In the final analysis, The Casual Vacancy was constructed so that when three characters walk past a small, unaccompanied boy who is wandering between a dangerous river and a road, we understand why none of them stopped to ask him why he was alone, or take charge of him. I chose each of these characters carefully.

Gavin represents the utter apathy for which it is necessary (in the famous quotation) for evil to flourish. He cannot even remember seeing Robbie Weedon after he hears that he has drowned, nor is he troubled by the thought that he must have walked very close to the boy during his final moments.

Samantha represents the rush of everyday troubles that prevents basically well-intentioned people from concentrating on matters that do not directly concern them. She subsequently admits to having seen Robbie and feels deep remorse at not having acted. Samantha is also honest enough to acknowledge to herself that Robbie’s appearance made her less likely to help him.

Shirley represents a degree of unkindness that stems from her own basic insecurity, because her background is not so very far removed from the Weedons. I think it is very common for such people to be among the most critical and judgmental. She – not Howard – is Barry Fairbrother’s true opposite in the novel. Denying her roots and castigating those who remind her of them, she is the negative image of the man who admits where he came from and goes back to try and help others. Shirley not only sees Robbie and ignores him as she grapples with her own problems, she feels no remorse afterwards, merely heaping blame on others for the child’s death.

An interesting question is whether Howard would have stopped to help Robbie. I’d be fascinated to know what readers think, but I’m sure he would have done. Howard is a happy man, which makes a difference; happy people are often kinder than the unhappy.”

– J.K. Rowling, on July 25 2013

The ending is the conceit. The ending defines all that came before. The ending is whether everything is tied into a neat little bow and we are invited to marvel at how perfectly all the disparate elements have come together. The ending of this particular work is so important, in fact, that it seems almost pointless to even discuss any of the events that are featured in this final adaptation prior. This may seem like a bizarre statement to make, since the events leading up to the climax of any work are generally what allows it to flourish, not to mention come into existence in the first place, but so little of the original book that contributed to the events you know, actually mattering has been retained that it seems more fitting to simply recap everything that pads out the first 40 minutes, and then move on to discussing what’s really important: the climax.

It opens the same way they all open: we get peaceful shots of the Pagford countryside, with endless footage of Vikram jogging, which is supposed to be important for reasons that will only be revealed later. Tessa is demeaning Colin for hyperventilating on the day of the election, because here she’s a horrible wife and Colin doesn’t have OCD to provide context for any of this. Also, when Fats taunts his stepfather, Tessa asks “Do you believe in anything, Stuart?” to which he replies, “I put all my faith in doritos.”

Huh, I thought Fats believed in this:

The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest, it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.

It’s almost as if Sarah Phelps is willfully disposing of the brief bits about “authenticity” being thrown about by Fats and Krystal and admitting his character has no meaning anymore.

They also appear to be throwing in the “wives at war with their husbands” card at random now. Dr. Jawanda and Vikram are now bitterly angry at each other out of nowhere, presumably because of Dr. Jawanda’s outburst at Howard, but she’s the one suspended, it doesn’t affect Vikram at all, and she accuses him of having no code of ethics, which makes absolutely no sense and is irrelevant to anything.

Shortly after this Mary unloads her anger against her dead husband on Colin. This illustrates Barry’s failings as opposed to his virtues, at least, but Mary also says, “Everyone grows up next door to someone. It doesn’t mean you have to look after them for the rest of their bloodsucking lives,” which puts BARRY FAIRBROTHER’S OWN WIDOW IN DIRECT FUCKING AGREEMENT WITH THE GODDAMN MOLLISONS. So instead of this being a case of Barry’s human faults in not being able to keep his attentions everywhere, it turns all the way to “OMG BARRY WHAT IS YOUR TASTES.” She also exhibits borderline insane paranoia by repeatedly insisting that Barry’s passion for keeping Sweetlove House open directly led to his aneurysm and telling Colin the exact same thing will happen to him. Which means Colin is forced to actually be the voice of reason and convince her otherwise…. and everything is specifically designed to be the exact opposite of the book which is a shame because the book actually had solid coherent characterization so now you have the exact opposite of that. why must i keep writing after that ugh.

On the Mollison side of things, pointless conflict between Samantha and Shirley occurs when Shirley searches the former’s computer history to find evidence of her being the Ghost and provokes her further by taunting her for being an alcoholic and encouraging her children to turn against her.

We do get some more flashbacks of Barry trying to help Krystal and Robbie out, which are nice and show the positive effect he had on their lives. There’s also a strange scene added where Krystal and Terri have a brief bonding experience sitting outside after Krystal and Fats have apparently broken up.

