Sunday, March 23, 2008
Today I look at the screen adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s historic fantasy novel.
The Film: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is currently slated for 2008 and listed as “In Development” and "Announced" over at IMDB. The screenplay is reportedly being penned by Atonement scribe Christopher Hampton.
The Source: The historic fantasy novel combines the magical elements of J.K. Rowling with the British drawing room manners of Jane Austen. The main plot centers on two rival British magicians (real ones, not simple illusionists) who use their abilities to shape the Napoleonic Wars. Fiction infringes on truth, as both real and created characters co-exist on the page. The conceit is that magic has been studied in Britain for hundreds of years, but until the titular craftsmen appear it has for centuries been relegated to books and theory, not used in the practical sense. It’s an incredibly witty, but also dense and challenging book, especially for the short attention span reader. In addition to the main plot—which is complex enough on its own—the book contains hundreds of pseudo-historical footnotes that create a rich background tapestry.
The Skinny: Given that this is a production from the nearly defunct New Line Cinema and the information on IMDB hasn’t been updated in a while, I’m concerned about the fate of this adaptation. Hampton is still listed, but the status of the script is unknown. Writer Julian Fellowes is also attached to the project. Hopefully they are just taking their time. Variety reported the downsized New Line will make six to eight pictures annually, but there's no mention of Jonathan Strange and with Austin Powers sequels and The Hobbit, it's hardly a priority.
I’m excited, but…: When I read it I immediately felt it would make an amazing film, but a difficult one to bring to the screen. If the project is stalled, perhaps that's a blessing in disguise. Some Internet fans speculate that it would make a better television mini-series because less meat would need to be cut from its nearly 800 pages. I still think it can make a fine feature film in the right hands and that a television adaptation would diminish its power. I was already hopeful about Hampton’s involvement and I’m even more confident after Atonement. If anyone has read any new info on the production (good or bad) please share!
In the Director’s Chair: Unknown at this point, but I think a director like Ang Lee would be perfect. He can work in any genre and I can’t imagine anyone better at melding the drawing room beauty to the fantastical elements. Other directors I could see taking on this work are Joe Wright or Alfonso Cuaron. Not exactly bad second and third choices.
Cast Contemplation: Film Experience readers had some interesting thoughts on this adaptation when I brought it up last April. In terms of casting, my favorite suggestions were Ian Holm as the older and more scholarly Gilbert Norrell and Christian Bale as the brasher Strange.
While I can see Holm working out, Bale is more of a question mark. I think he could effectively convey the obsessive side of Strange’s personality, but since he's "been there, done that" in The Prestige, I don't see him going there again. Other actors I've seen mentioned include Michael Sheen, Paul Bettany and Jude Law, but none seem right to me. A younger Clive Owen would be perfect.
The novel is filled with numerous characters, but other key roles include Strange’s wife Arabella. Putting aside her physical appearance (it's been a while since I read the novel) I'd like to see an actress like Kate Winslet take on this role.
Keira Knightly would make the perfect Lady Emma Pole, a character forced to partake in the macabre balls at “Lost-Hope.” I think watching Knightly endure endless nights of dreadful dancing would be a perfect counterpoint to the types of roles she’s known for—a kind of Elizabeth Bennett gone mad from magic.
As the “gentleman with the thistle-down hair” who is also the fairy king of “Lost-Hope,” I think Cillian Murphy would be ideal. As he's done before, he can use his beauty to creepy effect.
I’ve seen Chiwetel Ejiofor mentioned as a fan favorite in the role of Stephen Black, the dignified and kingly servant in the Pole household who is enchanted by the Gentleman and also forced to partake in the balls. He’s a decent choice. I could also picture George Harris (Layer Cake and Harry Potter).
Deliberation: Given the limbo status of the film, it’s probably too soon to speculate further. I have a feeling I’ll be re-reading the book before there are any updates. Maybe that’s for the best. What do you think?