced. When Childermass expresses some dissatisfaction with Norrell, Strange asks if it’s not time that he left Norrell and joined him, but Childermass refuses. He’s not done with Norrell yet, but he is willing to promise Strange that there will always be two magicians and two opinions on magic in England. Things take a quick turn, though, when Childermass tells Strange how desperate Norrell is to prevent the publication of Strange’s book. On hearing that Norrell would do “anything” to keep him from publishing, Strange flies into a rage and steps through a mirror before Childermass can stop him.

Jonathan Strange assaults Lascelles.
Jonathan Strange assaults Lascelles.

Jonathan Strange tumbles out of a mirror at Mr. Norrell’s house only to be met by Lascelles, who insists that Norrell is not home. Norrell does come downstairs, but he refuses to speak and Jonathan really only gets a glimpse of the other magician before Lascelles and the footmen wrestle him out of the house. Out in the street, Strange continues to rant until he’s arrested for breaking and entering and tossed into jail. His friend Grant comes to have him released, but before Grant gets the door unlocked, Strange has disappeared into a reflective puddle on the floor.

It’s a great ending to a well-constructed episode. While I have some complaints about it, I think the show has so far been very true to the source material, in spirit if not in every particular detail.

The Shannara Chronicles looks kind of amazing

I didn’t expect this show to be good at all, but it looks like it might be. Everything in this reel shown at SDCC looks incredible, and I’m looking forward to a light, fun alternative to Game of Thrones.

I’m really encouraged by the fact that it looks like they’re preserving the post-apocalyptic world of the Shannara books instead of turning it into a generic fantasy setting. Judging from what we see here, it looks like MTV has really captured the sense of a magical world built upon the ruins of something much more familiar to us.

Coming in January 2016.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “All the Mirrors of the World”

“All the Mirrors of the World” marks the halfway point of the miniseries, and, fittingly, it’s an episode that is heavily concerned with balance. More accurately, it’s an episode that deals largely with the ways in which things are out of balance and are not right with our characters.

The episode begins right where last week’s ended: with the chaos following Lady Pole’s attempt on Mr. Norrell’s life. We quickly learn that Lady Pole succeeded only in wounding Childermass and earning herself a trip to an asylum.

Childermass has a vision while he's inconveniently unconscious from his wounds.
Childermass has an ominous (and foreshadowing) vision while he’s inconveniently unconscious from his wounds.

The standout part of this whole sort of opening sequence is the interaction between Childermass and Norrell. It’s probably the longest we’ve gotten to see these two characters alone together so far in the show, and I think it’s been worth the wait. This scene finally manages to really establish the sort of relationship that exists between Mr. Norrell and his servant. Mostly, it’s a weird relationship, characterized by Childermass’s self-assurance and Norrell’s awkward reliance on Childermass. Indeed, while Childermass is incapacitated, Norrell is seemingly barely able to function. At the same time, though, Norrell is suspicious of Childermass’s use of magic, and Childermass has begun to mistrust Norrell as well.

Meanwhile, the Stranges seem to be in somewhat better accord now that Jonathan Strange has returned from the Peninsula. As Jonathan prepares to return to his apprenticeship with Mr. Norrell, he and Arabella are extremely cute together.

King George III.
King George III.

The first thing that Norrell and Strange do now that they’re back together is visit King George III, who is in the midst of his final bout of madness. They’ve been called to see the king by his children, who hope that they might be able to use magic in some way to help him. Norrell, of course, has already said that magic cannot cure madness, but Strange is more hopeful and even returns on his own after Norrell has already moved along from the matter. While Strange is unsuccessful in penetrating the king’s madness, he does get to see the king disappear into a mirror after having an odd conversation with someone Jonathan can’t see.

Lascelles and Norrell.
Lascelles and Norrell.

When Jonathan goes to Mr. Norrell to talk about what happened, Norrell is dismissive. Norrell is much more interested in promoting his own ideas, primarily through Lascelles’ book, which is nearly ready for publication. Strange is basically shut down entirely, and it’s becoming clear to everyone that Norrell intends to be the only magician in England whose opinions matter. Frustrated with Norrell, Strange takes his leave, returning to his home, where Arabella reminds him of the first spell he ever did–which warned him that Norrell was his enemy.

Segundus and Honeyfoot defend Lady Pole.
Segundus and Honeyfoot defend Lady Pole.

