Designing The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton’s bestselling novel, set in New Zealand during the 19th century gold rush, has been reimagined in a six-part drama for BBC and TVNZ. We talk to production designer Felicity Abbott about the joys and challenges of bringing Catton’s epic story to life 

Set in New Zealand’s South Island in the 1860s, at the height of the West Coast gold rush, The Luminaries is an epic and intricate novel. Over 800 pages, writer Eleanor Catton weaves together multiple stories from different narrators to create an astrological-themed murder mystery that is filled with surprises, cliffhangers and coincidences.

The novel was an instant hit when it was published in 2013, winning the coveted Man Booker Prize and appearing in numerous bestseller lists. It has since been translated into multiple languages and over half a million copies have been bought around the world.

Seven years on from its release, the cult novel has been reimagined for the screen in a six-part series produced by Working Title Films. The show – which was written by Catton, and commissioned by BBC Two and New Zealand broadcaster TVNZ – remains largely faithful to the events and worlds depicted in the book, but with some major twists. While the original text centred on male characters, the series is told from the perspective of Anna Wetherell, played by Eve Hewson, and its reframing has also resulted in a new ending.

Above and lead image (shown top): sets constructed for scenes set in a Hoktika township, and the main town. Images: Felicity Abbott

With its elaborate plot, large cast, and period setting, it’s an ambitious production. And with the story playing out over multiple locations, the show’s art department faced the daunting task of building a gold mining camp, a remote hilltop cabin, a port and an entire 19th century town on backlots and farmland in and around Auckland.

Abbott started working on the project with the show’s director Claire McCarthy and cinematographer Denson Baker back in April 2018. “I was involved very early on – I helped do the original pitch that Claire took to Working Title and the BBC in London, so I was developing the tone and style of the show well before we were hired [to work on the project],” she tells CR.