Yes, you read that right. Because apparently we need to ruin everything about the original work, Andrew and Fats’ friendship doesn’t dissolve just because Andrew is a fairly normal teenager who actually has some morals – no, it breaks up because as Fats says when he confronts Andrew outside Howard’s deli, “you always said that no female would come between us as mates” and admits that his relationship with Krystal is purely sexual. So instead of a platonic friendship between two males naturally breaking off, we have instead the most blatantly homoerotic relationship since Batman and Robin. Well done, Sarah Phelps. Bravo.

Krystal and Fats break up because Krystal realizes this and asks Fats “What’s wrong with him having a girlfriend?” But this is actually a good thing, isn’t it? Because now how will the ending come about if Krystal has nowhere to go and no boyfriend to fool around with to get her and Robbie away from the rape, prostitution, and drug abuse that constitutes their abusive, dysfunctional home life?

I’m going to leave that question open for now because GUESS WHAT IT’S ELECTION TIME. Fats is smoking marijuana outside the building where the voting is being held, and offering it to the voters who go in, while being quick to remind them who his parent is. Because he wants to get himself thrown in jail, I guess. Except that instead of calling the police or complaining to someone inside, the hoi polloi of Pagford huff and puff and mutter “Disgraceful” under their breaths as they come inside. Because we have literally turned into a cartoon, I’m surprised Colin doesn’t run out at this point and chase his son while the Benny Hill music plays. Except that Colin should actually be clapping his son on the back yelling “Good job” because he ACTUALLY CHOOSES TO VOTE FOR MILES.

I feel like I have to add at this point to all the readers who live in countries without access to this miniseries that I am literally not making that up. You heard me. Instead of the wonderfully triumphant scene where Kay comes to Colin’s house and encourages him to go off giddy as schoolchildren to vote for him, Colin willingly chooses to vote for his competitor. We do at least get the glorious shot of Samantha marking “You’re all wankers” on the ballot and tossing it in the box at any rate, but that only highlights the fact that Colin should be doing that. It honestly makes no sense. Barry was supposed to be this grand inspiring figure from beyond the grave. It’s bad enough his widow doesn’t even support what he fought for, but now COLIN IS VOTING FOR THE PERSON WHOSE MAIN PARTY PLATFORM IS “I OPPOSE EVERYTHING BARRY FAIRBROTHER WANTED TO PASS”. The whole reason Colin ran was because he didn’t want Barry’s legacy to “go up in smoke”! If he doesn’t believe in himself, then why not WALK AWAY QUIETLY WITHOUT VOTING AT ALL. Did you even consider that, Colin? Holy Jesus Christ.

Matters are made infinitely worse by the fact that Colin literally ends up voting himself out of office. Yes, tell me how likely the outcome of an election is that a wacky school principal would ever come one vote away from a member of the Kennedys being elected (especially when said potential parish councilor’s son and influence on the kids you enrolled in his school is smoking weed right outside). Do please go on.

Following that, we get some more strange changes: Rather than getting fired for his illegal practices, Simon bizarrely gets promoted to management where he can lay off other people (this is the company’s response to hearing him being slandered online for theft?????????) and Samantha leaves Miles with a note.

So that all leads up to Howard’s birthday party. I used 4 bullet points to describe what happened there in the book. Here, I can use 3:

  1. Fats shows up and tries to apologize to Andrew. Gaia encourages them to hug and make up, so they do. It doesn’t matter, though, because they actually keep Fats and Gaia kissing (this time, while high and drunk) and subsequently breaking away so Gaia can throw up, of course. This last part doesn’t really matter, though, because it comes after Andrew catches them and is so furious he literally just smashes a perfectly good bottle of wine for no reason at all.
  2. Shirley and Howard congratulate Miles on winning the election, and assure him he can do much better remarrying someone else. Earlier we had a scene where Miles whined and complained about one of his posters being vandalized, but now he just stares and reacts to all that’s going on around him, well aware of how little a role he really played in all this as an actual personality. However, we do get a scene after this that’s actually fairly shocking and at least well-acted. It’s the only thing I can actually come close to liking in the whole hour. Samantha actually comes back and confronts Shirley for trying to turn the family against her, telling her she won’t go along with her game. (Hurray, a character decision/narrative development that actually makes sense!) And Shirley’s response is shocking. She brings up the fact that Samantha apparently was not providing for her children when she was born because she was “very ill” (perhaps an alcoholic?) and Shirley had to step in. Shirley insists that the children don’t love Samantha and blames her for that, encouraging her to leave them. But Miles has actually witnessed this whole conversation, apparently. To be honest, I was hoping for a lot more. I was hoping this would be the moment Miles finally stepped up and did something. Samantha did most of the work already, though, but he does take Samantha away carefully, and cow his mother into submission by not backing down and saying just this: “Aubrey and Julia Sweetlove. You do know they’re not coming. Don’t you?” The implication being that she doesn’t have the social clout and isn’t nearly as admired as she thinks she is, and that she perhaps isn’t any more important than him in the grand scheme, something only Samantha could admit in the book. It’s a little step for a man of 43, but it sows the seeds for him really standing up for himself. I have to admit, this is one of the few additions I really enjoyed. It still seems like a bit too little, too late, though. But Samantha and Miles getting back together was something that never really fit or made sense to me in the book, either, so I won’t get into that.
  3. Add to the list of missing characters: Patricia “Black Sheep Lezzy” Mollison. Which is a bit strange, considering the BBC doesn’t mind gay alien couple smooching on Doctor Who. But this isn’t a change that matters much, though, because Andrew catches Howard and Maureen fooling around himself now (although the book implied this mainly went on in the past), and he records them on his phone.