Lady Pole has been taken to Starecross, which Segundus and Honeyfoot have turned into an asylum since Childermass told them they couldn’t have a magicians’ school. Lady Pole will be their first patient, but she’s terribly unhappy about it. When she recognizes them as magicians, she’s convinced that they are Norrell’s men, only calming down when she observes them refusing Childermass entry to see her. It seems that Starecross may be a comfortable place for Lady Pole after all, and Segundus is even able to see the enchantment that has been placed upon her and Stephen Black, although he doesn’t know what it is.

Earlier in the episode, Arabella questioned her husband about a Miss Grey, who claimed to be learning magic from him, and Jonathan disclaimed any knowledge of the girl. While Jonathan is at a club with a couple of friends, however, he comes face to face with a pair of men who also claim to be his pupils. Clearly, someone is running a scam. When called upon to demonstrate his magic and prove his identity, Strange steps into a mirror, where he finds himself on the [Raven] King’s Roads.

The land behind the mirrors.
The land behind the mirrors.

Jonathan Strange uses the roads to travel to where Drawlight is; unsurprisingly, Drawlight is in the middle of duping yet another person out of exorbitant amounts of money, and Strange speedily puts a stop to the scheme. When Strange finally returns to his own house, Arabella has been worried, and she turns furious when Jonathan is dismissive of her concerns. I am pleased that the show follows the book in presenting Jonathan Strange’s inconsiderate behavior toward his wife as a fault, and they do a wonderful job here of showing this conflict between the Stranges in a way that is fair to both characters. Bertie Carvel is affable enough as Jonathan Strange that he’s lovable in spite of his sometimes glaring faults, and Charlotte Riley as Arabella captures such a perfect mix of loving concern and absolutely justified anger that there’s no reasonable way anyone could think her shrewish or nagging. Indeed, I think the viewer is supposed to be almost entirely on her side in this argument, and her feelings are treated entirely seriously.

Norrell insists that magic must be made respectable.
Norrell insists that magic must be made respectable.

Drawlight finds himself permanently exiled from Norrell’s presence and in a great deal of debt that is about to get him tossed into prison. However, this might be considered lucky, as Norrell is pushing to have some ancient magical court revived in order that Drawlight could actually be hanged–with the added benefit that such a court could be used to squash any opinions on magic that differ from Norrell’s. Fortunately, Sir Walter is there to, quite sensibly, put a stop to that idea, and he gets one of my favorite speeches so far in the show. This is also, I think, a really clever way of including material from the book without really including it. In the novel, there’s a whole thing where Norrell pesters Parliament for a while about reviving the Cinque Dragownes, and it would have been terribly boring to put that in the miniseries even though it’s a pretty important bit of Norrell’s characterization. This conversation, though, allows us to get that characterization in one short scene, communicating the concept from the book in a smart way. Also, it’s very funny.

Angry about Drawlight and upset that he won’t have his own personal court of law, Norrell turns to picking on Jonathan Strange, next, berating him for his injudicious use of magic. Strange argues, trying to get Norrell excited about the King’s Roads, but Norrell only insists that modern magic must be kept “respectable.” As Strange leaves in frustration again, he grabs a copy of Lascelles’ finished book, which he sets out to review when he gets home.

I am a little bummed that we don’t get the whole text of Strange’s scathing review, but I suppose that gives people a good reason to read the book after watching the miniseries. I did like seeing Lascelles rant about the review to Norrell, though.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell having very civil breakup tea together.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell having very civil breakup tea together.

Probably the most important thing that happens in this episode is the inevitable breakup between Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Following the publication of the infamous book review, Strange goes to visit his mentor and inform him of the end of their association. This scene is shot so perfectly and acted so sensitively that it actually made me a little teary. Norrell practically begs Strange not to leave him, and it broke my heart a little.

Lady Pole gets to be at least a tiny bit okay for about a minute.
Lady Pole gets to be at least a tiny bit okay for about a minute.

I would have been happy if the episode had ended here, but there are still a couple of things to be wrapped up. In the last few minutes, we get to see Lady Pole finally settled at Starecross, which is nice, although I think I would rather have seen this finished earlier in the episode. Mostly, I feel this way because Lady Pole’s fleeting contentment is immediately overshadowed by a sort of triple cliffhanger ending.

