Casting The Luminaries for TV: Utter, Wishful, and Shameful Fanfiction

The Luminaries is an enormously enjoyable novel, with emphasis on the adverb. At more than eight hundred pages, it is the longest novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, and its author, Eleanor Catton, is the youngest to ever win the Man Booker. (She was twenty-eight when it was published, which makes me wish I were dead.) The story, set on the Hokitika goldfields of New Zealand in 1865 and 1866, is a pitch-perfect parody of a Victorian novel. Where the Victorian (or Regency) novel inspires eye-rolls from most 21st Century, the modernized language and slightly prurient intrigue of today’s literature shine through in The Luminaries. Catton rifles through nearly a score of major characters, each with their own backstory and motivation, with an incredible ease. The first time through it is a great pleasure to unravel the mystery; the second time it is a joy to see how the strings intertwine. Much of that intertwining is done via the movements of the planets and stars. Of the nineteen major characters, eighteen are associated either with a sign of the Zodiac or with a heavenly body which dictate to no small extent what their fortunes will be.

BBC2 has, per a report from 2016, begun work on a six-hour miniseries adapted by Catton herself to be filmed this year. I imagine that the project will be filmed more or less on location in New Zealand, and one hopes they will find individuals for each role who are naturally Australasian. However, I am not bound by such petty concepts such as “practicality,” “budget,” “probability,” or “the talent to actually work on a television program,” so I’m going to go ahead and cast this myself with people I like.

Here’s the twist: everyone I cast must have a birthday matching the birthday they (would) have in the story. For twelve cast members, that means matching them with a zodiac sign. For five, that means matching a day of the week to be born on. And for two, that means finding an identical birthday: month, day, and year.

Spoilers are below, in case you’d like to leave the mystery to yourself and your reading/viewing this year.

The following seven characters each align with a celestial body: Anna Wetherell, Emery Staines, Walter Moody, Lydia Greenway, Francis Carver, Alastair Lauderback, George Shepard.

Anna Wetherell (Sun/Moon): Rose Leslie (2/9/87)
Emery Staines (Sun/Moon): Michael B. Jordan (2/9/87)
Anna appears throughout most of the novel, and in many ways is the force which ties the novel together. A young woman who becomes a whore more or less through the machinations of Lydia Wells, Anna is an opium addict who kicks the habit. She is guileless but not dumb. She and Emery Staines, a fantastically successful prospector (or so it seems, anyway), are in love. Emery is a little spacey but not dumb. He has the leeway, due to his youth and his good nature, to be a little childish. Where Anna’s presence binds many of the characters together, Emery’s absence for the vast majority of the story is nearly as important.

Towards the very end of the story, it is revealed by Lydia Wells that Anna and Emery share the exact same birthday, perhaps even the same time of day. Because of the closeness of their births, they will share almost identical destinies, and are bound together by the heavens. That also makes my job significantly harder: by my arbitrary and unbreakable rules, a combination which goes together like peanut butter and jelly, the actors playing Anna and Emery must also have identical birthdays.

This was tough. My goal was to cast Anna first, because she’s got an argument to be the main character, and so I dreamt big: Saoirse Ronan, Sophie Turner, Chloe Grace Moretz, Alicia Vikander, and Kiernan Shipka. None of them, though, has a birthday twin. After significant searching, I did come up with some actors with the right birthdays. The part of Anna, in this iteration, goes to Rose “You know nothin’, Jon Snew” Leslie. We’ll have to start filming right away, because at thirty she’s a little old for the role as is, but otherwise I think she’s shown that she can easily play reckless, as she did on Game of Thrones, or as a more or less sedate person as she did on Downton Abbey. Assuming we get the okay for a rainbow cast (which is no guarantee), my preferred choice for Emery Staines is Michael B. Jordan. Jordan is creeping up the A-list, which means we might be able to pry him away from making Creed movies in perpetuity for the episode or two he’d need to be in. I do have backups as well. Maisie Williams, who was on Game of Thrones longer than Leslie and much more often, would be a very good Anna; her opposite number, unfortunately, would be someone with no acting experience. Benjamin Peltonen looks more or less like Emery in the book, and like Williams was born April 15, 1997. An extraordinary honorable mention that I honestly thought about for thirty seconds: Dakota Johnson and Rich Homie Quan were both born on October 4, 1989. In the end, Leslie is plenty good enough for Anna and Jordan is head and shoulders above anyone else who might be a birthday twin and play Emery.

