BOOK VERSUS FILM: A Discovery of Witches

Ahem … TV Series Versus Film!

This time it’s a TV series rather than a film we’re comparing to its source material … But then we’ve done this before with several TV series before, catch up with them below.

Check out the rest of the Book Versus Film case studies, modern to classics, HERE.

The Book

Historical fantasy novel A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was first published in 2011. Marketed as ‘Harry Potter or Twilight for grown ups’, the book and its follow ups (The All Saints Trilogy) enjoyed considerable commercial success and critical acclaim.

In this storyworld there is a trinity of supernatural creatures that live amongst humans: witches, vampires and daemons. The book follows the fates of Diana Bishop, a witch scholar doing research at Oxford university in England. When she discovers a lost manuscript – ‘Ashmole 784’ – her life is put in danger as it turns out the manuscript may contain the key to life for ALL creatures.

This first book is about Diana and the peril she finds herself in as a direct result of discovering Ashmole 784, not only from daemons and vampires but from her own kind, the witches.

Diana finds herself at a considerable disadvantage because she has rejected her witch powers all her life, after the murder of her parents when she was just seven.

Enter Matthew Clairmont, an enigmatic vampire scientist who vows to help and protect Diana. With him and various other allies Diana sets out to discover more about her powers and to gain control over her magic. She must also face ‘The Congregation’ who forbids inter-species love between creatures.

My review

I first read A Discovery of Witches around the time it first came out. I had cancer back then and was undergoing chemotherapy, so I discovered on re-reading recently I had forgotten a lot of it (though not really surprising!).

I love a great concept and like Twilight is essentially ‘Romeo and Juliet’, so is A Discovery of Witches at its heart. The idea of a vampire and a witch falling in love is fantastic. I also love the idea our heroine must learn how to control her powers and can’t even trust her own people.

It’s also clear Deborah Harkness knows her subject. A historian herself, she provides an authentic-feeling storyworld that provides a fascinating backdrop for this world of creatures. The addition that Matthew is fifteen hundred years old so has met some of the most famous people in history such as Charles Darwin, Christopher Marlowe or Isaac Newton is fabulous.

I also love the idea that witches live in haunted houses and various ancestors are always with you. The idea that the house hides things from them or even adds or takes away storeys is inspired.

At 688 pages however, the book feels about 250 pages too long. The vast majority of the action seems ‘back-ended’ to the resolution, which seems a shame when it includes stuff like witches flying, torture, haunted houses, ghosts and time travel!

There’s also some considerable repetitions from stories that have gone before, most notably Twilight. The dynamic between Matthew and Diana in the book is very similar to Bella and Edward’s. Matthew’s ‘son’ vampire Marcus was dying in a pandemic when Matthew turned him, just like when Carlyle turned Edward. The Congregation seems remarkably similar to vampire council The Volturi.

There are also various hints towards a dark backstory for Matthew as a kind of ‘vampire vigilante’ that’s similar to Edward’s, too. Though there is some mention of sex it’s all remarkably chaste, much like Twilight too … But perhaps all this is WHY it did so well!

Harkness claims to have never read Twilight (which to be clear I don’t doubt). Many writers say they ‘don’t want to be influenced’ by reading or watching what’s gone before, but I find the opposite happens. Working with writers, I find they tend to get influenced by a kind of ‘osmosis’ and that seems to have happened in the book version of A Discovery of Witches.

All that said, I enjoyed A Discovery of Witches and was looking forward to catching up with the TV series (2018, first season only) at last. Read on to find out what I thought of it as an adaptation.

The TV Series

A Discovery of Witches is one of those rare beasts … It appears to be a faithful adaptation, whilst also taking some significant liberties in how it presents the plot from the page to the screen.

Series 1, episode 1 of the TV series starts where we expect: Diana at Oxford, finding Ashmole 784 (also known as ‘The Book of Life’ here). It also ends where the first book in the trilogy ends too: episode 8 shows Matthew and Diana escaping into the past as time walkers so Diana can study with the witches of old.

Plot

There are some significant changes to how the plot works out within those two points, ranging from big to small.

From episode one, we are left in no doubt ‘creatures’ – as witches, vampires and daemons are known in this storyworld – are facing significant problems.

They are all effectively dying out: witches’ spells no longer work; vampires can no longer ‘sire’ (create new vampires) and daemons are going mad. This is presented as both dialogue and events, such as Matthew’s son Marcus’ friend’s death by hit-and-run, with a helpless Marcus unable to ‘turn’ him and watching him die. Whilst the theme of creature extinction is present in the book, this comes much later.

Matthew is very much a threatening and rather creepy presence in the book. A couple of chapters from his point of view show this, plus the fact he kills Diana’s witch friend Gillian underlines this. In contrast, Gillian does not die in the TV series, with the witches lying about this to de-stabilise Diana’s belief in him.

There are also some other good elements that make it directly from the pages of the book to the TV series. My favourites are Sept Tours, Matthew’s family home, as well Sarah and Em’s haunted house. I also enjoyed the moment Diana causes ‘witch water’ … She starts crying because Matthew leaves her, almost flooding Sept Tours.

Rearrangements

I really like the fact the TV series ‘rebrands’ Ashmole 784 as ‘The Book of Life’ from the very beginning. It underlines what’s at stake for the creatures and makes the story much more compelling from the beginning.

