'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' Team on "Grueling" Shoot and a Sequel

Writer Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes talk the pressure of adapting a book that "everyone loves in a way that doesn't piss everyone off."
Matt Squire

It took a little magic and lots of work to get Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to the small screen.

Hollywood had tried over the years to adapt Susanna Clarke's beloved 2004 novel, a dense tome set in an alternate 19th century England, telling the story of magic's return to England after a 300 year absence.

A big screen project was in the works at New Line before stalling after several years, but the an adaptation finally made it to TV with Director Toby Haynes and writer Peter Harness tackling the seven-episode run together. The series premieres stateside Saturday on BBC America.

In a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, the pair weigh in on the possibility of a sequel and talk the biggest challenges of the adaptation. For more from the series, watch THR's recent conversation with Eddie Marsan about playing Mr. Norrell. 

What were the big challenges you faced in adapting this?

Toby Haynes: Peter had to write seven, one-hour episodes in basically six months and adapt a book that is 700 pages long that everyone loves in a way that doesn't piss everyone off. He did an incredible job.

Peter Harness: It was really about giving all of those nine or 10 lead characters a proper arc through it. And stripping the drama across seven episodes. That meant we had to invent some things and rearrange some things. 

What was it like having Susanna on set?

Harness: We sat down and watched a few minutes of the scenes we'd shot so far and she was just a little taken aback by it. She said "what are all these people doing outside my head?" She was extremely supportive of it. We did have conversations about the book and about what various things might mean and whether we'd read it in the right way.

Susanna has talked about penning a sequel. Would you be interested in adapting that should she decide to publish a follow-up?

Haynes: This was a grueling undertaking. It was the longest shoot I've ever done. It brands you. There is an unseen bond between us and the material and between us and Susanna, who is the most incredible, imaginative author — and yet reclusive and fascinating and interesting. Yes. I do believe there is more material in her mind. Who knows how much she's written or what she's written or whether she'll ever publish, but if she ever does, you bet your ass we'll be there.

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The book has hundreds of footnotes giving ancillary information about the story. How much of that material made it into the show?

Harness: A lot of it is in. I just treated it as opportunities for world building. Some of the kind of nonsense stories that Lady Pole [Alice Englert] tells come from footnotes, and the auction scene at the end of episode two is a footnote. I used all of that background material, which we don't necessarily go into in a lot of detail; it just helps to make it more real.

Did you have concerns that people who haven't read the book would be turned off by the material?

Harness: Fantasy is very alienating if you don't do it right. All of the mythology of the world and the magic and the kind of costume drama elements were always secondary to the realism of it, and we only used them to make it feel like it could be a real story if you just take the leap of faith that maybe magic existed once upon a time.

What was your strategy for drawing people in with the first episode?

Haynes: It's a slow burn. If we were to do it in the normal TV way, we would have flashed forward to some of the bigger, showier events in the book in the opening months. We decided to honor the book's obscure approach of using subsidiary characters to bring you into a world and then leaving those characters behind as you move on with the other characters who the book is really about. It reminded me very much of Star Wars in that way, where R2D2 and C-3P0 bring you in. We had Segundus [Edward Hogg] and Honeyfoot [Brian Pettifer] bring you into the world of the show.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell premieres Saturday, June 13 at 10 p.m. on BBC America.

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