Strange Magic Bubbles Up In New 'Mr Norrell' Adaptation

Strange Magic Bubbles Up In New 'Mr Norrell' Adaptation

3:05pm Jun 12, 2015
Eddie Marsan plays the reclusive magician Gilbert Norrell in a new TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell.
Eddie Marsan plays the reclusive magician Gilbert Norrell in a new TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell.
Matt Squire / BBC/JSMN Ltd

Magic is back in England. A decade ago, the author Susanna Clarke released her first and only novel: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell became a sensation. The author Neil Gaiman pronounced it "unquestionably, the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the story combines history and fantasy. A shy country gentleman, Mr. Norrell, teams up with a dashing hero Jonathan Strange, to save England with magic — and now, it has been made into a seven-episode TV series. "We think of it as a movie in seven parts," writer Peter Harness tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "It starts off with a 'Once Upon a Time' and it ends up with a not so very happily ever after."

Harness adapted the book for the small screen; actor Eddie Marsan plays the hero, reclusive magician Gilbert Norrell. "I always think of Gilbert Norrell as being Salieri to Jonathan Strange being Mozart," Marsan says. Gilbert Norrell reads every book on magic but can't really do it. And Jonathan Strange can do magic, in spite of himself, because he's privileged and confident and slightly arrogant, but doesn't know how he does it."


Interview Highlights

Harness on adapting a very large book with a strong historical component

I think it was quite important to get the history right, but we have a big resource in the book, which is immaculately detailed and researched. It was very important to us in general to make the world seem real, and not only in the kind of setup of the history and the detail of it and how kind of gritty and dirty and real everything looks. But also in the human stories. Because I think the thing that can be alienating about fantasy is that it expects you to take a huge leap of faith into a completely unfamiliar world — and really magic, for us, is something that comes organically out of this world and out of real people.

Marsan on not liking fantasy novels

It's never been something I've been into. I'm not a great fiction reader. I love history. I love history and philosophy. But I do enjoy this — for me to play Norrell and to do this job, I had to ask Peter and ask Susanna Clark what magic signifies, and how I could get a hook on it, really. And I always held the idea of Norrell being like [nuclear scientist Robert] Oppenheimer. When Oppenheimer said, "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," when he was interviewed in the late '60s about creating the atomic bomb. In a sense that's what Norrell is when he brings magic to the Napoleonic Wars. The consequences are awful. This is very terrifying, very vicious, brutal magic. It's not nice quaint magic.

On using magic to talk about the perversity of war and human injustice

Marsan: Susanna said she wrote this novel and set it at the time just after the Romantics period and just after the Enlightenment and before you go into the industrial age, where man thinks he's in control of the world. And anything to do with the subconscious, anything to do with anything that's mystical or spontaneous or uncontrollable was frowned upon. And that's what Norrell brings back. That's what magic really signifies: The subconscious that we're trying to suppress. But it's dangerous and it's unpredictable and it's uncontrollable.

Harness: The book's got a lot of kind of very important themes bubbling underneath it. It's got a very light and pleasant exterior in a lot of ways — very witty and funny. But underneath it, it's a story of class and privilege versus the working people. It's a story of slavery and emancipation. And it's a story of female emancipation as well, and all of these things that were just starting to begin at this period.

Marsan on special effects and the use of green screen

Not too much in front of a green screen ... when we go into the Fairy Room, we were. But I was always –- every time Norrell does Water, I'd get a bucket of water thrown over me, because Norrell's magic is accessed through water. So someone threw a bucket of water over me ... I just remember once doing one big scene and creating rain, and it only fell on Norrell. And I thought, "God, that sums up Norrell."

Marsan on the funny aspects of the show

Well it is a funny show, that's the thing ... Because Jonathan Strange is sexy and cool and does really admirable and exciting magic. And Mr. Norrell doesn't. Mr. Norrell is like a librarian trying to do magic ... That's the story of my career, really. I stand next to good looking men and make them look better!

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Magic is back in England. A decade ago, the author Susanna Clarke released her first and only novel. "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" became a sensation. The author Neil Gaiman pronounced it, unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years. The book is now a seven-episode TV series on BBC America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL")

BRIAN PETTIFER: (As Mr. Honeyfoot) We wish to know why is there no more magic done in England.

EDDIE MARSAN: (As Gilbert Norrell) Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable, practical magician.

SHAPIRO: The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars. It combines history with fantasy. A shy country gentleman, Mr. Norrell, teams up with a dashing hero, Jonathan Strange, to save England with magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL")

RONAN VIBERT: (As Lord Wellington) What I chiefly require, Sir, is more artillery and more men. Can you make them appear?

BERTIE CARVEL: (As Jonathan Strange) I can make it rain, my Lord.

PETER HARNESS: We think of it as a movie in seven parts. And it starts off with a once-upon-a-time, and it ends up with a not-so-very-happily ever after.

SHAPIRO: That's Peter Harness, who adapted the book for television. He joined us along with Eddie Marsan, who plays the magician Gilbert Norrell.

