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October 26, 2020

Book vs TV Series: A Discovery of Witches

by Donna Huber

A Discovery of WItches tv show

There are few books that I have been so excited about being turned into a television series. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is one such series. I was finally able to view it.

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A Discovery of Witches book cover
I fell in love with the A Discovery of Witches (read my review) and the subsequent books in the All Souls Trilogy - Shadow of Night (read my review) and The Book of Life (read my review). I even loved the spinoff Time's Convert (read my review). So I was super excited when it was announced that the series was being made into a television series. A British company filmed it and I so hoped that it would come to Masterpiece like so many British shows do (Downton Abbey, The Durrells of Corfu, Victoria, etc.), Unfortunately, a cable network bought it which meant I would have to wait for it to come to DVD.

I noticed that the library had a copy of the DVDs back in March when I attended my book club meeting. I thought about checking it out but I was behind on all the television shows I watched and figured I could get it the next month when TV started to slow. Little did a realize that a week or so later everything, including the library, would shutdown. I was really kicking myself for not picking up the series. Instead, I contented myself with listening to the audiobooks which I had not listened to before and are excellent.

Finally, when the library reopened I put a hold on the series and after waiting months I finally got my hands on it. It happened to be the start of my vacation and as I wasn't going anywhere I thought this would be a fun treat.

You might be wondering why I didn't buy the DVDs if I love the series so much. I wanted to be sure that the series was well done before I invested the money - I've bought other book movies and television series that I was disappointed with. 

As the books are really quite long (the audiobooks are around 24 hours of listening EACH), I really wanted the show to be something that I could watch when I was craving the story but didn't have time to read or listen to. I've often done that with Harry Potter (to the point I've worn out more than one set of DVDs and am now watching them on the Peacock streaming network).

So Friday night, I got my homemade pizza and soda and settled in with a cuddly blanket (a cold front was moving in) to start the series. It had all the makings of a great Friday night. I popped the DVD in and waited with bated breathe for the menu to come up.

So what did I think?

First I was a little shocked that the first season was only 8 episodes long. Did I mention that the audiobook is 24 hours long? The hardback is 579 pages. I knew a lot would need to be cut to fit it into the allotted time. And the book is heavy on details which wouldn't be necessary since we would be able to see the world Harkness had created. 

Quite early on I could tell they weren't going to keep strictly to the book. Marcus isn't working in the lab but is working as a medical doctor. He tries, and fails, to create a vampire which is what leads him to learn of Matthew's research. A lot of the explanations are provided differently than they are in the book. Some of these changes I understood were needed to translate the story from page to screen.

My biggest complaint was the truncated courtship between Matthew and Diana. I mean it is already short timewise in the book (there's only a few weeks between the fall equinox and Halloween) but it seemed even more rushed in the show. Many of my favorite parts were omitted or brushed over - like the dinner Diana prepares for him. There's also no breakfast at the diner after rowing. And while we do get to see Old Lodge, there is no magical beings yoga.

When I stopped trying to compare the book and the show and just tried to enjoy it as if there was no book, I did like it a bit more. 

There were some overly dramatic scenes that made me giggle (and I don't think they weren't meant to be comical). And the opening scenes when Diana opens Ashmole 782 the reaction of Gillian Chamberlain (played by Louise Brealey) was cringe-worthy. She moved more like a zombie rather than a witch. There were other scenes where the actress's movements were robotic and she didn't embody the character as I had envisioned her in my head while reading the books. I think she was the character most different than what I imagined.

You know I'm a big Downton Abbey fan, so I was thrilled to see Matthew Goode as Matthew Clairmont. (He played Lady Mary's second husband Henry and I wonder if the reason he only appeared at the end of the Downton Abbey movie is because he was busy with A Discovery of Witches). He did a decent job embodying the Matthew I imagined. However, there some facial expressions that had me giggling. I guess he was trying not to blink so much. You know that look one gets during a staring contest when you know they aren't going to keep from blinking much longer? Well that is the look Matthew had a number of times. 

I missed some of the rituals of their greetings and farewells. We didn't get to see any of the Knights of Lazarus planning meetings. There is a very brief "discussion" of Marcus taking over when Matthew hands him the letter. Also, it wasn't clear that Matthew and Diana are considered married nor do we see the preparations that Hamish makes for their departure to 1590 (where Diana is told of the property and wealth she receives by being Matthew's mate). It wasn't until I watched the season through a second time that I realized a pretty significant moment was left out. 

We do see the house act up a bit and the delivery of the Ashmole page and poppet, but they don't have the house keep anything for them as they depart for the past. Actually, there is no mention of Matthew wearing his badge of Lazarus. While it isn't too important at the moment, it has great significance later on when they adapt book 3. 

So what's the verdict?

In this case, the book is so much better than the television series. If you've never read the books (I highly recommend that you do), then it is a decent show. I will watch the next season when it is available and perhaps with time I will come to appreciate it as its own stand-alone entity.

Sadly, my hopes that I could use it to "tide" me over when I couldn't read the books have been dashed. I will have to rely on the audiobooks for that. 

Have you watched A Discovery of Witches? I would love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you weren't familiar with the book series first.

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. 100% agree the series doesn't match up. I saw the first episode at an event before the series premiered and the lady next to me and I kept whispering What??? to each other.

    Seasons 2 and 3 will only be slightly longer and they're still a book each. With all the stuff that never happened added into season 1 that they're now stuck with, the next books will be even more slighted.

    I also thought the effects in season 1 looked SO cheap. I couldn't help comparing this show to how Grimm or The Vampire Diaries or The Originals etc. other fantasy shows have been done by US productions.

    Not the actors' fault. They're just doing a job. But it's very disappointing that the author understands the genre so little that she thought the changes were okay, and even wrote some of them.

  2. Yes! I forgot to mention the special effects. Especially her hands. I thought it should have been blue lights (like electricity) instead of read and from her fingertips and not her palms. It was like she had a flashing light hidden in her sleeves. All the period British shows I watch are well done so I'm hoping that they do a good job with season 2, but as you said the foundation is set. I often feel like American authors don't negotiate as well as British authors when their books are adapted to the screen.

  3. I'll admit that I haven't read the book OR watched the show yet, but this is definitely on my TBR. I wonder if it might actually be better to watch the show first in this case. Then I might actually enjoy them both. Hmmm... I'll have to think about that.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction