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 in 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.

Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries has made it to the screen courtesy of TVNZ and the BBC.
Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries has made it to the screen courtesy of TVNZ and the BBC.

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As a prospect for the screen, though, it's dead on arrival. Attractively dressed and 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 coat-tails 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".

The Luminaries was doomed to fail on TV and potboilers are a much safer bet, says Tim Robey. Photo / Supplied
The Luminaries was doomed to fail on TV and potboilers are a much safer bet, says Tim Robey. Photo / Supplied

There was a golden age on TV – somewhere between I, Claudius (1976) and Bleak House (2005), you might argue – dominated by Andrew Davies' 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).

But we stand a long way apart from those traditions now. Awards season, year-on-year, is littered with the carcasses of wannabe "prestige" titles that were meant to matter until anyone got a look at them. I speak of a film like The Goldfinch, last year's bizarrely inert stab at the Donna Tartt doorstop, essentially a form of miscast cinematic taxidermy.

Behind the scenes: Director Claire McCarthy with Eva Green. Photo / Supplied
Behind the scenes: Director Claire McCarthy with Eva Green. Photo / Supplied

But there are Goldfinches annually – they come in the form of The Kite Runner, The Book Thief, Suite Française, The Reader, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. You can just hear the delicate nuance and book-club credentials wafting around in the titles. No one watches them now. Tackling the Big Book of the Moment has been the downfall of many a film-maker who ought to have known better.

Brian De Palma, whose touch with pulp is something like sorcery, came unstuck with a legendary disaster of a production when, for some reason, he turned his hand to Tom Wolfe's epic social satire The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990.

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That film stands as a monument to bad industry judgment and misplaced hype – every aspect of its failure painfully documented in Julie Salamon's great behind-the-scenes book, The Devil's Candy. It was miscast, tonally excruciating, and an object lesson in how not to adapt. In truth, it needn't have been quite so bad.

Anna Wetherell as Eve Hewson in The Luminaries. Photo / Supplied
Anna Wetherell as Eve Hewson in The Luminaries. Photo / Supplied

The ghost of Nathaniel Hawthorne could surely have hoped for smarter handling, too, when The Scarlet Letter became a steamy, much-derided "erotic thriller" for Demi Moore in 1995. But when you turn to adaptations of modern novels there's many an example of films that feel thwarted by the very nature of what they're based on.

Cloud Atlas (2012) scores a lot of points for effort and ambition, but the Russian-doll structure of David Mitchell's novel – its most distinctive and addictive feature – had to be jettisoned. Many would single out Atonement (2007) as one of the last viable films from a big book, but I'm not one of them: only the first hour truly works; the rest is flash and obfuscation, with an ending that still feels like a clever literary device.

For a golden exception, I'd go back a decade earlier, to The English Patient (1996). Michael Ondaatje's magnificent but elliptical novel was widely assumed to be unfilmable until Anthony Minghella and his editor, Walter Murch, showed us otherwise.

There's a keen artistic intelligence in every shot, every line: it's deeply thought through. This was the rare example of a tricksy, postmodern Booker winner where the film isn't fundamentally defeated by the novel's self-conscious form.

Back in Hollywood's Golden Age, David O Selznick carved blockbusters out of runaway bestsellers – Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) were his big two – and started the vogue for bidding wars on thousands of books long before publication. He would insist on beginning his films with front covers being reverentially opened, as if to reassure the audience that every word had somehow reached the screen intact.

But the wrongheadedness of this embalming strategy became obvious, and the idea of festooning a literary property with enough cinematic class to do it justice has led to a vast acreage of turgid irrelevancies. All along, the real gold hasn't been struck by scouring the shelves for great books, but – whisper it – bad ones.

Think of Psycho, Jaws, or The Godfather – extraordinary films derived from crumby thrillers of almost no literary quality. Elevating trash into something majestic is one of the acts of alchemy cinema was born to perform. But trying to translate the high polish of great literature is often beyond it: the time, talent and money devoted to doing so are, far more often than not, a terrible waste.

You can't even blame The Luminaries, per se, for being a stilted thing on screen. It has all the symptoms of strain that go hand in hand with unthinkingly mining novels for content.

Everyone has fussed away on it, trying to squeeze Catton's book into six hour-long sausages for Sunday-night consumption. And no one ever stopped to ask why.