As a novel, The Luminaries is structurally ornate. The Booker Prize-winner is 832 pages long and divided into 12 parts – one for each sign of the zodiac, each systematically decreasing in length according to the pattern of a waning moon. There are celestial charts, and at the head of each chapter is a 19th century-style precis of events to come.
The book’s slippery story about fortune-hunters, opium, con tricks, shipwrecks and a murder trial is told from multiple perspectives, leaving readers unsure of who or what to trust. By the end, the plot – about a dead man on New Zealand’s South Island during the West Coast Gold Rush of 1866 – comes deliberately unravelled in your hands.
All of which makes the idea of a TV adaptation total madness. A story told on such shifting sands would be incomprehensible on screen. Translated literally, Eleanor Catton’s formal devices would give us 12 episodes, each one half the length of the one before and narrated by a different character giving a contradictory account of what we’ve just seen. Instead of an ending, the series would blink out like an extinguished light, leaving us with more questions than answers. It might – and clearly does – work as literature, but as a TV drama? Not a chance.
That’s why for this six-episode miniseries, Catton has ripped up her novel and started again. As the screenwriter adapting her own work, she’s given The Luminaries a drastic rewrite, recentring the story around the fate-pummelled romance of two of the novel’s little-seen characters. The mystery and mysticism and complex connections are all still here, but bedded into a more stable set of events.
Those events follow the arrival of Anna Weatherall (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Yesterday‘s Himesh Patel) in New Zealand. Both have travelled from England to the city of Dunedin to seek their fortune in the gold fields of Hokitika. On their last day aboard ship – also their shared birthday – they meet and form an instant bond.
Fate though, intervenes in the form of the glamorous, beguiling Mrs Lydia Wells (Eva Green). The owner of a gambling establishment with a mystical bent, Wells deceives Anna and sets her on a path of her design. Kept apart from Emery, Anna becomes entangled in Lydia’s confidence tricks and schemes. Tragedies, addiction, murder and skulduggery follow, as Anna and Emery orbit around each other at a distance, connected by a mystical force.
Catton may have given her story a more classical treatment for television, but The Luminaries is nothing like straightforward. It darts chronologically back and forth between two timelines, setting up mysteries and playing on the edges of the supernatural. The viewer, like the reader, is still asked to piece together the plot; the difference is that in the show, there is a definitive plot to compile, and a definitive ending.
Two things anchor the episodes in terra firma: the lead cast and the scenery. Patel is likeable as the soft-hearted Emery, one of the few good men in a town of hard-nosed swindlers. Our point of view character though, is Hewson’s Anna. She’s magnetic – quiet, intense and tragically heroic. Her life until this point is kept a mystery, and her submission to the vagaries of her fate makes her a solid foil for the character of Lydia, a woman who bends the future to her own will rather than letting the currents carry her along.
Eva Green’s screen presence is once again undeniable. Witchy roles like this one are made for her. Give her a dramatic velvet silhouette, a statement eye, a Ouija board and a theatrical monologue on celestial bodies and nobody can beat her. The scenes between Hewson and Green, in which Anna and Lydia circle each other’s secrets, demand attention.
As does the beauty of New Zealand’s Maori West Coast, where the episodes were filmed. It is a sublime backdrop, a paradise against which this sinful story plays out. Director Claire McCarthy and cinematographer Denson Baker present glorious coastlines and riverbanks pocked by human ugliness and greed. Jane Campion’s The Piano, another story of women émigrés in 19th century New Zealand, haunts the atmosphere.
For all its beauty and fascination though, there is something missing emotionally. Anna’s pitiful story stops short of being truly involving. Her relationship with Emery is based on a magical connection that’s intriguing but distancing. It’s also difficult to distinguish individuals from the large cast of mostly male supporting characters that surround Anna and Lydia.
The latter’s melodramatic speeches on the stars are bewitching but led by theme and not feeling. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the author’s interest in artifice (on arrival in New Zealand, Anna admires a nugget in a shop window, but learns that it’s only ‘pinchbeck’, five parts copper to one part zinc masquerading as gold – in other words, a fake), but underneath the adaptation’s enchantment and magic, the actual substance isn’t quite there.
That said, that The Luminaries exists as a coherent screen drama at all is a work of alchemy. Catton has melted down her extraordinary novel and recast it into a new form, one that, despite some absence of heart, works far, far better than was ever destined.
The Luminaries starts on BBC One on Sunday the 21st of June at 9pm. Episode two airs on Monday the 22nd of June at 9pm, with all subsequent episodes (also available to stream as a box-set on BBC iPlayer) airing thereafter on Sunday nights.