It's a tale as old as time - or, at the least, as old as the vampire craze that has swept media in the last few decades. Vampire meets girl. Girl happens to be a witch. Vampire and witch fall madly in love with each other in the span of a week, despite common sense and the rules against interspecies relationships that may stand in their way.
That's the basic gist of the series A Discovery of Witches, the British drama based on the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness. Unlike the other book-inspired series that have come before it, including Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries, ADOW does a lot more with social issues and, for that matter, a healthy, non-abusive romance. But as good as the show itself is, the books just did some things much better.
There's certainly a lot of drama in the extended, fractured de Clermont/Clairmont/Montclair family. Given that their bloodline goes back thousands of years, there's bound to be plenty of conflict to mine, especially when the current main players Matthew, Ysabeau, and Baldwin have been around for that entire time. But in the books, Baldwin Montclair, the member of the clan to serve on the Congregation, isn't given very much to do.
He's an aggressive force in the books, a quasi antagonist to Matthew and Diana, but he's seldom used. In the series, however, his antagonistic presence only grows, in conjunction with the Congregation being given a larger role, for better or worse. But despite how questionable the Congregation's presence may be, Baldwin coming to the forefront is decidedly a good thing, if only for the way it further clarifies the history of the de Clermont clan.
As we previously discussed, there's a force at work trying to prevent Matthew and Diana from being with one another. The hallmark forbidden love trope is a must for series such as ADOW. In this world, the forbidden nature of their romance is attributed to something known as the covenant, a ruling set down centuries ago by this shadowy group known as the Congregation, that prohibits interspecies coupling.
In the books, the Congregation and covenant both are scarcely worth mentioning, their roles comparatively minor and background. But in the series, the poor choice was made to foreground these cartoonish, scenery chewing figures and their outdated rules.
With the All Souls trilogy told so squarely through Diana's perspective, sometimes, other characters wind up feeling shortsighted as a result of it. Two characters that definitely fit into that category are Diana's own aunts, Emily and Sarah. As her fiercest protectors and sounding board, Em and Sarah are always meant to provide Diana with a home she can return to, witchy warmth and instructions she can rely on.
But the show allows Em and Sarah their own space to develop, featuring several scenes of the adorable married couple entirely on their own. Played wonderfully by Valarie Pettiford and Alex Kingston, the characters become more than just voices of reason and comfort, finally allowed to be their own people and a fully formed romantic relationship as well.
In A Discovery of Witches, not much is known about the mysterious and alluring Matthew Clairmont until Diana manages to convince his mother, Lindsay Duncan's Ysabeau, to reveal some of the details of his tragic history. The series also touches on his lengthy, 1,500 year history with fleeting flashes of flashbacks.
But the books delve into Matthew's life in such greater detail, that it's almost laughable to compare the two efforts. Matthew's past deserves much more exploration than what the series has given it so far. Hopefully, further seasons will deliver.
With the book series so squarely told from the perspective of Diana's life, and eventually the perspective of her life with Matthew, it would make sense that her parents' legacy would play a substantial role. Rebecca Bishop and Stephen Procter, descendants of people accused in the Salem Witch Trials, were mysteriously killed by other witches during Diana's childhood.
The books don't provide much of a look at their characters, until Stephen appears more significantly in the second book. But so far, the television adaptation has woven their story into Diana's life much more explicitly, including some truly heartbreaking flashbacks.
It's supposed to be a big deal in the series, when mentions of the group the Knights of Lazarus are thrown around during key arguments or poignant moments. Baldwin practically spits the name of the group, and Matthew's position as their leader, in Matthew's face at every chance he gets. When Matthew hands over the leadership position to his son, Marcus, we're clearly meant to be touched by the gesture.
But so far, the series has done an exceedingly poor job elaborating on just what this exclusive society even is, while the books never once have that issue. With later seasons, it's possible there's room for further explanation, but the show missed the mark by not explaining it already.
The struggle of interspecies relationships is one that is at the forefront of both the television show and book series. While Matthew, a vampire, and Diana, a witch, may be the couple we're most meant to care about, there's another couple worth rooting for that is also forced to deal with the challenges of navigating these difficult waters: daemon Nathaniel and Sophie, a daemon who somehow comes from a witch bloodline.
In the book series, these characters aren't introduced until very late in the game in the first book, but the show makes the smart decision of interweaving their story, and Sophie's quest to locate Diana, from very early on. This makes their eventual meeting all the more meaningful, and sets the stage for their later relationship much more clearly than the books do.
Chemistry isn't something that can be manufactured -- it's either there, or it never really is. Unfortunately for ADOW, as convincing as the story of the romance may be at times, the chemistry between its two leads, Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer, is never really as reliable and tangible as the show seems to be banking on.
The two play off one another well enough, buoyed in large part by the charismatic strength of Goode's Clairmont. But the duo never feel like the epic, fated soulmates that Harkness' novels clearly make them out to be, and that's a real shame.
When interpreting a written work for the screen, big or small, the powers that be behind the production have some creative freedom when it comes to determining the significance of supporting players. In the All Souls trilogy, Miriam Shepherd and Marcus Whitmore are relatively minor players. Marcus is given a bit more prominence as Matthew's sired son, but Miriam is never given much to do.
Thankfully, the show breaks away from this narrative, forming Marcus and Miriam into much more fully realized and sympathetic characters. The duo often appear in tandem, but they have their own distinct personalities and contributions to the makeshift family of vampires.
There's no easy way of putting this: the Diana Bishop the show gives us is not the Diana Bishop we deserved. As played by Teresa Palmer, whose performance is really as one note as they come, Diana seems younger than her years, inexperienced and ineffective and not at all the heroic witch the books make it clear that she is.
Perhaps this is merely a result of the first season only covering the first book's events so far, but a large part of the blame rests squarely upon the decision to cast Palmer for a role she was clearly not meant for. Diana deserved better, and so did fans of Harkness' heroine.