First, Jonathan Strange is called back to war when Napoleon escapes and starts causing trouble on the continent again. This throws a wrench in the Stranges’ plans to return to their country home, where Jonathan intended to retire and become a theoretical magician.

The moss oak is pretty freaky.
The moss oak is pretty freaky.

Second, Stephen Black and the Gentleman unearth a “moss oak” from a sort of bog. The Gentleman said that he needed the moss oak for his plan to take Arabella away from Jonathan Strange, and it turns out that the moss oak is a piece of enchanted wood, or perhaps a piece of wood that can be enchanted. In any case, and much to Stephen Black’s horror, the Gentleman peels back part of the wood, revealing Arabella’s face.

Norrell becomes Jonathan Strange's enemy for real.
Norrell becomes Jonathan Strange’s enemy for real.

Finally, the episode ends with Lascelles confronting Norrell about the breakup with Jonathan Strange. Apparently, they had a whole plan of how Norrell was going to browbeat Strange into retracting his book review and stuff, but Norrell didn’t do any of that stuff. However, Norrell is receptive as Lascelles encourages him to work against Jonathan Strange, and by the last ominous shot of the episode, Norrell is vowing to destroy his erstwhile pupil.

“All the Mirrors of the World” is the best episode of the show so far. It’s thematically consistent with its examination of how different pairs of characters balance each other, and it does a masterful job of breaking up the central pair of Strange and Norrell, who don’t know yet just how much they need each other.

As an adaptation, this episode probably hews closer to the source material than any episode yet. Though notable cuts have been made and we miss out on some of the book’s insights into the interior lives of the characters, this episode covers an enormous amount of story in a way that feels naturalistic and almost effortless. The shifts between story lines are smartly done and keep things interesting the whole time without being disorienting or confusing.

Overall, this was just a superb piece of television, and it’s exactly the sort of thing I hoped to see when I first heard this miniseries was in the works. I’m not sure how the whole series will stand up to the source material, but this episode at least definitely does it justice.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “The Education of a Magician”

vlcsnap-2015-06-28-11h33m17s49I always watch an episode at least twice before writing about it, and I’m very glad I did in this case. “The Education of a Magician” is definitely a piece of work that improves upon better acquaintance. On first viewing, I was disappointed at some of the liberties taken from the source material, but the second time around I was impressed with how well the adaptation is bringing to life the spirit of the novel, if not every single detail that I want to see on screen.

This episode contains, essentially, three stories: Jonathan Strange’s experiences in the Peninsular War, Mr. Norrell and how he deals with his pupil’s absence, and the advancement of Arabella Strange and Lady Pole’s friendship. We also start to see the increasing entwinement of the fates of Stephen, Arabella, and Lady Pole as well as the beginning of a huge gulf forming between Strange and Norrell as both of them cross some lines that they probably ought not (even though, at the end of this episode they seem as close as ever).

Lady Pole at work.

Interestingly, “The Education of a Magician” doesn’t open with Jonathan Strange, even though that might seem like the most exciting place to begin. Instead, the episode starts with Lady Pole waking up and having a new idea for how to tell Arabella about her predicament. She gets out of bed quickly and starts ripping up her dress to make a tapestry. Lady Pole’s tapestry is a somewhat interesting departure from the book, as it continues the show’s trend of expanding Lady Pole’s role and granting her somewhat more agency than she had in the novel. It’s nice to see, because I think Lady Pole is a tricky character who could easily have been flattened into a handful of unpleasant tropes or made into a simple damsel in distress. Instead, this adaptation actually improves upon the source material, giving us a Lady Pole who is clever and resourceful and never gives up trying to take back control of her life.

As Lady Pole is working out new ways of communicating, Childermass is, at Norrell’s instruction, intercepting letters to prevent Arabella from telling her husband anything that Norrell might disapprove of. Also sandwiched in here is a pretty much straight-from-the-book conversation between Arabella and Drawlight that I was happy to see included.

In Portugal, Jonathan Strange gets off to a rocky start with his military career, and Lord Wellington is downright dismissive of him. It seems to the two magicians have so far done more harm than good for the war effort, and Strange can’t provide what Wellington wants–men and arms–and is therefore useless. Strange is left quite at loose ends, with no magic to do and struggling to find a way to make himself useful in the war effort.

Honeyfoot and Segundus at Starecross.
Honeyfoot and Segundus at Starecross.