So now, the seeds have all been sown for the finale. Let’s discuss what’s really important. I quoted Rowling’s explanation of her ending at the opening of my review. Here’s her admirable literary adapter’s, in the interest of fairness:
I was very straight with Jo and told her that I needed to write a different ending. It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.
Also, what works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learnt on EastEnders that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage.
If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be reward. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of s—s; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.”

So what are we left with, then?

Well, Kay was re-assigned as the Weedons’ social worker, and they are being forced to relocate to Yarvil. Obbo does not rape Krystal in this version, however. Krystal comes home to find Terri partying with her junkie friends, on the verge of smoking crack cocaine while telling her to loosen up. Obbo is there, out of prison, and he chases Krystal to her bedroom, but she manages to get away from him. He just warns her she’ll have to talk to him eventually, “because the thing is, Krystal, you’ve got nowhere else to go.” So I will give them credit for one thing: it’s clear how trapped Krystal is in her own life. Her hopes went out the window when Barry died, that much is clear.

But what I can’t forgive is what they build off of this. Krystal leaves with Robbie first thing in the morning, and since she and Fats are broken up now, instead of fucking him, she tries to put her plan from the book into effect but in the form of going to the Cubby Hole (where Fats just happens to be by sheer chance) and claims she’s pregnant and needs the house from his parents. Since that would all go down the drain once no baby turns up, it seems likely Krystal is actually supposed to be pregnant in reality. She doesn’t give any signs of it, so this is just confusing and stupid right off the bat. From there, it gets worse.

Fats responds the way you would expect, so Krystal goes to check on Robbie. However, he hasn’t actually gone in the water, at all, but Krystal sees his shoe in the river and jumps in to find him. She gets tangled in the wires of the computer Andrew and Simon threw in, and drowns. Robbie is found by Vikram and taken safely away. Andrew and Simon are randomly driving by for no reason, and they get out and realize what happened. So Simon (ONE OF TWO CHARACTERS SPECIFICALLY LABELED BY ROWLING AS “COMPLETELY BEYOND REDEMPTION”) gazes upon the consequences of his actions and feels genuine remorse and shock.

As for the Mollison front, it might as well be a soap opera akin to the one our writer so diligently worked on for the better part of a decade and more in the past, as Shirley dramatically confronts Howard looking like a possessed witch as she shows him the visual evidence of his adultery against her while he collapses of a heart attack, demonic music playing in the background as if it is beckoning them all to the gates of Lucifer himself. Then we are left with one last pointless scene, where it is clear Howard has survived in good health as opposed to the book’s ambiguity as to whether he would ever be able to leave. Which would make for a good tying up of his narrative arc here, but instead he sees the grim reaper one last time, because apparently Sarah Phelps thinks most people in hospitals who’ve just suffered heart attacks don’t. It goes to show he’s such a happy man who would have stepped in and saved the day, too.

Sukhvinder has been left with no narrative purpose at all, so rather than being a fitting climax to a character’s dramatic arc, we have one character we never paid attention to in the first place stepping in like the classic deux ex machina to save a person’s life because it would be really really sad if he didn’t do that, not because it has anything to do with what we know about him as a character in the past. It would just be too upsetting to watch people act the way we expect them to on Sunday afternoon BBC telly.

No voice for the raped, no voice for the self-abusive, no voice for the children who died before they were even able to become teenagers.

