Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a Booker-winning beast of a novel – an 850-page neo-Victorian epic of love, murder, and revenge, set on the South Island of New Zealand at the height of the 1860s Gold Rush. In 2013, it became the longest book to win the prize, and Catton the youngest author.
It found warm support from the judging panel, who summed it up as “extraordinarily gripping”, and also from critics, who responded to the book’s feat of construction – it’s patterned into 12 parts, each modelled after a sign of the Zodiac, and each exactly half as long as the one before it – with awe and wonder.
As a prospect for the screen, though, it’s dead on arrival. Attractively dressed; unobjectionably acted; but quite dead. Catton wrote the script herself for the new six-part miniseries – a BBC/TVNZ co-production. You don’t envy her the assignment. To have built such a thing, sentence by curlicued sentence, only to mulch it down to plotty essentials and doggedly reintroduce every character in a different order? To turn it inside out and abandon the narrative voice that animated it? This feels like the book’s undoing from minute one.
The trouble is the medium. Film and TV, in their eternal hunt for relevant stories, love to grab the coattails of a feted literary property, and always have. But matching the inspiration of the written word is an ever rarer achievement on screen – so much so that producers’ dogged persistence in trying feels more and more like a deluded quest for non-existent treasure. Viewing tastes – and habits – have radically changed since the heyday of “costume drama”.
There was a golden age on TV – somewhere between I, Claudius (1976) and Bleak House (2005), you might argue – dominated by Andrew Davies’s adaptations for the BBC. Dickens, Trollope, Austen and Eliot were all eagerly plundered. This was the era of Brideshead Revisited (1981) and of Merchant-Ivory, whose peak films exemplified everything classy and exportable about a certain strain of bookish, socially conscious British period piece. Edith Wharton and Henry James thrived too, for a brief period, in The Age of Innocence (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), The Wings of the Dove (1997) and The House of Mirth (2000).