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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Critic’s Strange dislike of Magic show

I’m halfway through reading Susanna Clarke’s debut tome, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) and I find that there are many things to enjoy in this book, so far. I’ll write a review when I’ve finished it. 

I had intended reading the book before the TV series, but have fallen behind due to other demands on my time. As it happens, due to other commitments I’d miss at least two of the seven episodes anyway, so I will settle for watching the DVD in the future.

Strange & Norrell - Bertie Carvel & Eddie Marsan
Briefly, the story begins in 1806 in an alternative universe, where Magic is real, though none has been reported in England for 300 years. There are plenty of theoretical magicians who study books and even write them, but no physical practitioners – that is, until Mr Norrell decides to step forward and use magic to help his country against Napoleon.

The Daily Mail’s TV reviewer Christopher Stevens has savaged the first two episodes of the series. In his first review, two column inches of ten bemoaned the fact that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell wasn’t Poldark – ‘no damsels with heaving bosoms.’ The title of the review gives it away, I suppose – ‘I was hoping for TV magic… but got a Harry Potter rip-off.’ I know, the columnists don’t always write the title that appears in the newspaper. But that’s what Mr Stevens says in his text. He calls Susanna Clarke’s book a ‘mishmash of folklore and historical fantasy… a J.K. Rowling rip-off.’ The second review referred to ‘turgid dialogue’ from the book.

I’ve encountered this attitude before. Critics bring their own expectations to a piece of work – whether book or film – and then rail against the piece because it didn’t meet those expectations. That’s just misguided reviewing, in my opinion. The only similarity between Poldark and Norrell is that they both take place during the Napoleonic wars – the former is historical fiction while the latter is fantasy fiction.

What is unforgiveable in these two reviews are the comments about a book Mr Stevens clearly hasn’t read. The only two similarities between Potter and Norrell are that they involve magic and are published by Bloomsbury. Clarke began work on Norrell in the early 1990s, and spent ten years working on it – and the depth of knowledge and research shows.

Sometimes I’ve read a review of a book or film and wondered if I’d read or watched the same work, since the reviewer seemed to come away with such a different conception. Not everyone will like everything; that stands to reason. We're all entitled to our opinion - though I'd like to think that meant 'informed opinion'. But if a critic is to employ reason, then they should be reasonable in their statements. Throwing around an accusation of ‘rip-off’ is far from reasonable.

Attempting to bring to the screen a 1,000-page book can’t be easy, especially when there are about 200 footnotes! Steve Kloves (and Michael Goldenberg) did remarkably well with the Harry Potter scripts, particularly the longer books; Norrell’s scriptwriter Peter Harness has managed to harness (sic) much of the original book, though inevitably Clarke’s pastiche treatment and wit are not so evident, but the episodes don’t suffer for that.

Ignore the critic and enjoy the TV series for what it is: a laudable translation to screen from a fantastic work of original fiction.
Note: Susanna Clarke is working on a new book; however, you can read a collection of her short stories set in the same alternate universe, featuring some characters from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The book has just been released: The Ladies of Grace Adieu - the title of the story that started it all, really...


cromercrox said...

I have read the book, and am enjoying the TV series. To dismiss J. S. and Mr. N as Rowling rip-off is plain insulting.

Nik Morton said...

I agree and that's one of the reasons I felt compelled to post this.