Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy has breathed new life into the Sundance drama series. A discovery of the witches. The novels themselves, which were originally published between 2011 and 2014, are growing in popularity again with the rise of the television series, and fans of both novels have a lot to say about the changes that went into adapting such a popular book series to television Screen.
I began my journey through this series and its adaptation with the first novel in the book series, and was almost immediately drawn to the story and characters. An Oxford academic who spends her days studying dusty medieval manuscripts and happens to be a witch may not be the dream of many, but for fans of the contemporary fantasy – and this eternal academic on the way to becoming a medieval British professor of literature – we are all too happy to lose ourselves in the fascinating world of Diana Bishop. Grew up in the era of dusk (and just slightly annoyed to say this) the addition of a vampire love interest added to the right stereotypes and didn’t hurt my feelings about the novel in the least.
The first season of the television show of the same name followed the events of the first book and ended at the same point on the timeline. Since the first novel was an introduction to the world Harkness had created, it was a relatively simple plot that could be copied onto the screen. I was so pleased with the first season of the show that I hardly minded when it was announced that season two would require a subscription to see it.
My excitement about the show subsided over the course of the second season. The second book in Harkness’ trilogy was my favorite, so I had high expectations for the show’s second season. Shadow of the night takes place in London at the turn of the 17th century and complicates the logistics of the plot and the characters by adding “historical accuracy” to the list of tasks. There were many highlights from the novel that made it onto the show, including the intrigue of the past of the vampire love interest, the historical accuracy of Elizabethan wardrobes, and sociopolitical events of the time, to name a few. However, some of my favorite parts of the novel were lost in translation. The inequality of women at the time made the novel’s story equally interesting in terms of plot and detail, dwarfing Deborah Harkness with her intricate, albeit sometimes tangled and detailed, writing. I was also impressed by the almost constant sprinkling of famous British writers of the Elizabethan era throughout the novel.
The real highlight of this novel was Harkness’ contribution to the theory that William Shakespeare did not write his many famous plays himself. Harkness brilliantly included the members of the School of Night as characters in the second novel, and in 1590 managed to end the reader’s time by suggesting that Shakespeare had stolen one of his better-known one-liners from Christopher Marlowe. I was at the height of my Elizabethan dreams when the second novel came to an end and I turned to the third.
The same does not apply to the television adaptation. I was disappointed with the lack of attention paid to Diana’s journey from an autonomous woman in the 21st century to a married woman with no identity of her own in the 16th century. Although it was the atmosphere of Oxford science that attracted me and the inclusion of some of the greatest British literary figures as characters that made me turn the pages, it was Diana’s evolution that carried me through to the end of this series, and me to it I was glad I made it through. Diana Bishop begins the first novel, A discovery of the witchesas a reticent professor of alchemy who couldn’t fathom anyone interested in her and finished the third novel as the most powerful and self-confident witch of her time, both supernaturally and politically.
Although it was the atmosphere of Oxford science that attracted me and the inclusion of some of the greatest British literary figures as characters that made me turn the pages, it was Diana’s evolution that carried me through to the end of this series, and me to it I was glad I made it through.
This is one of my biggest problems with the TV series. There are dozens of free things to say about the dramatic retelling of Dianna and Mathew’s love story, the least of which is the fantastic casting and attention given to the supporting characters that were not given them in the book series. If I hadn’t read the trilogy and fell in love with Harkness’ purposeful building of the world, I’d probably love the adaptation, but the show leaves a lot to be desired in comparison.
At this point, the show’s second season has come to an end. Each season of the show seems to follow the events of every book. Season 1 followed the plot and timeline of the story through the first book, and Season 2 does the same. This would indicate that the TV adaptation of the trilogy is a limited series that ends with the conclusion of the events in the third book. There is a fourth spin-off novel about one of the supporting characters as well as an information book that guides the reader through the complex world. None of these are really worth mentioning in the context of the book series, but can add up to a longer post – TV adaptation than the book series – which this humble reviewer thought would be a mistake.
With this in mind, a viewer might conclude that the television show is more than halfway over. In many dramatic adaptations, the plot is given drastic freedoms to extend the show beyond the end of the book series. This is expected for most series, and an expanded plot lengthens the show longer to include character and plot details in the show. However, this is impossible if the current course of the show is any indication of the likely ending, which is likely to happen at the end of next season. If so, the lack of detail and undertones from the book series is an unfortunate oversight by the showrunners, which includes Harkness.
The detail and voice given to gender inequality in the novels makes sense as it happened over five hundred years in the past. A modern woman would suffocate under the expectations of the time. That aspect is all but lost in the TV series, which I found all the more disappointing when I found out about the all-female production and directing leads. This, along with the lack of true character and relationship development – after all, this is a romance – resulted in a great book series that has been turned into a show that is not bad, but not great.