Meanwhile, back in England, Childermass is also busy making sure that no one in England besides Norrell does anything resembling magic. He rides out to Starecross, which Segundus and Honeyfoot are turning into a school for magicians and advises them to stop this plan before Norrell finds out. In exchange for their going into another sort of business, Childermass offers to send clients their way when he gets the chance.

In London, Arabella continues her visits with Lady Pole, who is continuing to work on a tapestry illustrating Lost Hope. She shows the tapestry to Arabella, who doesn’t understand at all, which I found a little frustrating to watch, if I’m honest. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear quite how Lady Pole is not only able to make this tapestry but also to talk rather at length about it to Arabella. And in light of how much Lady Pole is able to say in this manner about her and Stephen’s enchantment, I’m honestly just not sure how Arabella manages to not see what her friend is getting at. I’m also not sure why Arabella doesn’t recognize the Gentleman in the tapestry, since he’s been creeping on her for a good while now.

For all that I’m not entirely happy with the way this is playing out, this visit with Lady Pole has one of my favorite speeches in the show so far. Arabella tries to cheer up her friend by basically advising Lady Pole to count her blessings, among them Sir Walter’s love, Lady Pole will have none of it and even turns it around on Arabella, asking what good Mr. Strange’s love ever did her.

Jonathan Strange creates a road.
Jonathan Strange creates a road.

On the continent, Jonathan Strange finally figures out a way to contribute when a soldier complains to him about the poor roads destroying boots. Strange presents a plan to Lord Wellington whereby he will use magic to make roads the troops can march down more easily. This is quickly done and earns Strange Wellington’s gratitude and, against his protestations that it’s not respectable, the nickname “Merlin.”

For a nice bit of foreshadowing, Strange’s dinner with Wellington and the officers includes Jonathan Strange’s rather famous line from the book. When Wellington asks if a magician can kill a man by magic, Strange replies:

“A magician might, sir, but a gentleman never would.”

At which point every even mildly astute viewer groaned a little inside. Because, obviously, we’ll see about that. I think my issue here is that sometimes a great line in a book only ends up being really obvious when it’s delivered with such deliberate nonchalance in a screen adaptation. I suppose it beats having to see the line delivered with melodramatic significance, but I think perhaps they went a little too far in the opposite direction from that here.

Lady Pole's tapestry.
Lady Pole’s tapestry.

In England again, Childermass is having some misgivings about stealing all the Stranges’ mail and says so to Norrell. Norrell is characteristically evasive, but manages to assure Childermass that it’s for the best. Norrell then sends Childermass on an errand, which turns out to be breaking into the Poles’ house and stealing Lady Pole’s tapestry, which he does.

Robbed of her tapestry–effectively having her voice stolen–a distraught Lady Pole attempts to kill herself, only to learn from Mr. Norrell that she cannot die. Not for another seventy-odd years, anyway. This scene is, frankly, absolutely chilling: Lady Pole in her nightdress, strapped to a small bed in an empty room, with Norrell standing over her. Norrell giving her the bad news and then physically trying to silence her anger, frustration and despair. And, finally, Norrell going to Sir Walter, lying about Lady Pole’s condition and then advising Sir Walter to separate Lady Pole from Arabella.

And this is all edited together with more of Strange’s escapades in the war, which on the one hand is perhaps a good thing–to break up these scenes so it’s not just one long sequence of Norrell’s terrible treatment of Lady Pole–but is made into something much less than comfortable when we see what Strange is up to, which isn’t much good. Indeed, Strange is being shaped into someone rather frightening himself.

First, Wellington wants Strange to move an entire forest, which brings up an interesting conversation about how that might be done. Unfortunately, Wellington isn’t interested in Strange’s musings about talking to trees, because I would have loved to hear more about it. When Strange goes to move the forest, he and the men he’s with find themselves under attack. Strange can’t get the forest to move, and while Strange does manage to save the lives of most of the men, Strange’s servant, Jeremy, is hit by cannon fire and dies. Also lost are all of the books that Strange has brought with him to work from.

The dead Neapolitans.
The dead Neapolitans.

This is a significant problem when it comes to Strange’s next task, which is to find out where some Neapolitan soldiers have taken a bunch of cannons they stole. Strange is without any books, the army has no live Neapolitans to question, and scrying in water just shows trees and grass that could be anywhere in the countryside. However, it turns out that they do have some Neapolitan corpses, which Strange brings to life and grants speech to, in an interesting counterpoint to Norrell’s silencing of Lady Pole.