Walter Moody (Mercury, Wednesday): Alden Ehrenreich (11/22/89)

Ehrenreich, who you know from Hail Caesar! and will know as The Young Han Solo, very nearly took the role of Staines for me. I was tempted to give up and cast him as the digger because he is exactly ten years older than Kiernan Shipka. But happily, Ehrenreich was born on November 22, 1989, which was a Wednesday, and Wednesday is the day that Mercury rules.

He is also a great choice to play Walter Moody, the brooding, arrogant, beautiful young Irishman with legal training and an ugly family history. He comes to Hokitika one dark and stormy night and is terribly shaken with a vision he has while in the hold of the barque Godspeed. Moody, despite his flaws, has a good heart and a clear mind, and is in that way quite the right person to act as the reader’s proxy in the first two-thirds of the novel.

Lydia Greenway (Venus, Friday): Robin Wright (4/8/66)

Lydia Greenway has several names over the course of this novel. Her maiden name, Greenway, is referenced often, but for the most part she is the widow Lydia Wells or the recently married Lydia Carver. She is a madam, a fortune teller, an entrepreneur, and dangerously sly; her ability to twist someone else into knots with words alone reminds favorably of the Lady of the Green Kirtle from The Silver Chair. Robin Wright is all of those things on House of Cards already, but I like to think that Lydia is a more interesting part because unlike Claire Underwood, Lydia is always in charge of the situation and never has to adjust herself based on a lover’s preference: Crosbie Wells and Francis Carver do more or less as she says.

Francis Carver (Mars, Tuesday): Russell Crowe (4/7/64)

Look, I don’t like this any more than you. But Mars is Tuesday, and after running through all manner of hulking/potentially dangerous actors – Liev Schreiber, Clive Owen, John Hawkes, Michael Shannon, Dominic West, and yes, Tom Hardy – Russell Crowe’s our man. He’s about the same age as Wright, and he is well-known for being a muscular presence and, when he’s within his right mind, a really fine actor.

Francis Carver plays the role of Mars, and he fulfills that role splendidly. Born into a reasonably high station in China, Carver began to run opium into China, and for some various crimes he is sentenced to ten years at hard labor. His presence in Hokitika is like a scourge; he has no hint of softness in his mien or his action, and everything he touches seems to leave a great trail of soot in its wake.

Maybe we can get Crowe for cheap. Bonus points, too, for a man from Wellington in our movie set in New Zealand.

Alastair Lauderback (Jupiter, Thursday): Charlie Hunnam (4/10/1980)

Lauderback is sort of a louder mouth, someone who as a highly successful politician seems to throw out grand statements and expect them to be backed by his servants (Jock and Augustus, heaven help my heart) or by his friends/confidants/gofers, like Thomas Balfour. Lauderback hides an ugly family secret for the vast majority of the novel, and turns out to have been shtupping Lydia Wells for a little while back in the past. This is surprisingly appropriate, because if you Google Charlie Hunnam you’ll find that he said in a recent interview that he keeps in shape by having lots of sex.

Hunnam is appropriate for the role in other ways, too, beyond his sexual history and the fact that he is one of three actors born on a Thursday. (The other two are Domnhall Gleeson, who I love but who isn’t a fit here, and Jack Black, who, well, it’s not 2001 anymore.) To say the least he has a strong physical presence that I think would buoy the character. And I also like that he has something of a resemblance to the character who turns out to be his half-brother.

