‘A Discovery of Witches’ could solve the genre’s generational problem.
Lead casting for A Discovery of Witches has just been announced: Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer will star in the upcoming supernatural romance-history series, which is based on the first installment of a hugely popular novel trilogy by Deborah Harkness. The story, for those unfamiliar with the books, revolves around Diana Bishop (to be played by Palmer), an Oxford professor researching alchemical history while struggling against her own hidden magical disposition. But after stumbling upon an ancient manuscript, the reluctant descendant of Salem’s witches can’t avoid facing up to her true nature any longer, and she’s thrust into a dangerous adventure that sees her becoming entangled with Matthew (Goode), a geneticist by day, vampire by night.
While the second book in the original franchise is set in Elizabethan England, the show is named after the first book installment, so this is presumably where its adaptation material will lie. This would make the show an exclusively contemporary supernatural fantasy (at least for its first season), situating A Discovery of Witches somewhere in the lineage of shows like The Vampire Diaries and movies like the Twilight series.
But what makes the books so popular is also what should differentiate the show from recent television and films. Blending rich historical detail, alchemical accuracy, and paranormal romance in a modern-day setting is no easy feat, but it’s one that original author (and executive producer of the show) Harkness has been praised for pulling off with grace in her books. “A Discovery of Witches” and its sequels stand out amongst their crop because they offer something for the more discerning reader. The story is certainly part romance, but the passion isn’t laid on thick and heavy against a sloppily constructed backdrop here. Instead, it bubbles up at a more natural pace, signaling a maturity that is usually devoid in the general genre of romance fiction, otherwise so chock-full of the bodice-ripping and “Fifty Shades”-esque love stories that give it its bad name.
This toning down of romantic elements lets Harkness’s books spend some serious time with their richly detailed settings (including the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where Harkness studied) and well-researched historical science elements, granting the series a scholarly flair unique in this genre. The first book, for instance, blends academic reading of a real 15th century alchemical manuscript with philosophical consideration of its modern-day symbolism, in a manner that is markedly less sensational than Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” books.
The author’s day job is to thank for this: she’s a history professor at University of California Davis, where she has published on the history of science, Tudor Britain, and women’s history — all prominent themes in “A Discovery of Witches” and its sequels. Harkness’s expertise in and passion for these areas helped her books avoid the usual criticisms of paranormal romances and made them the champion of readers looking for a little more brains in their bloody vampire stories. With her oversight and involvement in the show confirmed in a Facebook post, A Discovery of Witches could enjoy similar success as a genre anomaly.
For so long, love in paranormal worlds has strictly been the realm of teenagers: while Teen Wolf, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries have enjoyed enormous popularity amongst younger viewers, their audience hasn’t really encompassed most adults. Audience expectations tend to be gendered, too; supernatural romance is often scoffed at as a mindless frivolity for teen girls, incorrectly assuming that this vast genre holds zero appeal beyond that demographic. If A Discovery of Witches follows the niche-filling pattern of its literary basis, though, then this show could be poised to change all that.
Just as the novel franchise proved itself a welcome relief in a literary genre otherwise full of hastily sketched clichés, fuzzy detail and heaving bodices, this show has everything it needs to restore commercial respect and a positive reputation to supernatural romance for “grown-ups.” The casting of Goode and Palmer signals a promising step in this direction: Goode has made a name for himself as an actor skilled in giving understated performances (consider his quietly excellent turns in The Imitation Game and A Single Man, for instance), while Palmer has proved herself adept at nuance in Berlin Syndrome, Lights Out, and the other very grown-up horrors and thrillers she’s been a part of recently.
Honoring the seriousness of the books — their distinguishing feature — by ensuring the cast can satisfy the cerebral desires of neglected audiences is the best possible start for A Discovery of Witches, and heartening news for viewers anticipating a Game of Thrones-shaped hole in their future.