Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 publication The Night Circus was recently optioned by a studio for film development. This is one of the first books where it seems like there isn’t going to be a huge leap made between the book and the movie, because The Night Circus already reads like a motion picture. The imagery and the description are tactile and highly imaginative. Morgenstern deftly weaves her protagonists, Celia and Marco into a moving fabric of storytelling. Bound together when they are children, Celia and Marco are forced into a competition of magical skill that seems to have neither rules nor conclusion. Their guardians train them from two separate schools of magical thought. While Marco is preoccupied with studying books and language, Celia endures her father’s more practical testing. At one point he cuts the tips of her fingers and waits for her to learn how to heal herself. As the two magicians train, a stadium is constructed for their competition. This is the Circus of Dreams, a place filled with contortionists, magicians, magical acts, and food vendors. Adhering to a strict black and white color scheme, Morgenstern’s circus comes to life through description. And when Celia and Marco are finally brought together to begin their competition, it serves as an effective backdrop to their magic.
This was one of the quickest reads I’ve encountered in a while, and I think this is because of the description and imagery that constitutes the book. There are different kinds of ways of being drawn into a story, and ways that books become categorized as “quick reads.” One is directly through the plot, when a reader almost eschews description to read for story. I think Twilight fits into this category – the description is endless and unnecessary at times, and is sometimes easily skimmed on route to continuing to read for plot. The other side of that is when description outweighs plot. There isn’t too much of one to The Night Circus. Two children (Celia and Marco) are raised by guardians who subscribe to different schools of magical thought and must compete against one another at the Circus of Dreams, a stage that has been invented for the sole purpose of allowing them to carry out their competition. However, their competitions and test of skills are subtle, distinguishable only to the two magicians. They include crafting additions to the circus, including a maze of rooms, with each new addition complementing what the other magician has done. There are no large acts of magic and miracle. These are small-scale. This doesn’t take away from the plot necessarily; it just dampens the action with its subtlety. The final test of strength between the magicians is likewise anticlimactic, and the deflation seems muted at the end of the novel. The plot meanders and pulls back in order that the description finds its place at the center of the novel. The plot is incidental to the circus itself, and Morgenstern herself seems enamored of her creation, and deservedly so: this is a place that is rich and full and magnificent. As a result, the circus itself is a character in this book, perhaps the most imposing of all, and probably the one that the reader invests the most in. The threat of the circus disappearing seems worse than one of the two protagonists not surviving to the end of the novel.
The description is the background of the book. For example, some just a cursory flip through the book again reveals these passages:
1. “Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights. There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.”
2. “At midnight, the bonfire is ceremoniously lit, having spent the earlier part of the evening standing empty, appearing to be a simple sculpture of twisted iron. Twelve of the fire performers quietly enter the courtyard with small platforms that they set up along the perimeter like numbers on a clock. Precisely one minute before the hour, they each ascend their respective platforms and pull from their backs shimmering black bows and arrows. At thirty seconds before midnight, they light the tips of their arrows with small dancing yellow flames. Those in the crowd who had not noticed them previously now watch in wonder. At ten seconds before the hour, they raise their bows and aim the flaming arrows at the waiting well of curling iron. As the clock begins to chime near the gates, the first archer lets his arrow fly, soaring over the crowd and hitting its mark in a shower of sparks.”
3. “The theater is massive and ornate, with rows upon rows of plush red velvet seats. Orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony spreading out from the empty stage in a cascade of crimson. It is empty save for two people seated approximately ten rows back from the stage. Chandresh Christophe Lefevre sits with his feet propped up on the seat in front of him. Mm. Ana Padva sits on his right, pulling a watch from her bag while she stifles a yawn.”
This is why the translation of book into movie is going to be so effective. Readers will want to spend more time in that circus, and Morgenstern’s descriptions set up a fully encompassed world that seems easily moved to visual representation. However, a movie version might rectify the unity that seems to be lacking in the current version of the novel. Celia and Marco circle each other until three quarters of the way through the book, and when they are finally brought together, it is likewise anticlimactic and undeserved. What should read as a love story becomes instead a strange platonic feeling between two people who have been bound together since birth. Sure, the curtains move and the wind blows when they kiss, but the feelings behind this connection are never explored. And they should be. The love story falls flat and the characters suffer, allowing the circus to take over as character and fill the book with its setting. Reading this novel is akin to spending time in the circus, which is perhaps the most effective part of Morgenstern’s writing.