The Luminaries has been described variously as "a dazzling feat", "the consummate literary page-turner" and "an 800-page doorstop".
My favourite description, however, being someone who gave up on local author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning, epic novel almost immediately after starting it, is "six-part television series".
"I think a lot of people will be relieved that they can watch the TV series having bought the book but having never fully read it," laughs actor Erik Thomson over the phone from Adelaide. "It's a heavy book. Now there's an easy option."
I'm not sure if "easy" is the right word. While the scope of the book has been narrowed and focused, none of Catton's bold ambition has been lost in translation. Having penned the series herself, she regularly jumps between two timelines and keeps things moving as fast as a shooting star. Backed by the BBC, the show is gorgeous to watch with an opulence not often seen in local drama.
"A lot of the stuff we do in this part of the world is contemporary and domestic because we don't tend to have the money to do these big, broad, epic, period pieces," says Kiwi-born Thomson. "To get an opportunity to do something so rich and well funded was an absolute gift. They're very rare," admits Thomson, who has most recently been on our screens as dad Dave Rafter in the popular family drama Packed to the Rafters and as columnist George Turner in the literary comedy series 800 Words.
Both those chaps couldn't be further from Dick Mannering, his character in The Luminaries, who Thomson describes as "an entrepreneur and whoremonger". While cheerful, he's an unsavoury fellow.
"Yeah, that's a fair assessment," Thomson agrees. "I didn't want him to be a Dickensian evil character. Men in those situations need to have charisma and a joie de vivre about them that is infectious to whoever it is they're seducing to work for them. He's got a theatrical quality to him. Amidst this fairly dark and brooding BBC period drama, I wanted to bring a character with a lot of colour. That in itself makes his line of work even more unpalatable and insidious. I just relished that opportunity to do that."
As anyone who's read the back cover blurb of the novel knows, astrology and star signs play a major part of not just the story but also its very construction. So the big question is, does Thomson believe in such things?
"I find it interesting. If my star sign in the Adelaide Advertiser says don't go outside today, I'll still go outside. I don't believe it, but I don't discount it offhand," he says, before revealing that he does share classic Taurus traits, like stubbornness, determination and a creative streak.
"I think William Shakespeare was a Taurian, as was Laurence Olivier," he smiles.
As the world shifts into its new Covid-19 reality, Thomson believes The Luminaries will act as a wonderful showcase for New Zealand and its talent on both sides of the cameras, "showing the world we're the best place to make drama series".
"It's giving people something fantastic and epic, something to get their teeth into and get away from the news and the drudgery of the day-to-day in isolation or quarantine."
He also believes it could lead to people giving the source material another crack.
"It's the book that's on everyone's shelf but it's one of those things that everyone is intending to read," he says. "It's a daunting task until you get into it. So hopefully this will help oil the wheels."
Who: Erik Thomson
What: Stars in the adaptation of The Luminaries
When: World premiere, this Sunday on TVNZ
The Dark Light
A quick word with Marton Csokas, who plays the violent Francis Carver
How was your experience filming in New Zealand?
I hadn't been in Aotearoa for a long time, so I returned with both trepidation and excitement. It was weird. I sensed more profoundly what I describe as "liquid obsidian", and I loved it all the more. It seemed all the more apparent that we are shells of flesh and our spirits are that which ultimately define us. I hadn't seen some of my friends and colleagues for 30 years, and it was magnificent. I sometimes didn't recognise people whom I'd worked with briefly, but I remembered their "life force", their "mauri". I found it inspiring around ideas of infinity and the eternal soul.
Had you read the book before being cast in the show?
I hadn't. A friend of mine suggested it to me, but I hadn't gotten to it. I started to, but alongside the screenplay, it was so very different. I've learned my lesson previously, that it's best to stick to the genre you're working in.
What are your thoughts on astrology?
My sign is in Cancer, and if I told you my time of birth you could figure out my ascendant and my moon; imagine the dirt you'd have on me.
I try and give all my characters astrological signs, usually a combination of Western and Chinese. It opens up possibilities of invention, like a game. It's fun and useful.
As a human being, I've found astrology useful as a reflection for self-discovery and also in the dynamics of relationships, particularly when combined with Carl Jung's work and Greek mythology. Liz Greene and Monika Wikman are authors in that field I enjoy. What did Oscar Wilde say? "We're all born in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars." We should do that more often, they're pretty.
Do you have any favourite book to TV adaptations?
I watched Paddington 2 with my daughter last night and had a great time.
Too long, didn't read
Haven't got round to reading the book? No worries, get the gist with these TV series worth bingeing.
War and Peace
WHAT: The ultimate literary classic
WHY WATCH: At more than 1200 pages, Leo Tolstoy's 1869 epic takes a big commitment to tackle. The BBC's six-part series with Lily James, James Norton and Gillian Anderson is much more achievable.
STREAM: TVNZ OnDemand
WHAT: The one everyone's talking about
WHY WATCH: The adaptation of Sally Rooney's best-selling novel will take you back to your teen years amid all the angst, longing and intense, burning love. A compelling portrayal of intimacy and heartache, complete with lengthy sex scenes that last way longer than you/your first boyfriend did.
STREAM: TVNZ OnDemand
The Handmaid's Tale
WHAT: The dystopian future that feels scarily close to home
WHY: There have been three seasons of this darkly brutal drama starring Elisabeth Moss, but only the first is a retelling of Margaret Atwood's 1985 book. Violence, rape, misogyny, sexism, reproductive rights and abuse make this a tough but addictive watch. Atwood fans can also catch another of her bestsellers brought to the small screen with Alias Grace, starring our very own Anna Paquin.
STREAM: Lightbox (Handmaid's Tale); Netflix (Alias Grace)
Little Fires Everywhere
WHAT: The next big thing
WHY: After producing and starring in two award-winning seasons of Big Little Lies (Neon), Reese Witherspoon returns to familiar TV territory with Little Fires Everywhere, a six-part adaptation of Celeste Ng's best-selling book. Witherspoon stars and produces, alongside Scandal's Kerry Washington, with the pair playing suburban mothers from two very different backgrounds.
STREAM: Coming to Amazon Prime soon.