So what are we left with, at the end of all this? Krystal Weedon did not die as a decision to join her brother in the afterlife, trapped in the heroin-filled den of misery she tried to escape, as a culmination of her failed attempts to make life worthwhile for them both. She died away from all that due to a stupid freak accident that could have been avoided because despite supposedly loving her brother she didn’t bring him in the Cubby Hole with her for absolutely no reason. Fats being berated by Tessa and comforted by Colin is retained at least, but it doesn’t make any sense since he couldn’t have even known Robbie was there in the first place. There are no 3 people walking by to make us question the apathy of the human condition. According to Dr. Jawanda, “Anyone would have done the same.” So we have nothing to contemplate, nothing to make us question how things could have gone differently. What we are left with is 3 hours of our lives sucked away to watch, in the words of Shakespeare, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

And why? Because, by the admission of the writer who wrote all this, it would be challenging to the viewers to make them question their own lives and make them so angry at what they’ve seen on screen that they think about why 2 innocent children died in the hopes they could make a difference in their own community. It was only Colin’s fault he didn’t get elected to keep the addiction clinic open and a good person stepped in to save a 3-year-old’s life, when the novel already gave us the kindly empathetic dog-walker who stepped in to act, long after it was too late.

Norman Lear wrote in his book Even This I Get to Experience“Wait a second. Who said the comedies that preceded All in the Family had no point of view? The overwhelming majority of them were about families whose biggest problem was ‘The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner!’ Or ‘Mother dented the fender and how is she going to tell Father?’ Talk about messaging! For twenty years-until AITF came along-TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view!”

And he fought hard in 1971 against a whole network just to get one line of dialogue passed because of the precedent it would set, when only a few mainstream critics bothered to care at the time. Sarah Phelps chose to make people feel good about themselves and about all people in the world because it would be too risky to try to get away with something else on television in the year 2015. That would be scary. That would make her something close to an important writer who knew how to manipulate the medium she chose to work in to influence the masses in ways she couldn’t manage to when she was writing her soap opera for 14 years. That would be too much work and too much at stake.

The last glimpse we get into the world of Pagford is a happy couple moving into the peaceful community, being told they’re “Pagford people” by the realtor. This is fitting, because it signifies that in 3 hours, the story ultimately never got past the main premise: “Behind the pretty facade, however, is a town at war….. Pagford is not what it first seems.” Phelps seems to think a 16-year-old boy having the girl he has a schoolboy crush on smile and sit next to him on the bus while the “Glory Hallelujah” choir plays as if it’s the second coming of Christ somehow makes that all easier to handle, though, so there you go.

Fuck you, Sarah Phelps. And fuck you to the BBC. You took God knows how much of my life that could have been better used and obligated me to spend it watching, rewatching, taking notes on, writing about, television not worth the name, just to compose rants that only a handful of people on the Internet will ever care about at best, but are still ultimately more thoughtful, passionate, and driven that anything you could ever hope to produce.

Markus Zusak, you’re looking better every day.

I like to consider myself a fair critic, fundamentally. Some may view me as being overly positive, and too lenient when it comes to ignoring a work’s faults. They may be right to an extent, but I like to think that at least in the last post, I was attempting to be kind to writers I felt had tried their best to create a worthy adaptation.

However, having viewed this second part, I’m going to apologize for giving this production the benefit of the doubt – This is awful beyond any redemption. It shows no respect for the work of literature it is trying to adapt and it is clear now that none of the changes are an attempt to make their vision of the work more cohesive or even to improve on the original story but simply an attempt to buck the established story and show they are willing to do something new, with no thought to the end product that is created or what the purpose of the original story was and how it conveyed that meaning.

Just as the first one did, this has a nice opening, easing our way back into Pagford, through an atmosphere of pure peacefulness and controlled civility surrounding the funeral of Barry Fairbrother. Obviously, this is in direct contrast to the farcical tone that whole section had in the book, and the “Umbrella” song is excluded.

That already is a red flag, since it signified the deep connection between Krystal and Barry, and how music can have a profound effect on people even if other people can’t understand or appreciate it. In these ways, it had an important role in the story, but it seems that Sarah Phelps may have only seen it as a method for the youth to affront the established authority and break the controlled, civilized atmosphere of Pagford. She may even have felt it was too blatant at this point in the story. In any case, the mood is disrupted (apart from the tension of Krystal and Robbie arriving in the church) again when Fats comes up to Andrew in the cemetery and whispers: “Samantha Mollison’s got the most amazing arse. Have you ever noticed that?…Got a massive boner in the church. What? It’s a ruddy nice phenomenon… Sex and death. Grief gives you the raging horn, both men and female, even Mary. You put the touch in her right now, you could do whatever you wanted. I mean, she’d probably be crying, but still you could do what you wanted.”

So… what new facts have we actually learned about Fats from all that to make him interesting? He’s a sex-obsessed, arrogant idiot teenager who believes he is smarter than he has while showing no respect for polite society.

