I’ve been puzzling over something for a while: Why, though most of the dialogue and plot is directly from the book, do the emotions of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” seem so different in the BBC show? Specifically, why do the two men at center take such different internal journeys?
In the books, neither Jonathan Strange nor Norrell reach anything near the level of emotional breaking point that both men do in the show. And most of the intensely emotional moments on the show were invented–indeed, they are often the only moments that are not drawn from the book. When Jonathan Strange goes to war in the book there is indeed hardship, but he comes nowhere near the breaking points the show proffers. First his friend and servant is destroyed along with his book, leaving him utterly alone. Then his resurrection of the soldiers is portrayed as deeply traumatizing, although it is macabrely funny in the novel.
This leads him to develop a level of emotional depth which he simply doesn’t have in the book. The Jonathan Strange of the book can bounce back from anything. He never watches a friend die in front of him, as happens twice in the show. He is not utterly destroyed by his wife’s death; in fact, he is contemplating remarriage less than a year later. Very little ever really emotionally challenges Strange in the novel until he discovers his wife has been kidnapped–and then, the emotions that are produced are a fascinating mixture of pride, guilt, regret, and some love.
Just as Strange is rarely truly challenged in the novel, so too is Norrell left quite alone–in fact, while Strange is young and charming and ready to be changed, Norrell is so intently set in his ways that he actually grows very little as a character over the course of the novel because the character himself is resisting all possibility of growth. Norrell’s withered heart is Strange’s destination in the novel.
But on the show, Norrell is pushed to the breaking point several times. He nearly leaves London in the first episode; as in the book he is devastated by Strange’s defection, but rather than it being largely ignored at their second meeting, he and Strange have a true magical confrontation followed by the complete destruction of his library in the finale.
Why? Why are these men so much more emotional? Why are the raw feelings displayed by them in the show so completely absent in the novel?
The key to this question is, I think, a difference in how an audience relates to a book and how they relate to a television show. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.