Unfortunately, Strange is no more successful than Norrell with this sort of magic. While Norrell only managed to give Lady Pole half a life, leaving her quite absent from the real world, Strange’s Neapolitans are all to real and persistently alive-ish. And rotting. And begging to be allowed to return to their families.

The burning mill.
The Neapolitans’ fate.

It’s very shortly obvious that Jonathan Strange has done something pretty messed up here and doesn’t have any idea how to undo it. In another parallel to Mr. Norrell, Strange is also lauded as a sort of hero for what is pretty much exactly the sort of magic that he doesn’t want to do at all. This is not modern magic. However, Strange seems consoled as he rides away into a beautiful new dawn while the unlucky undead Neapolitans are burned behind him.

It feels very telling to me how much alike Strange and Norrell seem when Strange finally returns to England. For all their differences in temperament, age, appearance, and experience, they seem very nearly equals now.

Lady Pole comes for Mr. Norrell.
Lady Pole comes for Mr. Norrell.

The episode ends, of course, with Lady Pole’s attempt on Mr. Norrell’s life, in which she misses her mark but succeeds only in shooting Childermass instead.

It’s a great ending to a very busy episode that covered a lot of ground. I still think the show struggles with conveying the passage of time–it’s not at all clear that Jonathan Strange has been gone for some three years, for example–but the pacing of this episode felt just right and the interweaving of the various story lines  was masterfully done. So far, the mini-series is faithful to the book without being a slave to it, and the changes that have been made are mostly smart ones that I think enhance the material rather than otherwise.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “How is Lady Pole?”

For all that the novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is often said to be a slow starter, I feel like the adaptation so far has remained pretty remarkably true to the source material while also moving through it at a pretty good clip. “How is Lady Pole?” covers an enormous amount of story, even more than last week’s episode, and things are getting exciting.

The rain ships.

The episode opens with one of my favorite bits of magic from the book: Mr. Norrell’s ships made of rain. They’re gorgeous, but this scene, to me, isn’t quite right. The problem isn’t the ships, which are great. It’s that I don’t feel any passage of time. In the book, Norrell’s illusory ships are a blockade that keep the French fooled for eleven days. The way it’s presented here, it looks like just the work of an afternoon; the French see the ships, break out their spyglasses, then immediately row out to them and learn that they are just made of rain. I suppose this is still a waste of French time, but it’s not as impressive as the eleven days of the book, and it doesn’t seem to warrant the degree of congratulations Norrell receives from the ministers in London. It just all seems a bit much, and I think it wouldn’t have been that difficult to at least hint at some greater passage of time here.

This is a Norrell’s wigs appreciation blog.

That said, I love the way the show has done Mr. Norrell’s scrying. It looks awesome. It’s nice to see this attention to detail when they could just as easily have sort of ignored the less flashy magic in favor of just focusing on bringing to life big stuff like the rain ships. Speaking of details, I also really appreciated Norrell’s wigs in this episode. He’s got a variety of them, and every one is either ratty-looking, ill-fitting, or both. Because, obviously he can’t be bothered. It’s a lovely little bit of visual characterization that makes me think that the people involved in the production are really committed to making something special.

Honeyfoot and Segundus at Starecross/the Shadow House.
Honeyfoot and Segundus at Starecross/the Shadow House.

The show has combined the Shadow House and Starecross into one place, and they’ve moved up Segundus and Honeyfoot looking to open a magician’s school on the property. I’m not thrilled with this change, because I want to see as many great magicians’ houses as possible, but it makes a lot of sense with the way the show is generally just shuffling things around and streamlining events. And, really, it doesn’t matter which house it is; what matters is that Segundus and Honeyfoot are in the right place at the right time to meet Jonathan Strange so they can refer him to Mr. Norrell.

Stephen Black at Lady Pole's dinner party.
Stephen Black at Lady Pole’s dinner party.

In London, Lady Pole is a wonderful dinner hostess. I love how loud and opinionated she is, which make the rest of what happens to her in this episode extra horrifying. I’m kind of surprised by just how much I love the show’s Lady Pole, to be honest. I adored the character in the book, but seeing her brought to life is even better. She definitely improves in adaptation, and I’m especially pleased that the show seems to be making just as certain as the book ever did that we know that Lady Pole is not actually crazy. Rather, she’s enchanted and spitting angry about it.