Fascinating. At least the book did this in funnier ways, simpler, too, with bits like Fats deliberately angering the woman on the bus, that get the idea of who he is across quickly and in a semi-creative way. The one consolation I do have is that this second part does focus largely on the teenagers, who were at the heart of the story.

We do also get an effective contrast with Andrew’s un-amused reaction to Fats, simply responding “She’s my auntie” to show that even he is offended by Fats’ behavior, which is of course the first sign that their friendship is not to last.

The bit with Fats finding his mother’s watch and letting Krystal keep is kept as well, and it’s here that he actually explains his philosophy at least slightly, when he tells Krystal how he admires her for being authentic, and Krystal explains what she feels he meant in a very simplistic choice of words to her mother.

This is very small consolation. The real problem started for me at the end of the last part, actually, with the “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother”‘s annoyingly conversational tone. It is difficult to tolerate the slang and jest-filled nature of the test on its own, but then when the post is followed by an abrupt attack on Miles just for the sake of a cheap joke at the expense of the Mollisons who thought the Ghost was on their side, I simply felt nothing but anger and contempt for this production. That was the moment when it became something that was completely beyond redemption.

I don’t think I can detail all the reasons why this is wrong, wrong, wrong, and systematically ruins everything that made the book work well. So let’s go through this, very carefully:

  1. Obviously, television is a visual medium, while literature relies on the power of words. This is very evident when you see how much careful craft Rowling put into the words chosen for all four Parish council messages written by three separate teenagers. Andrew was taking the task very seriously. Even if it was an idle teenage prank to get back at his father, he didn’t want anyone to think so. Rowling describes his writing of the first post as “a… laborious process.
    He had been trying for a style that was as impersonal and impenetrable as possible; for the dispassionate tone of a broadsheet journalist.
    ” This is very evident when we see the first post, and how carefully chosen the words are, so that it would be seen as the type of writing a conscientious adult voter would write about an election: “Aspiring Parish Councillor Simon Price hopes to stand on a platform of cutting wasteful council spending. Mr. Price is certainly no stranger to keeping down costs, and should be able to give the council the benefit of his many useful contacts. He saves money at home by furnishing it with stolen goods – most recently a PC – and he is the go-to man for any cut-price printing jobs that may need doing for cash, once senior management has gone home, at the Harcourt-Walsh Printworks.”                                                                                                                                                                        From there, the quality deteriorates rapidly. Sukhvinder writes her post in the heat of anger, with next to no editing. You can detect the angry, sad and pathetic teenage girl in every line, as she pettily writes it from Barry’s point of view, as opposed to Andrew simply using his name (that he only thought of at the last minute): “Parish Councillor Dr. Parminder Jawanda, who pretends to be so keen on looking after the poor and needy of the area, has always had a secret motive. Until I died, she was in love with me, which she could barely hide whenever she laid eyes on me, and she would vote however I told her to, whenever there was a council meeting. Now that I am gone, she will be useless as a councillor, because she has lost her brain.”                                                                                                                                                             Barry Fairbrother’s son even guesses, based on analyzing these posts, that they were written by different people. But the style in which they are written becomes most important with Fats’ post, written in his pretentious pseudo-sesquipedalian style, complete with gratuitous title: “Fantasies of a Deputy Headmaster
    One of the men hoping to represent the community at Parish Council level is Colin Wall, Deputy Headmaster at Winterdown Comprehensive School. Voters might be interested to know that Wall, a strict disciplinarian, has a very unusual fantasy life. Mr. Wall is so frightened that a pupil might accuse him of inappropriate sexual behavior that he has often needed time off work to calm himself down again. Whether Mr. Wall has actually fondled a first year, the Ghost can only guess. The fervor of his feverish fantasies suggests that, even if he hasn’t, he would like to.
    ” And when his mother, Tessa, reads this, how does she react? “It wasn’t Mollison. Stuart wrote that, I know he did. Tessa recognized her son in every line. She was even astonished that Colin could not see it, that he had not connected the message with yesterday’s row, with hitting his son. He couldn’t even resist a bit of alliteration. He must have done all of them – Simon Price. Parminder. Tessa was horror-struck.” Here, Andrew writes his posts like some guy in a bar, nudging you and joking about the guy sitting in the back just to get into a quick fight for fun. Fats writes his post later on in the exact same conversational manner with no noteworthy differences in prose.
  2. That wasn’t the only respect in which the post shed serious light on Andrew’s character, though. We got a solid idea of his motivation for attacking his father. He wanted him to suffer, and he wanted him to get in big trouble because he was angered by years of putting up with his father’s abuse while his mother pretended he was a saint while being beaten. AND THERE IS NO FUCKING REASON IN THE WORLD FOR ANDREW TO RANDOMLY ATTACK MILES MOLLISON WHEN HE ISN’T WORKING FOR HOWARD, HAS NO DIRT ON HIM OR ANY REASON WHY SOMEONE WOULD TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY AND NOT VOTE FOR THE ASSHOLE, AND BARELY FUCKING KNOWS THOSE PEOPLE AT ALL. THIS SCRIPT MAKES NO SENSE. WHY IS ANYONE PUTTING UP WITH THIS SHIT? OH MY GOD JESUS CHRIST.
  3. We don’t even get a chance to see Simon’s full, abusive self in action. He has to restrain himself here because he’s told by the Mollisons instead of his wife, for no reason. So naturally he isn’t going to start swearing at them about it. Instead, when he gets home he only demonstrates the amount of anger that anyone in the world would when dealing with a situation like this. And we never even got a clear idea of Simon’s criminal dealings in the first place, as proper set-up for this! Andrew does hear him apparently subjecting Ruth to violence downstairs later, but this is after the post is published and it, for some reason, inspires him to attack Miles instead of writing something else about his father.
  4. Tessa asks Fats if he wrote the post when she has no reason to suspect him of this. The incident in which Simon humiliated Fats happened years ago and has never even been mentioned here, and it shows her as an unfair parent who isn’t capable of discerning her son’s voice in writing. Then later when they’re trying to dump the television set in the river, Simon figures out Andrew wrote the post with no explanation at all. He just randomly accuses him of doing it AND PROCEEDS TO DANGLE HIM OFF A FUCKING BRIDGE AND LEAVE HIM THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT BASED OFF OF ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. SERIOUSLY, WHY IS ANYONE PUTTING UP WITH THIS WRITING WHEN THEY CALLED THE DARK KNIGHT RISES OUT ON THIS SAME FUCKING UNIMAGINATIVE “I CAN SEE IT IN YOUR EYES INTUITION” BULLSHIT IN 2012?

