Women are few and far between in the midst of New Zealand’s gold rush in 1866, the setting for Eleanor Catton’s BBC adaptation of her own bestseller, The Luminaries.
As one character points out, there are so few women in town that he knows them all, by name – and everyone knows Anna Wetherell, a popular and luminous young woman forced into sex work soon after she arrives on the South Island.
Catton’s book, which won her the Man Booker, is organised according to astrological principles: every central character represents either a zodiac sign, or a heavenly body in the solar system.
Anna Wetherall represents both the Sun and the Moon, as does her astral twin, a man called Emery Staines. Born at the same moment, their fates are inextricably tied together, and both experience a “magic” when they first meet on the boat to New Zealand.
Despite Anna and Emery’s key roles in the book’s plot, they are barely seen, and are absent for most of the 832 page tome. When I first read the book, Anna’s absence struck me in particular. Constantly referred to and yet never in sight, she seemed almost a trope: the voiceless woman and sex worker whose beauty is well-documented, but whose character is almost exclusively defined by her relationships to men.
In the television adaptation, however, Catton has righted that wrong, recentring her intricate story from the female perspective.
Dunedin, the settlement where Anna (Eve Hewson) first arrives, is now seen through her eyes: dark, unfriendly, menacing, and filled with lonely, watchful men.
Anna herself is enigmatic, resourceful, and although she’s naive at first, she’s not foolish – she quickly realises that she’s been duped by brothel madam Lydia Wells, who ensures that Anna has nowhere else to turn but to her.
Eva Green plays Lydia to perfection as a glamorous, velvet-clad schemer conducting an affair with an ex-convict, while her husband, Crosbie Wells, combs the gold fields on the other side of the island. She frequently steals scenes with her monologues on stars and fate – and of course, the whole series (directed by Claire McCarthy) is steeped in the supernatural, and a sense of magic.
Catton’s choice to focus on the tense dynamic between Anna and Lydia is a clear departure from the novel, which has a far more male-centric opening. The reader follows Walter Moody, a prospector, whose introduction to Hokitika (a settlement on the West Coast) is mired after he stumbles onto a meeting with twelve men (so far, so very male).
All twelve are linked in some way to a mysterious murder – but in the TV adaptation, this meeting doesn’t take place until much later in the series.
Catton also gives space to her (literal) star-crossed lovers, Anna and Emery Staines (played by Himesh Patel). Their love story is at the heart of the book, too; but in the series, we see its origins.
In one beautiful shot in the first episode, Anna stands onboard the boat she’s journeyed to New Zealand on, looking out over the new, alien terrain. The sun behind her, she looks down, and sees a stranger – Emery – lying directly in her shadow on the deck below. The moment establishes their fateful connection: they are each other’s shadow, even experiencing ghostly pain when the other is injured.
There were some elements of the series pilot that I wasn’t as keen on: the opening scenes, which flash forward to a murder, were so dark and murky that I had to squint to make any sense of it. One shot, where Anna appears to be bleeding gold, would have been so much more impactful if the brightness had been dialled up just a little.
But all in all, Catton’s choice to spin The Luminaries on its axis, with a new focus on the female perspective, feels fresh and needed.
The sprawling novel was always going to be a nightmare to adapt, but by reintroducing us to the story via characters we barely met the first time around, Catton has managed to breathe new life into her tale.
The Luminaries begins on Sunday 21st June at 9pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.