Stephen Black and the Gentleman.
Stephen Black and the Gentleman.

This episode introduces Sir Walter’s butler, Stephen Black, who is exactly how I imagined him, if a bit more taciturn than I would have liked. Some of that is because basically all the characters that Stephen interacts with in the book have been cut from the adaptation, so he speaks very little except with the Gentleman, and then it’s mostly utterances of confusion and helpless dismay. In the book, Stephen is a complicated character who doesn’t say much but who does think a lot, only here we don’t have the insight into his private thoughts that the book offers. Additionally, I don’t think it helps that they seem to light most of Stephen’s scenes to flatter the white fairy, which makes Ariyon Bakare’s very dark face hard to read at times simply because he nearly fades into the background.


We do get our first proper look at Faerie in this episode, in flashes in Lady Pole’s dreams and then more thoroughly when the Gentleman takes Stephen there. I absolutely loved the dark forest, the path Stephen follows the Gentleman down, and the outside view of Lost-hope. Once they get inside, though, I was disappointed. Everything is so positively gray, and I would have much preferred to see some color. I’ve always felt like part of the horror of Lost-hope is the dissonance of the place–bright colors and whimsy and dancing, but surrounded by an ancient battlefield and a dark forest and with gloomy tolling bells. There’s too much of a sameness to everything here, and while there is some sparkle, it’s not enough to keep the place from just feeling terribly bleak when I feel like it ought to have instead been disturbing and strange and awful in that way instead.

Strange and Norrell at work.
Strange and Norrell at work.

Probably the most important thing that happens in this episode is the meeting of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and it’s so very like it was described in the book that I felt a little teary. Again, though, the show seems to struggle a little with portraying the passage of time. I love how they show the early days of Strange and Norrell’s partnership (and I laughed out loud at Norrell’s ten year plan written out), but it felt like just a single afternoon and didn’t convey months or even weeks passing before things quickly moved along to other meetings and scenes between character pairs.

Drawlight and Lascelles
Drawlight and Lascelles

This focus on pairs of characters is something else about the book that I’m very glad to see preserved in the adaptation. Indeed, most scenes in the show are between pairs of characters, and this episode in particular either works to pair characters off in significant ways (Strange and Norrell, Stephen Black and the Gentleman, Lady Pole and Arabella) or expands upon our understanding of the relationships between already existing character pairs (Childermass and Norrell, Drawlight and Lascelles, Strange and Arabella, Honeyfoot and Segundus). Like the book, the show is constantly pairing off characters and then switching them around and seeing how they interact in various combinations so that we can see a variety of fascinating contrasts and parallels between them.

Norrell finishes creating his sea beacons.
Norrell finishes creating his sea beacons.

In a sequence that is perhaps a little heavyhanded, we get to see two feats of magic at Portsmouth. First, Mr. Norrell finally completes the series of sea beacons that he promised the government. While a good number of people have gathered on the beach to watch him finish the spell, it turns out that there isn’t anything to see. As one might expect, everyone is terribly disappointed.

Horse Sand.
Horse Sand.

The next morning, however, they are in for a treat. Probably because of the sea beacons, a ship has run aground on a shoal. Norrell claims to have a headache that prevents him from doing anything about it, but Jonathan Strange comes back out to the beach to see if he can help. After a couple of bad ideas, Strange thinks to use the sand itself to upright the ship, and because the shoal is called Horse Sand, he forms the sand into horses that go out to the ship and set it back up in the water. It’s extremely impressive, perhaps even excessively so, and it’s definitely the coolest piece of magic we’ve seen performed so far. Mostly, though, it establishes Jonathan Strange’s reputation as a powerful magician in his own right, and it plants the idea in the ministers’ heads that maybe they could send a magician to the war after all.

Jonathan and Arabella say farewell for now,
Jonathan and Arabella say farewell for now,

By the end of the episode, this is what indeed happens. Although Norrell was at first very opposed to the idea, knowledge of an imminent book sale (provided by Lascelles and Drawlight) convinces him that perhaps Strange would be better off out of the country for a while after all. I hope that Norrell is getting a lot of new books, since Strange is taking forty or so of Norrell’s books with him to the Peninsula.