And from there, it actually manages to get worse. I couldn’t believe it either, but it does. Let’s get to that worthless second post where Andrew attacks Miles for no reason. It’s clear now the writers are actually aware of my complaints about Miles as a worthless, ineffectual non-character because that’s what Andrew’s post is all about. No complaints about his political ideas or shedding light on unethical acts committed by his family, he just calls him a mama’s boy. (The same things people have been saying about Marten Weiner on Mad Men for years, and what a shock, he’s still hanging around.)

Because Miles is the thin non-character the post correctly accuses him of being, he displays no real reaction to this other than to be a bit worried and confused, and fumble around awkwardly. He spends the rest of his time on screen eating marshmallows, being pushed around by his wife, and acting uncomfortable when his father is insulted in a political argument over dinner that he, of course, has no real involvement in despite being the one actually running for office. (And before it starts, we get that HILARIOUS scene where Dr. Jawanda insults Howard and Shirley and wouldn’t you know it, they’re standing right behind you? Because why couldn’t you start immediately slandering people you know will show up at any moment, right?)

The reason this argument starts over dinner is because in this version, Dr. Jawanda insults Howard’s weight and rants about his medical conditions over a small dinner that is being held for Tessa, Shirley, Howard, Miles, Samantha, Mary, and the Jawandas. So it’s something the voters would never hear about, in other words, so it has no real effect on Howard’s personal dignity or the judgment of those who may be on the edge about whether to get rid of the housing estate or not.

But the real purpose for this scene becomes clear. Since there’s no real incentive for Howard to be furious about it as something that actually mattered, it instead is transplanted to become the catalyst for a bizarre storyline where Howard experiences paranoia over the idea of his imminent death. Apparently feeling that Dr. Jawanda is right and he really should stop eating so much, he has a long extended nightmare where Barry shows up in his restaurant and says “You know what the real casual vacancy is? It’s the grave.” Howard then sees A GIANT ANIMATRONIC SKELETON GRIM REAPER SWINGING A SCYTHE IN THE SQUARE and wakes up terrified after seeing worms devouring his rotted cheese, and seeing worms come off his own face.

I am not making this up. I know what I said in the last post about the need to physically express what is going through people’s minds, but this is just completely over the top. There is no subtlety here at all. Did they really think that we couldn’t figure out what the “casual vacancy” represented, without being told? I get what they’re doing here, they’re trying to show very blatantly what the story is about so people won’t ask “what are we watching?” But it is mind-boggling the lack of credit they give to people’s intuition AND BASIC INTELLIGENCE! ALSO THIS IS A FUCKING CARTOON. HOW DO THEY EXPECT ANYONE TO TAKE A GIANT ANIMATRONIC SKELETON SWINGING A SCYTHE SERIOUSLY AT ALL.