George Shepard (Saturn, Saturday): Stephen Fry (8/24/57)

George Shepard, the literally and astrologically saturnine presence in the novel, is even more of a type stretch than Domnhall Gleeson as the arresting and imposing Lauderback. But there is a solidity and a precision to Fry that also applies to Shepard, the Hokitika gaoler. Shepard, we will come to find out, has a dirtier past than he lets on, and is more willing to play dirty than he would ever admit, or perhaps more than he is capable of admitting. In any event, Fry can snoot with the absolute best of them, and I think he would shine as this dour and difficult individual.

The following twelve characters who, in conjunction with Moody are often called “the Crown men” (named for the Crown Hotel where all of them gather to compare notes on the night of Moody’s arrival), each align with a particular sign of the zodiac: Te Rau Tauwhare, Charlie Frost, Ben Lowenthal, Edgar Clinch, Dick Mannering, Quee Long, Harald Nilssen, Joseph Pritchard, Thomas Balfour, Aubert Gascoigne, Sook Yongsheng, and Cowell Devlin.

Te Rau Tauwhare (Aries): …unknown!

Tauwhare would have to be played by someone young, someone who can invest the character with the presumed cleverness of youth as well as the wisdom that comes from being influenced by wise people. Although he makes a grave mistake in the novel, he also happens to be one of the more likable characters; he is helpful and aims to be kind to others without thinking of how to profit from their misfortunes.

I have scourged the Internet for actors of Maori descent, and not one of the dozens I have looked at has a birthday in late March or early April. Obviously, we would want our Maori character to be played by a Maori man, and so we must allow no substitutes. I assume that in this fantasy I have gone to the effort of paying some casting agent some large sum so that s/he can find a Maori fellow, heretofore unknown to the Internet, in his early 20s and with Aries as his zodiac sign. The lesson here, as always, is that we need to have more roles for people of color.

Charlie Frost (Taurus): Thomas Brodie-Sangster (5/16/90)

Charlie Frost is a young banker who is easily commandeered into other men’s plans. He is shanghaied by Dick Mannering into going out to Kaniere, to “Chinatown,” to accost one of the men there. Although we never see his parents, he is bound to them and their wishes in the way no other character in this story is.

I like Brodie-Sangster for this. For one, he has a perpetually young face that will actually fit the age of the character; that will make him a rarity among this cast. There’s a vulnerability that his little pixie visage will help create for the character, and he is, as we’ve seen on Game of Thrones, perfectly adequate to fill a role unto himself. I also think he’ll have it in him to be a little officious; one scene with Thomas Balfour doesn’t make either man come out looking particularly good.

Ben Lowenthal (Gemini): Karl Urban (6/7/72)

More Australasians! Karl Urban, who we saw in his native New Zealand as Eomer in the Lord of the Rings movies, comes back to New Zealand to be Ben Lowenthal, the owner and driving force behind the local newspaper. Urban is sort of a curious choice to play Lowenthal, who doesn’t growl quite as much as we’re accustomed to seeing from his roles, but Lowenthal is also possessed of a doggedness and sternness when pressed which should give us an opening for a “Too long have you haunted her steps” or at least a “Good God, man!” Out of all of my zodiac choices, this is the one that I think might make the least sense, but I am willing to overlook it because a) I like Karl Urban, b) we need another honest-to-goodness Kiwi, and c) you would be amazed at how many actors are Tauruses and not Geminis.

Edgar Clinch (Cancer): Adam Godley (7/22/64)

If you’re a casual film-watcher, you probably know Godley as the principal of, well, Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s school, who gets roped into singing backup for that little girl’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” rendition. He has the right look, above all else, for Edgar Clinch, the hotelier; Godley just looks sort of wimpy, and fortunately for us has several stage acting nominations which vouch for his talent as well. Clinch is hopelessly in love with Anna Wetherell but is, for about half a dozen good reasons, unable to say anything about it to her. More than anyone else in this story, excepting Quee Long, we have to feel a little bad for Clinch. He certainly acts like a idiot in love, but if he is so deeply under as we imagine, then he’s worth less scorn and more kindness in our judgments.

