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Eleanor Catton Talks ‘The Luminaries’ As It Initiates Its Global Rollout (EXCLUSIVE)

Lead produced by Working Title Television, distributed internationally by Fremantle and coming soon to BBC Two, period thriller “The Luminaries” has initiated a global roll-out, closing pre-sales to Australia, France, Russia, Poland and Greece.

Given the freshness of the sales, the identity of the buying broadcaster partners remains to be revealed soon. Pre-sales to more European territories “are coming up as we speak,” Jens Richter, Fremantle International CEO, told Variety.

Starring Eve Hewson (“Robin Hood,” “The Knick,” Bridge Of Spies), Eva Green (“Casino Royale,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Sin City,”) and Himesh Patel (“The Aeronauts,” “EastEnders”), the six-part series adapts the novel of the same title, which made its then 27-year-old author, Eleanor Catton, the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Price.

An 800-page doorstopper adventure set during the 1860s’ gold rush on New Zealand’s wild West Coast, the book played with Victorian novel conventions in a mix of romance, crime and melodrama which Catton termed a celebration of the joy of reading.

The series, which steers a different narrative course, kicks off with two of the biggest audience lures of contemporary TV: Crime mystery and romantic melodrama. Adventurer Anna Wetherall (Hewson), who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life, stumbles drugged along a stormy coast in near pitch-black night, towards a cabin, as a man in shot and Anna then collapses.

Cut to several months earlier and Anna, on the boat, meets Emery Staines (Patel), a dapper, if poor, fortune seeker. It’s love at first sight. But twists of fate throw Anna into the maws of manipulative madame Lydia Wells (Green) who deceives, swindles and drugs her, setting her up as a prostitute. The madame’s machinations conspire to keep the star-crossed lovers apart. Anna ends up charged of murder, and Emery nowhere to be seen.

The Luminaries” is unique, a story of love, murder and revenge following one woman’s journey into the unknown at the end of the world of her time, shot on impactful locations, based on a wonderful book and, with amazing visuals and cast,” says Richter.

Produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films, in association with TVNZ, Fremantle and Silver Reel, “The Luminaries” will also be broadcast on New Zealand’s TVNZ1.

The series forms part of a Fremantle Friday morning presentation at this week’s U.K. Screenings and then looks set to be one of the highest-profile titles at late February’s Berlinale Series Market, where it receives a Special Screening on Feb. 25 . Variety talked to Eleanor Catton in the build-up to the U.K. Screenings.

The novel was admired for conveying a sensation of the joy of reading. My sense is that with the series you want to convey what for you and certainly for millions of people is the joy of watching series by combining two of the most gripping of series narratives: Romantic melodrama and a classic crime thriller. Could you comment?

Love stories and crime thrillers actually have a lot in common. They both promise a solution, a sense of a pattern finally coming together, which is a great comfort in our time of chaos and indifference. They’re also both essentially optimistic: they offer the belief that justice can, and will, prevail. There is so much TV these days that is bleak as hell, which makes me cross because bleakness is so easy. One of the joys of the miniseries is that there has to be closure, so as a form it’s perfectly suited to both mystery and romance.

The book’s first storyline is that of a man who stumbles into a covert council of 12 men. The series – and it captures a zeitgeist -is adapted for the screen by a woman, yourself,  directed by another, Claire McCarthy (“Ophelia,” “The Waiting City”), and begins with another, Anna. Again, could you comment?

Anna is deliberately occluded in the novel, for the reason that she is modeled on the astrological archetype of the Moon, which governs our hidden, interior, changeable selves. I wanted to try and mimic the experience of planetary influence, so that the book would change its nature depending on whose point of view you favored. For Anna and Emery, it’s a love story; but for Moody, it’s a murder mystery, and so on through all the planetary characters. This wasn’t possible on screen in the same way, which is why the show reinvents the novel so completely. I’m very proud that the show forefronts women, but the choice to focus the story on Anna was formal rather than political.

One key aspect of the novel noted by reviewers and readers is its artifice. Film captures a generally realistic image of the world. How far did you want to subject this to artifice? 

Structurally the novel was designed to be a kind of living horoscope. There are twelve characters representing signs of the zodiac, seven planetary characters, and a final earthly character whose death sets the story in motion; how these characters interact reflects the actual positions of the stars and planets over the goldfields at that time. All this is peculiar enough for a novel, but it’s virtually impossible on screen. Television obeys natural laws of storytelling- it’s a more classical form than the novel in many ways. The challenge was to keep the spirit of the original while transforming the story for a new medium.

One key moment in Ep.1 is when Anna discovers that Lydia, who’s offered Anna a room for the night, has stolen her purse. She later confirms Lydia lied to her about Emery Staines’ hotel. But she stays at Lydia’s home. The question is why, and any answer seems linked to Anna’s curiosity about Lydia, a strong woman with an acute sexual life, with a husband and at least two lovers. Could you comment?

My favorite moments in films or television shows tend to be when characters act for reasons they themselves don’t fully understand. I think that Anna is attracted to Lydia, and this attraction makes her impulsive. She also has more than a little bit of Lydia in her, and it’s this that makes her decide not to confront Lydia about the theft, but to return her purse to Lydia’s pocket and wait for Lydia’s next move. The action shows the crucial difference between them as well: while Lydia loves to play Fate, Anna is content to surrender herself to it.

It’s said that you insisted on the series be shot on the West Coast of New Zealand. Why was that?

New Zealand’s flora and fauna are unique, and the country’s latitude makes for a very particular quality of light. I think that if we’d shot the show anywhere else in the world the differences would have been palpable- it just wouldn’t have felt quite right. The much bigger reason, though, is that the West Coast is not just rich in gold; it is also the source of pounamu, or greenstone, which is central to Maori life both as a treasure and as a tool. Pounamu plays such an important part in the story of The Luminaries that it would have been disrespectful to shoot the show offshore.

Working Title is one of the bastions of European entertainment. What did it bring to the table as a producer?

The Luminaries spent a very long time in development- actually, it took me longer to adapt the book than to write it in the first place! I’m very grateful to Working Title for nurturing the project for so long. It is an extraordinary company, and had already done so much to shape my cultural life before I even dreamed that we might one day work together. I’m still pinching myself!

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