But I will give them credit for one thing: They actually managed to make Fats more loathsome! I didn’t think it was possible, but here after a scene involving him and Krystal jerking off to each other behind a shelf in the public library, (Married… with Children did this on network television in 1996, “Bud Hits the Books”. You are not SO EDGY, BBC/HBO.) Fats casually zips up his pants and tells the librarian to “call my mum and complain”. He then proceeds to ignore his parents’ lecturing, smoke a joint in front of them, and talk about having sex with Krystal. GOD, I HATE THIS FUCKING KID SO MUCH. PUNCH HIM IN THE HEAD. But thankfully, Tessa does actually do some disciplinary work as a parent here, in the form of trying to sort him out and FLAT-OUT PULLING THE MARIJUANA OUT OF HIS MOUTH. I know that has absolutely nothing in common with her portrayal in the book and thus Rowling’s commentary on “casual parenting” since she is at least trying to do something, even if it isn’t working. I don’t care. That was awesome, and at least Fats’ motivation for slandering Colin has solid backing here. (Even though it’s written in the same style as Andrew’s post, as probably mentioned before.)

So the second part of our tale ends with Shirley cluelessly wishing Howard to look fondly to the future: “…the Ghost will disappear, we can get a good night’s sleep. Nighty-night.” And as her husband goes to bed thinking of the day he will never wake up, Andrew Price rolls up the covers in the Fields housing estate, both staring at the same portrait of the deceased Aubrey Fawley. The credits roll, and it is clear no one will sleep peacefully.

Least of all me, because I have another full hour of this garbage to review.

P.S. I didn’t find the place to mention it because it didn’t seem to be remotely importantly, but Gavin has been completely cut from this production. More importantly, Nana Cath is also absent. What is this story supposed to be about again?

I should begin this review by listing off my expectations. First of all, I understand completely that The Casual Vacancy is obviously not a book which is easily adapted. I mean, I don’t believe any work is particularly easy to adapt, but The Casual Vacancy is especially so for four main reasons:

The conflict is very low-stakes. The target audience for the Harry Potter books is unlikely to be deeply involved in the result of a parish council election to determine the fate of an addiction clinic and a housing estate.
It is only at the end we discover what the story was really about, with the tragedy of Krystal and Robbie’s deaths.
It is a very realistic story, with a large cast of characters whose names and how they relate to each other can be difficult to memorize.
In addition, they are three-dimensional, but usually not very likable.

To be frank, I had a feeling I was going to be deeply disappointed by this mini-series. Many people were disappointed by the book, I am well aware of that. They found it difficult to bond with the characters. I personally managed it due to a combination of Rowling’s compelling writing style and her personal talent for creating memorable characters.

So I will say one thing: in a film, this project might well border on near disastrous, but in a 3-part miniseries there is potential for this exercise to prove effective.

So, without further ado, let us discuss the first part!

I will say that I love the way the show opens off. We get shots of the beautiful English countryside, then join Andrew and his brother riding through the streets of Pagford, which in general comes across as the calmest, most pleasant and idyllic small

English town one could find.

What we get after that I will admit had me annoyed to an extent. We’re introduced to Barry Fairbrother – played by Rory Kinnear. He wakes up early in the morning, and hobbles to his bathroom mirror, and we get a laughably over-the-top bit, as the glass in the mirror appears to refract and crack, then we get an actual glimpse of Barry’s face in the mirror turning to a skull as he apparently suffers his fatal brain aneurysm and falls to the floor.

I can’t imagine how you would even respond to this if you hadn’t read the book, first of all. It’s so cartoonish it took me out of the mood entirely, and the most bizarre part of all is that Barry doesn’t even die here. (The skull is repeated as a reflection in Barry’s car leading up to his inevitable collapse in the parking lot, along with the refracted light and images reflecting his POV.) The scene where he does die is appropriately dramatic, though, with Mary’s panic and Barry vomiting onto himself, though it is confusing why the image flickers and is distorted at this point when it obviously is not reflecting anyone’s POV.

I suppose the idea is to obviously rectify the one complaint all the haters had and many of the lovers admitted: The only likable character dies in the first 3 pages. So here, Barry doesn’t die until 25 minutes in. Whereas in the novel his character was explored largely in flashbacks and through what we were told of him after the fact, here he is made greatly endearing to the audience as those

25 minutes are devoted primarily to establishing what a saint Barry is and how loathsome and classist the Mollisons are by contrast.

