Film & Television

PBS Brings Books to Life in September

An innocent young woman finds herself in a sprawling mansion with a mysterious man or a sinister housekeeper (or both), locked rooms, forbidden passages, and dark secrets. As literature goes, this set-up is a familiar one: from Jane Eyre’s eponymous tutor, Rebecca’s second Mrs. DeWinter, and Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland to children’s heroines like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, or even bookish Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Today, this gothic formula is continuously revisited for period romance novels, the ones you find in paperback near the check-out line at grocery stores.

The Miniaturist, the haunting and visually sumptuous new mini-series on PBS, is based on a somewhat more respectable book, the bestselling novel by English actress and first-time author Jessie Burton. Drawing inspiration from an elaborate dollhouse in the Rijks museum, and dedicating four years to painstaking period research, Burton’s book sparked a bidding war in 2013 and was named Waterstone’s Book of the Year in 2014. By 2016, it had sold more than a million copies in 37 countries.

The dollhouse, which is still on display in the famous Amsterdam museum, was the real-life wedding gift 17th century Dutch merchant Johannes Brandt gave his bride, Petronella Oortman. She proceeded to spend the equivalent of about €2 million euros filling it with exact replicas of the couple’s furniture and household goods.

Burton describes her encounter with the house with enthusiasm. “I thought what a stunning, stunning piece of craftsmanship for a start, and it really drew me in. It’s a very big object, it’s quite aesthetically pleasing. It’s very intimate, but it’s also quite imposing. When I learned that the owner, who was also called Nella, started decorating the house in identical miniature to her real home and spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars on it, I just thought that’s such an interesting psychology. Why did she do that? Why did she make all these beds she couldn’t sleep in and food she couldn’t eat?”

While Petronella and Johannes were real people, there was little information for Burton to work with other than the dollhouse itself. So she was free to create characters and weave a story around the dollhouse that includes a delicious mix of intrigue, scandal, and the supernatural. True to the classic gothic form, her heroine Petronella, much younger than her husband, is innocent and naive. However, she comes from aristocratic stock and Johannes, who’s the 17th century equivalent of “new money,” pays her family’s debts in exchange for her hand in marriage. When “Nella” arrives in Amsterdam, she is met not by her new husband but by his severe spinster sister Marin. It quickly becomes clear that the household is hiding potentially disastrous secrets. A local “miniaturist” begins supplying Nella with items for the dollhouse that seem to hold clues to what’s going on and to the bride’s future.

The Masterpiece mini-series stars wide-eyed and lovely Anya Taylor-Joy (the only teen to survive last year’s psychological thriller/gorefest Split) as Nella and period drama staple Ramola Garai (Atonement, Emma, Amazing Grace) as Marin. Alex Hassell (Cold Mountain, Suburbicon) is Johannes, and Emily Berrington (The White Queen, Sons of Liberty) is the mysterious miniaturist.

As one would expect from a Masterpiece production, The Miniaturist is an object of beauty, as well as an engaging story. The sets and costumes perfectly recreate the lush worlds of Dutch masters Vermeer and Rembrandt. Seventeenth century Amsterdam celebrated excess, and there is certainly much to celebrate here.

Check your local PBS listings for encore showings of the first episode of The Miniaturist. The second episode will premiere next Sunday, Sep. 16. Members can also watch episodes online at PBS.org.

As so many programs like The Miniaturist demonstrate, PBS has always had success in adapting literature for television. This month, a new series will dive into viewers’ favorite books. The eight-part Great American Read, hosted by multi-Emmy Award winner Meredith Vieira, has put together a definitive list of the nation’s favorite 100 novels. It will examine how authors create these seminal and beloved works, and why readers are affected so personally by them. With a diverse group of titles, ranging from standard English Lit fare (Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations), to more contemporary classics (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Color Purple, Gone Girl), to pop culture phenomena (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter), the series includes interviews with authors, celebrities, and book lovers across the country.

PBS is encouraging viewers to participate in the project by casting votes for their favorite titles. At the end of the series, the results of “America’s best-loved book” will be announced. You can review the list — and join the conversation — here.

The Fall Kick-off episode of The Great American Read airs tonight, Tuesday, Sep. 11.  Visit PBS.org to view the series launch party and for more information.

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