When BBC drama The Luminaries began airing this week, it was clear that big changes had been made from the original novel.
The six-episode TV series set during the 1860s New Zealand gold rush, was adapted for television by the author herself, Eleanor Catton. And given that the book runs to over 800 pages, this must have taken a lot of condensing. But in doing so, the show still presents the plot and characters perfectly, and the differences only complement Catton's story.
The adaptation features much more of a focus on the love story between Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) who meet on a voyage to New Zealand and find themselves sharing a supernatural and astrological connection. Their relationship isn't as integral to the novel, but here it is right at the heart of the story, captivating us early on.
Before the drama delves into that, though, we see Anna in a cell after being found near the lifeless body of Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), unable to remember anything about how she ended up there. As the episodes switch between flashbacks to her descent into hard times and the present-day mystery, we see everything through the eyes of Anna and the characters around her.
At times, it's as though she is the one recounting her experiences to us, as the scene often cuts to her when switching between the two eras. The decision not to deliver the tale via the 12 men – who in the book have congregated to discuss what happened – makes more sense, especially in engaging a TV audience. After all, why show a man telling a woman's story?
The dynamic between Anna and Lydia Wells (Eva Green) is also explored much further in the series. While Lydia is just as deceitful amongst the pages, on screen she makes a point of orchestrating Anna's situation to her advantage. The tension between the two women is ever-present and their scenes easily hold our attention as Anna gets the measure of her employer fairly quickly, but saves the confrontation until later.
Women struggle to be noticed in the history of this era, so putting these two at the centre of the action avoids a story dominated by men. In fact, Eve Hewson and Eva Green are so compelling in the roles that it's easy to forget all the remaining characters are male.
The 12 men are present throughout the series, but not all of the characters are given as much time on screen as they are in writing; particularly if they aren't relevant to certain aspects of the plot. And we don't see them all together until episode five, where we also have our first glimpse of Walter Moody (Michael Sheasby).
We see him on board a ship, where he finds Emery with an injury through his magical bond with Anna – from the gun she turned on herself in her hotel room. But the involvement of Walter Moody contrasts greatly to his part as a main protagonist in the novel, where the story includes him right from the start.
Walter meets the group of men and informs them of an encounter he "cannot logically explain" and later reappears as Anna's legal counsel. These brief appearances are really all that is needed in the adaptation, which still remains loyal to Walter's role in proceedings. The character is there simply to move the plot along, and this is done seamlessly without any unnecessary filler.
As noticeable as the differences are in the TV series, they never come at the expense of the original narrative. Every key moment is accounted for, from an illiterate Anna's sudden ability to read and write, to the secret link between Crosbie Wells and Alistair Lauderback (Benedict Hardie) and the fate of the characters in the finale.
This attention to detail is perhaps down to the author's creative involvement, and it is clear that every alteration made has a reason behind it too. The suspense as we wait for the mysteries to unravel is only heightened by watching Anna and Emery struggle to find their way back to each other. Adding their romance into the mix proves to be a brilliant choice, made all the more convincing with consistently strong performances by Himesh Patel and Eve Hewson.
The Luminaries combines the most powerful parts of Catton's book with entirely necessary adjustments, delivering a concise and intriguing drama that keeps us gripped right to the end.
The Luminaries airs on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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