Perhaps of equal importance, by casting him I have now hit my quota of Love Actually alums, and that’s an important time in any casting director’s life.

Dick Mannering (Leo): Michael Shannon (8/7/74)

Dick Mannering is a whoremaster and property owner with a hand in everyone’s back pocket. He is grotesquely fat, much too fat to get on or off a horse without help. Michael Shannon is not fat, but I also get the feeling that Michael Shannon can do whatever he wants whenever he feels like it, so he’s spot-on for this role anyway. Mannering is more comic than Shannon typically plays – if he had been born on a Saturday and if Stephen Fry were a Leo, then it would be very easy to switch them and I’d certainly be tempted to – but I’m dying to see Shannon more or less recreate his bull in a china shop role from Revolutionary Road with a touch more bluster in the works.

Quee Long (Virgo): Zhang Fenyi (9/1/56)

Quee Long is one of the two Chinese characters in the novel. He is older and more patient than his companion; he is distinguished in the way that he patiently and thoroughly combs through a gold claim called the Aurora, which comes to play an enlightening role in the story. Quee is also noteworthy because he does not touch opium, which plays no small role in the story and is a stereotype applied to most Chinese men in the setting of the novel. His willpower is maybe the most significant and thorough quality he has.

To play him, I’ve chosen an actor whose best known role happened almost twenty-five years ago. Zhang Fenyi played one of the leads in Farewell My Concubine, which after all this time is still the only Asian film to win the Palme d’Or. Zhang’s character was possessed of some pride and even a little conservatism in that film; hopefully he can bring that to the forefront again in this miniseries.

Harald Nilssen (Libra): Ben Whishaw (10/14/80)

Nilssen is well-meaning and a bit of a dandy. Like Frost, he finds himself frustrated as often as not, though by a different man. Where Frost is manhandled by Mannering, Nilssen gets pushed into a corner by Shepard – and, having revealed the secret of his “investment” in Shepard’s gaol to Balfour at the Crown, and Balfour having revealed that elsewhere, he loses four hundred pounds. Whishaw has, even if the rest of you don’t appreciate it the way I do, played someone who found himself backed into a corner by an unforgiving older man: he was Frobisher in Cloud Atlas, another young man who looks good in an old-fashioned suit and gets caught way above his head by a more powerful man. I also think Whishaw has plenty of “hello, old chap!” in him, which would be essential to the role.

Joseph Pritchard (Scorpio): Joaquin Phoenix (10/28/74)

Jo Pritchard has relatively little featured time after a sudden influx of him in his first scene – in that way he’s like Clinch, Nilssen, and Frost – but he does play an unusual role in that he is mostly unlikable. Balfour signifies fool often as not, but he has a friendliness to him that makes him more amiable. Mannering is not a good man in the slightest, but he makes no pretense that he even wants to be. But Pritchard is possessive without being romantic, condescending without being caring; his scene with Anna has much of the right intentions but none of the tenderness she can share with Gascoigne or Ah Sook or even Clinch. He is, for much of the novel, a little disheveled and a little careless; in reading the novel again, I was reminded of a more self-possessed version of Phoenix’s character in Inherent Vice; fortunately, Phoenix is also a Scorpio and could fill in pretty easily.

Thomas Balfour (Sagittarius): Brendan Coyle (12/2/63)

Balfour is one of the more important and memorable members of the Crown contingent. For one thing, he is the only one with any real relationship to Alastair Lauderback; Balfour is “Lauderback’s man,” in the parlance of the day. For another, he often puts his foot in his mouth and has a hard time keeping secrets. Enter Brendan Coyle, who we remember as the ill-fated Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey. He can be the avuncular presence to balance out the masucline vigor of Gleeson’s Lauderback; what I like about this casting is that I’ve exacerbated the age difference between Lauderback, who is kind of inexperienced, and Balfour, who has been all over the world. Coyle is playing well within the personality type most of us recognize from Downton Abbey, though Balfour is just about as un-mysterious as they come.

