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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Eleanor Catton, rare author-turned-showrunner, remixes zodiac-fueled 'The Luminaries' into a new kind of epic

By Tara Bennett
The Luminaries

Adapting books into films or television shows is practically the bedrock of what Hollywood puts out into the world these days. And once a book is optioned, a hired screenwriter or a showrunner then turns it into something familiar but new.

What about the original author? They may get a chance to read the script, and a few will contractually provide notes that are taken into account, but that's pretty much it. However, in the case of author Eleanor Catton's 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, there's nothing typical to how her book was adapted into the Starz limited series of the same name, premiering Feb 14.

Unlike just about 95 percent of all adaptations, Eleanor Catton converted her own book into the six-part series, starring Eve Hewson, Himesh Patel, and Eva Green, and served as showrunner with director Claire McCarthy working to bring 1865 New Zealand to visual life. "I was definitely dissuaded from doing it by almost everybody around me," Catton admitted to SYFY WIRE on a recent call. "It's a terrible idea, but I was intrigued by the challenge of it."

As a teenager, Catton says she filmed zombie movies with her friends and participated in New Zealand's (where she was raised) 48 Hours film challenge, but she never pursued screenwriting in school. Creative writing was her path. Yet after winning international acclaim for her second novel, The Luminaries, it was suggested that she give adapting it into a screenplay a try.

She and a producing partner had shopped the book around looking for potential screenwriters, but Catton says the "very esoteric subject matter, combined with the astrological dimension" meant everyone declined. The author says she knew tackling her 832-page tome involving murder and astrology amongst native and immigrant prospectors in the New Zealand goldfields would be daunting, but she wasn't concerned for the reasons that had many of her peers running away.

"I felt quite cheerful about chopping up the story and doing whenever I pleased with it. I was quite unsentimental about it," she says of deconstructing her own work. "It was a fascinating experience. It took a really long time. At the end of it all, it took longer to adapt the novel than to write it in the first place."

As she chipped away at it, Catton was also hired to adapt Jane Austen's novel Emma into 2020's well-regarded adaptation of the same name. Writing for such an independent female character made Catton revisit her own book with a new way into the story. "It's almost daunting how many ways there are to transform something for the screen," she says of the process. "With The Luminaries, in particular, it has this quite strange, Baroque structure — where all of the characters represent one of the zodiac figures of heaven — which created this interesting problem of what is going to be the way in?"

The Luminaries

"I started experimenting with starting the story in different places and it ended up settling on Anna," Catton says of a non-primary character in the novel who appears in the last chapters of the book. "I started thinking more about the idea of these women in this very strongly male-dominated environment. There were very few women on the goldfields at that time. I got drawn to her and Emery's story. And they are literally the luminaries — that's what the title refers to — those two characters."

Catton's adaptation was then picked up as a miniseries and now focuses on the fateful, chance meeting of immigrants Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) as they arrive in New Zealand to seek their fortunes in gold. Their immediate connection is thwarted by the machinations of local fortune teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green), who uses astrology to tinker with the destinies of everyone around her.

Fans of Catton's book will likely barely recognize the narrative through-lines between the source material and the miniseries, and she says she's fine with that. "One of the big points of difference between the novel and the show is that the love story is quite occluded in the novel," she explains. "What I wanted in the book was for it almost to be a surprise. Everybody is so much looking at [the murder mystery], that they don't really realize that it's been a love story all along. The show inverts that and almost turns it inside out, in a way."

Catton also admits that the casting of the series has further made this version of The Luminaries even more unique. "I think Eve Hewson is so magnificent in this adaptation," she enthuses. "As soon as she inhabited Anna, I could see her. And many of the scenes she has later in the series were scenes that were written at her instigation."

The Luminaries

The casting of Himesh Patel as Emery was also a watershed moment for Catton. She admits that when she saw him in the pile of auditions to review, she was unsure because the Emery in her book isn't Indian. "But as soon as I played [it] and saw his performance, it was so strange," she shares. "It was as though I suddenly understood the character in a way that I had never understood the character in my own conception. The part of the script that he was reading was from Episode 6 where Emery is defending his love for Anna on the witness stand. There was something about the way that he played it that was so raw and wounded and almost slightly offended even to be asked these obvious things that he was feeling, that I felt immediately like I had made a mistake in the original novel by not making him an Indian character from the beginning. That was really cool because it was seeing something that I couldn't have seen without him inhabiting it."

How the connection of these two characters ebbs and flows throughout the story is one she hopes viewers, and readers of her book, will be surprised about as it unfolds. She teases, "I think that the question of faith and free will is a very interesting question; the extent to which we have to both become ourselves and surrender ourselves. And with the most defining relationships we have in our lives, there's this idea that — I mean, it's a cliche — you have to lose yourself to find yourself is quite interesting. How that plays out in relationships is of great interest to me."

She continues: "My personal belief is that at the bottom of everything is a love story and a story is a love story, at some level, because it has to involve the journey into the unknown. And what is more unknown than another person? I hope that people end up feeling affected by that parallel, intertwined journey that these two people make. It's a funny thing to contemplate because it's so different, and even the question that's posed by the novel is quite different."

Having come out the other side of this singular opportunity, Catton says she feels even less ownership than before over the series because creating the show was truly a collaborative effort with so many other artists. It was an exercise in compromise and problem-solving unlike when working on any book she's written. As to what's next, she says a few more screenplays but no more TV for now. "The Luminaries was so all-consuming, I need a break from TV for a while," she says. "I've got another novel in the works, so I haven't given up on either form yet."

The Luminaries premieres on Feb. 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.