Eddie, let's start with you. Describe your character. He's the protagonist of this story but not exactly what you would call a hero.

MARSAN: Gilbert Norrell is this reclusive, rich man who lives in Yorkshire, who's bought up every magic book in the country and comes down to London and offers his help to the government to defeat Napoleon. But Gilbert Norrell is a man who accesses magic intellectually. I always think of Gilbert Norrell as being Salieri to Jonathan Strange being Mozart. Gilbert Norrell reads every book on magic but can't really do it. And Jonathan Strange can do magic in spite of himself because he's privileged and confident and slightly arrogant but doesn't know how he does it.

SHAPIRO: Peter, how do you see that from the screenwriter's perspective?

HARNESS: Well, I mean, Norrell, at the beginning he's like a little self-contained oyster. And gradually he kind of opens up a little bit. And you get to see what's inside.

SHAPIRO: Peter, as you adapted this mammoth book to the screen, how important was it to you to get the history right? This is set during the Napoleonic era. But there also happens to be magic.

HARNESS: Well, I think it was quite important to get the history right. But we had a big resource in the book, which is immaculately detailed and researched. It was very important to us, in general, to make the world seem real - and not only in the kind of set-up of the history and detail of it and how kind of gritty and dirty and real everything looks, but also in the human stories - because I think the thing that can be alienating about fantasy is that it expects you to take a huge leap of faith into a completely unfamiliar world. And really, magic for us is something that comes organically out of this world and out of real people.

SHAPIRO: Eddie, I read that you don't even like fantasy novels.

MARSAN: It's never really been something that I've been into. I'm not a great fiction reader. I love the history. I love history and philosophy. But I do enjoy this. For me to play Norrell and to do this job, I had to ask Peter and ask Susanna Clarke what magic signifies and how I could get a hook on it, really. And I always held the idea of Norrell being like Oppenheimer when Oppenheimer said, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds, when he was interviewed in the late '60s about creating the atomic bomb. In a sense, that's what Norrell is when he brings magic to the Napoleonic Wars. The consequences are awful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL")

ALICE ENGLERT: (As Lady Pole) You have murdered me.

MARSAN: (As Gilbert Norrell) That was not my intention.

ENGLERT: (As Lady Pole) Do you know what you did, Sir?

MARSAN: (As Gilbert Norrell) I do. I was tricked. Were it not for the very particular circumstances, I would... What I did, I did to further the cause of English magic and to help win this war.

MARSAN: This is very terrifying, very vicious, brutal magic. It's not nice, quaint magic.

SHAPIRO: There was a line that Jonathan Strange says during one of the episodes. And I'm going to paraphrase. It's something to the effect of, there's as many ways of making magic as there are of making war. And I often felt like this story was using magic to talk about the perversity of war, about human injustice, about the capability of people to really be awful to one another, some very heavy themes.

MARSAN: Susanna said that she wrote this novel and set it at a time just after the Romantics period and just after the Enlightenment and before you go into the Industrial Age, when man thinks that he's in control of the world. And anything to do with the subconscious, anything to do with it, anything that's mystical or spontaneous or uncontrollable, was frowned upon. And that's what Norrell brings back. That's what magic really signifies, the subconscious that we're trying to suppress. But it's dangerous, and it's unpredictable. And it's uncontrollable.

HARNESS: The book's got a lot of kind of very important themes bubbling underneath it. It's got a very light and pleasant exterior, in a lot of ways, very witty and funny. But underneath it, it's a story of class and privilege versus the working people. It's a story of slavery and emancipation. And it's a story of female emancipation as well and all of these things that were just starting to begin at this period.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL")

MARC WARREN: (As The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair) The nameless slave shall be a king in a strange land. You are merely under an enchantment that brings you each night to join our reverence.

SHAPIRO: There are incredible special effects in this. Eddie Marsan, were you often acting in front of a green screen?

MARSAN: Not too much in front of a green screen. We were - when we'd go into the faerie realm we were. But I was always - every time Norrell does water, I had a bucket of water thrown over me because Norrell's magic is accessed through water. So someone threw a bucket of water over me.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Is that some kind of a prank the crew was playing?

MARSAN: (Laughter) No, it's just - I just remember once doing one big scene and them creating rain. And it only fell on Norrell. And I thought, that sums up Norrell.

SHAPIRO: It sounds almost like slapstick, which is not the feeling you get from watching the show.

MARSAN: Well, it is a funny show. That's the thing. It is funny as well because Jonathan Strange is sexy and cool and does really admirable and exciting magic, and Mr. Norrell doesn't. Mr. Norrell is like a librarian trying to do magic.

SHAPIRO: With a terrible wig, I might add.

MARSAN: With a terrible - I know. Yeah, but it's - that's the story of my career, really. I stand next to good-looking men and make them look better.

SHAPIRO: That's actor Eddie Marsan and screenwriter Peter Harness. Their show, "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell," begins this weekend on BBC America. Thanks so much to you both.

MARSAN: Thank you very much.

HARNESS: Brilliant, thank you. Cheers, Eddie.

MARSAN: Cheers, Peter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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