Netflix delights with the well-crafted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
With the upcoming J.K. Rowling feature Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s important to remember that not all magic is contained within the walls of Hogwarts. For a long time now, it’s felt like Harry Potter and his merry band of wizarding teens have dominated the realms of the arcane, pulling every middle and high school student into a world of fantasy nerdom that J.R.R. Tolkien fans could only dream of.
Those of us that that devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings did get some truly great, Oscar winning films, but there was never a theme park where we could experience the battle of Helm’s Deep or have a chance to ride an Eagle. Bitterness aside, Harry Potter and the Quest for Everyone’s Money has had a positive effect on the fantasy genre in regard to film and television.
Without it, we might not have gotten the brutal realism of Game of Thrones, a series that likely rivals Harry Potter in terms of dedicated fans. But Harry Potter has also led to a smaller, more respectable series from across the pond. Just recently, Netflix has debuted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a popular BBC miniseries from 2015 that succeeds in capturing the imaginations of fantasy fans with more sophisticated storytelling and less teenage angst.
Not to be confused with Dr. Strange, another fantasy film based on Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme, due to be released in November, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an alternate history of England during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a time when magic has seemingly disappeared from the world—but left a surprisingly thorough amount reading material on the subject.
The series is based on a novel of the same name by Susanna Clarke, whose sprawling 850 page, extensively footnoted novel is condensed into eight hour long episodes. The story concerns a prophecy in which two magicians will bring magic back to England after it vanished with the Raven King some 300 years prior. The end result of this prophecy is ambiguous, as is the true nature of magic.
The magicians in question couldn’t be more different—Mr. Norrell wants English magic to be respectable, a practice borne out of serious study and scholarship. Jonathan Strange finds it to be far more wild, more of an art than a practice. Magic aside, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a study in character rather than plot, one that examines the nature of arrogance and control in the face of beauty and nature.
The series is at times slow. This pace is not meant to feature unbridled special effects and fantastic places. Rather, most of the magic we see is present in a simple pan of water. It is a different breed of magic, found in quiet places and the lighting of candles. The effects of it are no less staggering, however. It’s the unknown that makes the series shine.
It asks complex moral questions without overt answers. It draws lines in the sand, separating dark magic and practical magic then crosses them due to war time necessity or personal tragedies. Magic is used to win battles against the French, furthering the cause of England, without foresight. It’s an unbridled nuclear option.
The themes in the series (and the book) are at times sinister. This is contrasted against 19th century courtesy and attitudes, a time when a gentleman would never use magic to kill another man, but would have no qualms about running him through with a bayonet during battle. The result is an elaborate, well-built world of enchantment.
Much like comic book film, fantasy has shown itself to be a moneymaker in the film industry. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a result of industry willingness to take a chance on this type material. There is more coming, beyond just the aforementioned Marvel and Harry Potter films due out in November.
Starz will soon be debuting a series based on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a blend of Americana and mythology, while HBO has been heavily pushing Westworld, a science fiction thriller. While these shows aren’t fantasy in the strictest sense, they represent a willingness to be open to a certain type of story.
If it leads to more entertainment like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, not many will complain.