Authors, Actors, and Audiences of”Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” Part 3

indexTake the character of Jonathan Strange. In the book, we never directly experience emotions with Strange. The perspective shifts away from him whenever emotions become particularly strong; he is absent from the narrative for months after his wife’s death, then we see his reaction to discovering she is alive from the POV of Stephen and Mr Graystone. Even his reaction to Norrell’s destruction of his book appears only in a letter to a friends.

Clarke’s book’s Strange does not show deep emotions because there is a fundamentally selfish part of him, which keeps him from emotional depths. He is unable to release his arrogance. He and his wife are very social but do not share a very intense emotional bond. He has many society “friends,” but no real deep relationships with anyone but Norrell–a relationship based on shared interest rather than love.

images.jpgWith a book so long, meandering, and beautiful, an author like Clarke is willing to take a risk and give us a character who grows more shallow, not less–who deepens his flaws rather than overcoming them. And it works, because Clarke and the reader are on an emotional journey together. Not only that, but Clarke provides a constant outlet of humor, guided by an omniscient narrator (which, in itself, is a way to incorporate the audience into the book itself, the author becoming a part of the audience and thus drawing the reader deeper).

But while Clarke skirts Strange’s emotional depths, the show creates and plunders them to the fullest possible extent. Strange has multiple full-on breakdowns, including a half-episode of trying to resurrect his wife which is not even implied in the novel, much less actually portrayed. Rather than his break with Norrell being a difference in opinion, it becomes an emotionally fraught betrayal. And in the last few episodes, his love for his wife overtakes all his other motives for doing anything.

strange2.pngThis is most clear in the sixth episode, when we discover that he is trying to summon a fairy to make another attempt at raising his wife from the dead. His actions during this episode are very questionable. He makes a rather inappropriate friendship with a young woman (to her father’s regularly expressed dismay), he turns an old woman into a cat, and he gets positively creepy and pathetic the night he summons the fairy to bring back Arabella, carefully arranging a new dress and flowers to greet her. Yet, he is able to retain the audience’s sympathy because at the center of his character is an intense, desperate love for his wife.

But in the novel, his desire to summon a fairy has absolutely nothing to do with his wife. He arrogantly wants to assert himself over Norrell. It is, in the end, about his ego. As Arabella herself says, all he really cares about is magic (which is, after all, at the heart of his relationship with Norrell).

index.jpgClarke, as the author of a book, can take the reader on a long journey, can draw the reader’s emotions in a thousand different directions.For a writer, who is both the creator of the journey and a traveling partner, character sympathy is only one part of a vast tapestry. The Jonathan Strange of the novel begins as a fop, an entertaining fellow but one who produces (from the narrator, and by extension the reader) both delight in his comical antics and sober understanding that he is not a particularly good person. For example, in his second appearance just after his father’s funeral he sets out to convince Arabella Woodhope to marry him. He does this because he really does love and want to marry Arabella, and he judges that this is the best possible time to emotionally blackmail her into agreeing. Contrast this with the show, where he sets out so quickly after his father’s funeral out of pure eagerness, convinced that now he has fulfilled her condition of marriage.

Norrell is even more changed for the purposes of becoming sympathetic: in the book he does not even allow Segundus and Honeyfoot to remember visiting his library. If that had happened on the show, given how sympathetic Segundus and Honeyfoot are, we would instantly have hated Norrell.

At the end of the book, the reader (like Arabella Strange) is left feeling very ambivalent full_547.jpgabout Norrell and Strange as characters. You know them too well: you’ve seen their faults and their failings. But according to the writer of the TV show, “at the end of it, I bet you will love Strange and Norrell. To know all is to forgive all with both of them.”

The inescapable truth revealed by all this is that, on the show, subtleties have been sacrificed. This is partly due to factors like time, but largely it is because of the difference in medium. In a TV show which lacks a narrator to poke fun at the characters when they behave badly, the directions a watcher’s emotions travel are more limited, and the actors must work harder to bring the reader along. Whereas for a writer character sympathy is one of many parts, for the actor it is everything. The actors must not alienate the watchers: they must draw their sympathy. The more emotional space they have to work in, the better a job they can do.

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One thought on “Authors, Actors, and Audiences of”Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” Part 3

  1. calmgrove says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this series of posts about S&N and the differences between the acted-out and read versions of this and I suppose almost any other book. At the risk of appearing reductionist I wonder if the literary Strange and Norrell are not a little on the autistic spectrum (and maybe even the author herself). As a recently self-diagnosed person with Autism Spectrum Condition (more often termed Autism Spectrum Disorder) I recognise aspects of ASD in both characters. In the TV series Norrell is, with his obsessiveness and social awkwardness, more obviously so, while Strange is given a more Byronic personality — conveniently so, given that Byron himself doesn’t appear on screen.

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