Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on the BBC

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In her preface to the reprint of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” Susanna Clarke talks about how mad it was to met her characters walking around. But, she says, she did not meet Strange or Norrell. Instead she met the actors who played them, and she was quite pleased to be spared Strange’s arrogance and Norrell’s self-regard.

I was puzzled by this for a while. Was it some criticism of the actors? But the acting in the BBC drama is off the charts amazing. Was it, perhaps, that she had spent so very much of her time with Strange and Norrell that it was impossible for them to exist anywhere but her head?

The truth, I think, lies in the fact that the Strange and Norrell of the show are not the Strange and Norrell of the book. There are several important differences to make the characters more relatable (Strange of the book loves magic more than his wife, Norrell of the book is far nastier a personality). These are, as far as I am concerned understandable and even welcome. Without the omniscient narrator to explain their actions, Strange and Norrell could have become so isolated from the audience that no one came back for the last episode. Clarke had the luxury of a thousand pages to evolve her characters, and the knowledge that no one was going to put down the book at page 900 because the characters had decreased in relatability. The show, on the other hand, wanted everyone to be invested enough in the characters’ journeys to come back week after week. Without 1000 pages to work with, and with a great deal of plot to work in, some of the more subtle aspects of the characterization had to go.

However, I think that the most important difference between the show and the book–and the difference that separates the titular characters in book and show–is the conclusion of Strange and Norrell’s journeys. In the book, they are cut off by choice from humanity, overwhelmed by their deep character flaws. But the journey they take in the show arcs upwards, not downwards. When Strange tells his wife in the fifth episode that everything he has is because of her, he is laying aside his arrogance. As Strange offers up everything he has to get Arabella back–his magic, his sanity, his life itself–he sheds the parts of himself which made up that arrogance.

When Norrell agrees to the loss of his books (which does not occur in the novel) he is giving up the centerpiece of his life for Strange’s sake. He is no longer a mere taker, keeper, and hoarder. He is more. And when he embraces the dying Strange and tells him “I am not afraid,” he has finally conquered his crippling fearfulness (fear of the world, of other people, and of love).

In the novel, the arcs of Strange and Norrell make them into creatures of magic, cut off from the world. In the TV show, the characters travel through magic to become more than they once were, not less.

One is certainly not better than the other (though the novel is arguably more subtle than the books, and it takes the riskier path while the show went for a more conventional conclusion). I think that they are companion pieces of art: a life can go one way, or another. Magic manifests in many ways.

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