It’s always interesting to discover the origins of a great writer, read his first creations, and trace the evolution of his genius. In the case of Neil Gaiman, following his footsteps towards becoming a renowned, bestselling author must include Neverwhere. Fans familiar with Gaiman’s work have undoubtedly read, or at least heard of this novel; fewer know, however, that it was originally a TV series for the BBC, later adapted by Gaiman into his first novel. Despite being a debut, the novel is still a captivating work full of Gaiman’s distinctive magical realism. That’s harder to say about the TV series, however.
Neverwhere – the series – dates back from 1996, and to commemorate the 15th anniversary of its release, BBC has released a DVD, hoping, no doubt, to draw in Gaiman fans interested in tracing the beginnings of the writer’s career. Although the series was original and innovative, it’s difficult to appreciate it in retrospect. It is impossible not to compare the series to the novel, and as a show filmed on a budget and whose plot line follows almost exactly the one in the book, the series doesn’t live up to the comparison.
Neverwhere is a story about the myths of London and the homeless of London; it’s about the parts of London that are before our very eyes, yet invisible. Are there really friars in Blackfriars? Who is the Angel Islington? It’s from those questions that the tale was born.
Richard Mayhew is, like many of Gaiman’s protagonists, an ordinary man who discovers himself in the middle of another world and another adventure – which, of course, isn’t a particularly new idea in fantasy literature, except that in this case he doesn’t then turn out to be the prince or duke or chosen one of somewhere. In fact, he’s absolutely ordinary, rather clumsy and forgetful, but good-hearted, and, as a character points out, “he’s got that look [of a hero] about him.” And indeed, once he meets Door, discovers London Below – a magical world made up of the forgotten bits below London, populated by a motley population of fantastical characters – and sets off to help her avenge her family, he does become a hero, completely with “facing an ordeal” and killing a great Beast.
That all sounds wonderful, of course, but it works better as a novel. Gaiman’s prose is crafted with care and written in a beautiful, humorous style, with metaphors and descriptions that make even the sewers seem magical. On screen, however, the story has the unfortunate appearance of a homemade film; perhaps this reviewer is too used to the sleek, polished looks of Hollywood sets, and it is possible that the filmmakers were going for that particular look of realism…but in the end, there’s no sense of wonder evoked by what’s on the screen. But then, Gaiman’s ideas are often so bizarre and fantastic that it’s almost impossible to give them a concrete representation
That’s not to say that the movie has no redeeming qualities; the ensemble of actors is quite talented and has a certain on-screen chemistry. Gary Bakewell is quite believable as the ordinary Richard Mayhew, and Door (Laura Fraser) has a certain natural charm about her that’s so often lacking on television. The Marquis de Carabas (Paterson Joseph), too, captures the suave demeanor of a dodgy type with subtlety. And Peter Capaldi incarnates Angel Islington quite aptly if one considers that being an angel is a rather big job requirement. And the screenplay, written by Neil Gaiman, is not lacking his dark humour, though almost every joke makes its way into the novel and somehow seems funnier on the page.
However, the 15th anniversary edition of the DVD is getting a bit more hype than it deserves, it seems; the only additions are a some new audio commentary and an insert of a map of Neverwhere, which is a bit of an oxymoron, really; drawing a map of Neverwhere is even more impossible than making one of Hogwarts, since Neverwhere isn’t really a place in its own right – it’s made up of places. In addition, the DVD begins with several very long trailers for BBC shows that it is impossible to skip.
In the end, this is a DVD for those Gaiman fanatics who absolutely must everything he’s created. For everyone else, the novel is a much better way to enjoy this particular story.