Aubert Gascoigne (Capricorn): Eddie Redmayne (1/6/82)

Gascoigne is terribly French, a man who is gallant in some cases and easily peeved in others. Like most of the other men in this novel, he becomes competitive over Anna – it’s his appearance in her room which begins to drive Pritchard nuts – but the woman he finds himself attracted to is actually Lydia Wells. Gascoigne also has a store of haughtiness, which makes him a fitting companion for Moody later on in the text.

I feel like I don’t really need a reason to try to throw Redmayne in here. He would give us two Best Actors in the cast, for one thing. (That puts him in Russell Crowe’s company, who won in 2000 and was nominated for that Oscar every year from 1999-2001. Just some trivia here, but that puts Crowe in some august company: Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt. That’s the list of men with three consecutive Oscar nods.) He also feels like a much cleaner fit to me than someone like Crowe does. Gascoigne has a youthful kind of dapper handsomeness to him while simultaneously being aloof and mysterious, and I think that as long as Redmayne doesn’t descend into total camp, we should be more than fine here.

Sook Yongsheng (Aquarius): Chen Kun (2/4/76)

Of all the characters in this novel, all of whom have backstories which range from colorful to sadistic, perhaps none of them has a history quite like Ah Sook. Born into a situation not unlike Francis Carver’s, who he grew up with, Sook very nearly gets himself hanged for a crime that he did not commit, and only gets away because the woman who killed her husband went on the stand and lied, saying that Jeremy Shepard killed himself. For that reason, Sook is the enemy of Francis Carver, George Shepard, and Lydia Greenway, and has to handle himself accordingly.

Chen Kun is an actor who has frequently been nominated for Hundred Flowers Awards, which is on the same sort of level in China as the Golden Globes, playing romantic characters, funny characters, villainous characters, and action heroes. In short, by all reports he is a highly talented actor who can fulfill the many different aspects of Sook’s personality, which in some ways is as checkered as his curious past.

Cowell Devlin (Pisces): Brad Dourif (3/18/50)

I’m seeing a slightly less creepy version of Doc Cochran from Deadwood here, a role where Dourif was marvelous. Dourif has always been talented at hiding himself inside a part; he has an Oldman-esque ability to be just about anyone he chooses to be. Devlin is a minister at the gaol, one of the most recent arrivals to Hokitika even among a group that hasn’t been there more than eighteen months. He is a generous person, a little over-curious and trusting, but on the whole tries to behave with ministerial grace among the many different types of people he comes into contact with. Sadly, Devlin does not have many scenes with Lowenthal, the novel’s lone Jew; there will be very little opportunity for a Eomer/Grima rehash.

Crosbie Wells: Liev Schreiber

Wells is a special case. The story takes place not long after his death, and we cannot say what his zodiac sign would have been, nor is he associated with a planet. However, some scenes in the last eighty pages of the book or so do include him, and we need someone to play the character. In other words, I basically get to choose without strings attached: I am drunk with power.

Schreiber, who’s nearly fifty now, is right on the edge of what’s workable for Crosbie Wells. He is also a plausible relation for Charlie Hunnam, and I can reasonably imagine a situation in which he beats Russell Crowe out of consciousness with a poker. (Like, not in a weird way, but as part of a television show.) Ironically, it’s his performance in Spotlight, where he plays a very quiet and very brainy man, that made me think he’d be the right person for the solitary digger. Wells goes from being the name of a dead guy for so much of this story to being a man who appears to have gotten the wrong end of the stick over and over again and who we wish, just once, something could right for.

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