There’s a lot more about Matthew leading ‘The Knights of Lazarus’ in the book, though it never really feels as if it gets paid off in Book 1 (perhaps it comes later in the trilogy). In contrast, the TV series seems to use it less, but links it to the plot a lot more, with Gerbert using this to attempt to usurp Baldwin on The Congregation.

Other elements of the book, such as the antagonistic forces of Satu and Juliet are re-arranged. In the book they seem to ‘drop into’ the action towards the end with no real mention prior to this. In direct contrast, both of these characters have much ‘beefier’ parts in the TV series and their role functions are seeded from episode 1.

Like Satu and Juliet, daemons Sophie and Nathaniel are also ‘flown in’ towards the end of the book, yet they have a strong part to play in pushing the story forwards in the TV series from the very beginning.

Agatha, a daemon congregation member and mother to Nathaniel, does not appear in Book 1 but has a strong part to play pushing the story forwards in the TV series too. (That said, though dameons’ place is cemented much more effectively in the TV series than the book, in my opinion we still don’t know enough of what daemons are capable of in contrast to witches and vampires).

Additions

There also appears to be certain elements in the TV series that are either not in the books or takes place in the subsequent two volumes of the trilogy (which I have not read, FYI).

The addition of the severed head/seer Meridiana and the witches ‘light and dark’ was not present in book 1 to my recollection.

Meridiana’s repeated ‘Beware the witch with the blood of the lion and the wolf, for with it she will destroy the children of the night’ (aka vampires) is also another element driving the plot of the TV series. More on this next. 

Characters

 There have been multiple characters lifted wholesale from the text, as well as some considerable changes to the characterisation in the TV series, too as follows … First things first though, here are the characters who appear similar or the same as the book.

Ysabeau is probably the most faithful character to the book. She and her partner Martha act exactly as we imagine from the pages, as do Sarah and Em, Diana’s aunts.

Their collective dismay at Diana and Matthew disobeying the covenant that say witches and vampires must not be together feels positively Shakespearean. Their resolve they will fight for them no matter what is fantastic. Equally, Miriam and Marcus’ belief in Matthew and love for him means we have no doubt they will fight for Diana, too.

Next, what’s different. First off, the obvious: the casting in the TV series is MUCH more diverse than the book. Whilst the book is inclusive of gay relationships, the TV series goes one further. This is a storyworld that does not focus solely on white people.  Whilst Diana and Matthew are white (as they are in the book), other character role functions are race-swapped at will. This is in-keeping with modern storytelling values, which have progressed considerably on this since 2011.

Diana is constantly called brave in the book, but I found her a little wet, rather like Bella from Twilight. So just like Bella’s re-imagining in Midnight Sun from Edward’s POV, I found Diana in the TV series MUCH more rounded. She is understated, but does appear to be as brave as everyone says, taking on her new powers and the fact her life has been turned upside down.

As mentioned already, Matthew is much creepier in the book, plus he’s also much more controlling of Diana. Again, his characterisation is very much ‘of its time’ in that 2011 we had such toxic ‘Alpha Male’ characters as Christian Grey from Fifty Shades. In contrast, Matthew seems much more complex in the TV series. This figures, because in the past five years in particular audiences have started to demand much more nuanced characterisation in general.

Gerbert, an antagonistic force who is mentioned fleetingly in Book 1 has a much larger part to play in the TV series. He has been keeping witches and vampires enthralled to him for centuries in a bid to destroy the Clairmont family. Whilst we hear about this in the book, we don’t ‘see’ what or why he does this.

Baldwin, Matthew’s brother also has a much larger part in the TV series. He is an active ally here, albeit a reticent one. When Gerbert tries to turn the tables on him with the congregation in a bid to take the spoils for himself, only Agatha can save Baldwin.

Domenico appears in Book 1, but only really as a messenger. Here in the TV series he is as much a manipulator as Gerbert. He acts as the catalyst for Juliet’s ensuing madness over Matthew, plus there’s a great moment where he seems merciful towards Baldwin … only to tell him he owes him. I really liked this flip on our expectations.

Verdict

So book or TV series … When I like different things about the two versions, this is a difficult call!

However, all the changes and rearrangements make the characters in the TV series seem more three-dimensional to me, plus there’s more of a sense of moral ambiguity thematically as well as some stronger feminist messages too.

Also as a plotting junkie I like how the ‘Book of Life’ issue is presented in the TV series and kept in mind from the beginning, along with various antagonistic functions to keep the pressure on.

So, for me … it is the TV series that is the winner on this occasion! Given Deborah Harkness is heavily involved in the adaptation, that is a shared win for her too.

What do you think?

1 thought on “BOOK VERSUS FILM: A Discovery of Witches”

  1. For me casting in the film seems problematic. Matthew particularly was always described as a huge guy (6’3 or 4) with broad shoulders, facial angles and a brooding persona. The guy they cast is a lightweight physically and without the gravitas of appearance necessary. I am so disappointed by that actor I may never watch the film. They could have done much better!!

    The books were enjoyable but illogical. For smart people it seemed they could have just gone back in time to her first finding the book…and have a plan ready for the Knights to defend her! Also why was Matthew so upset to see his father again? Who wouldn’t want a chance to see a belived relative again?!!

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