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Stream This: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell might be the best book-to-screen adaptation ever

By Brian Silliman
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

So you've already experienced the awe-inspiring wonder of The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance and romped with the Fae of Carnival Row. You may be looking for another streaming fantasy series, and His Dark Materials and its bounty of dust hasn't arrived just yet. Where do you turn?

Worry not, your craving will not go unsatisfied. Two very different magicians endeavoring to bring magic back to England crave an audience with you. If you haven't yet gone on the magical journey of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, then you are in for a treat.

This 7-episode miniseries is currently streaming on Netflix, having been released in 2015. It's an alternate history, taking place in a slightly different England in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The titular characters are supposedly the only "practical" magicians left in a world that was once full of them, and they both get mixed up in a truly beautiful tale of sorcery, deceit, egotism, war, and, yes, the mystical ways of the Fae-folk.

The book that the series is based on is itself a masterpiece of fantasy. Written by Susanna Clarke and published in 2004, it is a giant tome of wonderment, but it is also very grounded thanks to Clarke's almost inexplicable gift for world-building. The book contains plentiful footnotes, all of which are based in the alternate history that she has created — she might give you more information about a particular book that a character will randomly reference, with the footnotes related to it telling you everything there is to know about that book, including who fictitiously published it.

In the hands of a lesser author, that would be tedious. Here, it's anything but. Clarke's footnotes make you feel like you are reading a true history about real people who are talking about books of magic that actually exist. It's not all world-building with no story, either, because what would be the point of that? Clarke's characters are heartbreakingly real, and the tale she spins is unforgettable. It's one of the best fantasy books written in a very long time — it's become one of my cherished favorites. I cannot possibly recommend it enough.

Taking Clarke's genius and adapting it, however? That is not an easy task. There are so many ways this project could have gone wrong, and as is usually the case with fantasy books of this magnitude, a film was considered first. New Line Cinema bought the rights in 2004 and work began, but the work ended when New Line folded. The solution, once again, was found in not taking the project to the big screen, and in this case, that was for the best; the small screen (with seven hours instead of two) suited it far better.

As the series shows, converting Clarke's immensely detailed saga into seven hour-long episodes was the best way to go. If you are a fan of the book like I am, then you will not feel shortchanged in the slightest. If you are new to this story, then you will not feel lost in any way.

I'm tempted to write that it's probably the best book-to-screen adaptation I've ever seen (excluding The Lord of the Rings, that's just a given), but then Good Omens came along and gave it a run for its money. They're both pretty much perfect.

While Good Omens had one of its authors (Neil Gaiman) leading the charge personally, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was adapted entirely by Doctor Who veteran Peter Harness, with every episode directed by Toby Haynes. It was not created for a streaming service (it appeared on the BBC and then BBC America), but it's on a streaming service now, and it lends itself beautifully to binging culture.

All of that's well and good, but why exactly is it worth your time?

To start with, the show is gorgeous. The visuals of the time period give you a grand sense of Georgian England, and when the Fae get involved, the decaying grandeur of their kind sweep you up all the more. The costumes are exquisite, and the effects used for the magic within the series are very well done. The war sequences are very effective as well.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Both magicians of the show's title get swept into the Napoleonic conflict, but while Norrell stays safe at home with his beloved books (he really, really loves his books; he hordes his books, don't ask to borrow his books), Strange actually goes to the front and participates in person. You get plenty of magical Napoleonic battlefield action via Strange, and the show features him assisting in defeating the French in a variety of ways. You also get Ronan Vibert playing Lord Wellington, a highlight from the book, and Vibert plays him perfectly. Strange goes from an unnecessary tag-along to Wellington's trusted "Merlin" in the course of one episode.

This segues nicely into the section where I am going to relentlessly and shamelessly gush about the performances in the series.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell spoils you with brilliant actors, and all of them perfectly lift their characters right off of Clarke's page, with wonderful assistance from Harness and Haynes. Charlotte Riley is the strong heart of the series as Strange's wife, Arabella. Enzo Cilenti gives wonderful life to Norrell's manservant (with plentiful secrets), Childermass. Paul Kaye is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Vinculus, and Alice Englert switches from madness to being clear-minded and then back to madness again with an ease that is baffling to me.

Vincent Franklin and John Heffernan are splendid as a pair of gossiping snobs who hope to profit from the magicians and raise their own stake in society, and then there's Ariyon Bakare as Stephen Black, who takes one of the more memorable characters from the book and makes him even better. (Bakare, it should be noted, also pops up in both Good Omens and Carnival Row.) Stephen, Arabella, and Englert's Lady Pole all have to deal with the show's main antagonist, a fae who is only referred to as "The Gentleman with the Thistle-down Hair." He's played by Marc Warren with an icy-cold charm made of evil diamonds, and you'll never look at shaving the same way again. Never, ever, ever make a deal with the Gentleman.

Of course, Mr. Norrell does just that — and this brings us back to our two main characters. I'll admit, neither of the actors playing them was close to what I had pictured in my own mind when reading, but they both envelop the spirit of the characters so well that when I go back and re-read the book, my own versions have been replaced. That rarely happens, and it happened here.

Gilbert Norrell has learned magic from books, and Jonathan Strange has learned magic by just kind of doing it. Norrell is careful, and Strange is adventurous. They are two halves of a whole, and they have a lot to learn from each other. They do learn, eventually, but first, they go through a long period of being rivals, both of them trying to outshine the other, and the two men feel like they are acting out Amadeus, but with magic. If that sounds like perfection, it's because it is perfection.

Eddie Marsan is brilliant as the lonely, quiet, and miserly Gilbert Norrell, and Bertie Carvel is a spark of magical fire as Jonathan Strange. These two are great on their own, but when these two very different magicians share scenes together, it's just really something else. Whether they are teacher and pupil, allies, or adversaries, their scenes crackle with transcendent life, and magic fills the screen. The ways that each one rubs off on the other is a central joy of the show — Norrell, in particular, is not the same at all in Episode 7. The man who once just wanted to "go home and read a book" is living it up alongside the wacky, hang-the-rules Mr. Strange. Carver plants a flag and establishes himself as the real deal, and Marsan has possibly never been better.

The show also features a scene where the two of them try and cure King George III of his "madness." As they so often say in the series, magic cannot cure madness. Also, the mad king might not be mad at all... he might just be seeing magical things that no one else can see. The show is full of strange little gems like this.

I could go on and on, but I'll spare you. The real takeaway here is that while the show doesn't fit in every single detail, sequence, and footnote from the book, it manages to fit in the most memorable ones. It does the best that it can in seven hours, and more importantly than anything else, it stays very, very true to the tone and spirit of the book. Watching this story on screen makes me feel the same way I feel when I'm reading the story on the page.

If you're sitting there waiting for the next big fantasy experience to hit your television, and you haven't watched this yet? Well, the great news is that your next big fantasy experience is already here. Netflix might not carry it forever, so queue this magic up immediately and get watching. If you like what you see, read the book next.

Stream it while you can, because who knows how long Netflix will carry it? Before long, the show may go where all magicians eventually go — behind the sky, on the other side of the rain.