In one particularly memorable scene, Barry dramatically stands up and defends Yarvil’s misunderstood drug addicts before the parish council in what I will admit is a well acted passionate speech in which he even uses language in a church and compares the anti-Fields agenda to Nazi-era fascism!

I’m being vague on what that case is, because…. well, let’s just say
from here, the changes to the source material just keep on coming, and don’t let up for the full hour. I’ll just attempt to summarize the most important:
Here, the conflict to offload the Fields housing estate onto Yarvil is replaced with an attempt to close a community center that was left for the children of Yarvil by Aubrey Fawley (in the 1800s according to a plaque, as opposed to the book setting his lifespan in the 1950s). It will then be converted into a spa, if the bill backed by the Mollisons is passed.

Barry Fairbrother works with Miles at his law firm and is Simon’s half-brother.

There is no mention of Barry serving as a rowing instructor to Krystal. Instead, his connection to the Weedons is through a relationship with Terri. We see him bail her out of jail and drive her home, where it is clear she has had a history of being combative with him as she insults him, and Barry shrugs it off with an acknowledgement to her that she has done it before. This stands in direct contrast to the book, where on the few occasions Barry came to the house and interacted with Terri, he was one of the few people she grudgingly liked.

Here, Colin does not announce Barry’s death to a school assembly. Krystal sees him crying in the hallway, and actually taunts him. This is an especially noticeable change because it results in her getting in trouble for a legitimate reason. It is then Tessa who subsequently informs her that Barry has died.

Tessa is actually open to Dr. Jawanda about her belief that Colin is

not mentally fit enough for the strain of occupying the seat on the parish council.

The most significant change for me is that near the ending, Krystal actually goes out to a bar and finds Obbo where she confronts him on selling drugs to Terri, then has him arrested. It doesn’t quite make sense how, since she calls the police from the bar without offering physical evidence to his drug-dealing (this also endangers her mother).

I will note that I am only mentioning what I feel are the most significant changes. A more in depth list can be found on Wikipedia: (

But I am not a pedantic worshiper of a book who refuses to tolerate any changes when it is adapted to a new medium. The only thing I object to very strongly is when it is evident to me that some important aspect of the story has been excluded that renders a fault with the revised narrative.

The first change to the main conflict on the Parish Council was probably done to simplify the affair and make it more relatable to American audiences. The addition of a spa being proposed as a substitution is likely there to make it easier to take the side against the anti-Fielders when it is clear their vote is also towards something that would provide simple pleasure and hedonism for them personally. (The adverse effect of the removal of the addiction clinic from other people’s lives still withstanding.)

So clearly the conflict has been simplified to a degree, but this is not necessarily a bad thing if it makes the already on-the-nose class themes more interesting. Frankly I think I will reserve judgment on this change, and see how it pans out.

The majority of the remaining significant changes relate to strengthening Barry’s relationships with prominent characters in the book. A lot of time is spent here on Barry’s suspicions that Simon is abusing his children, for example, which does help us know that this treatment is recurring and has been going on for quite a long time (the frequent flashbacks let us know this in the book). He also offers Andrew a summer job which could likely be an attempt to set up his career at Howard’s deli.

The only area truly weakened by these changes is Barry’s relationship with Krystal. I’m a bit puzzled as to why (presumably) the writer of this miniseries, Sarah Phelps, would decide to make this change, when it distances him from Krystal who is still the defining prominent character here just as she was in the book.

There is, of course, no mention of her rowing here, then, which served a lot to make her relatable, but she is certainly made a more aggressive character here through the changes I have previously related. She was obviously assertive in the book, but they make her far more willing to follow through with that here in being confrontational at the drop of a penny. She is even introduced flouting the rules against wearing a school uniform, purely to express minor rebellion through individual expression.

As to the change in Tessa’s characterization, I am not sure I like that either. It seemed clear reading the book that she was aware of her husband’s limitations and mental state, but also sympathetic. Her natural impulse seemed to be to offer comfort and protect him from other’s scorn at whatever cost. Their marriage was probably the most genuine and strong in the book, in fact, simply due to the extent of unbridled acceptance Tessa had for Colin.

But from there, I will move on to a discussion of the acting, and how that affects the characterization, along with more discussion of the writing aspect.

Interestingly enough, the only truly notable actors in the cast (at least to me) are Rory Kinnear, Julia McKenzie and Michael Gambon.

Considering the latter two actors are well known for playing Miss Marple and Albus Dumbledore, they might not be likely to do well as the stuck-up, largely unlikable Howard and Shirley Mollison (though it’s obvious why Gambon was chosen). They personify the parts very well, in my opinion, though. Gambon’s performance as Dumbledore was flawed mostly because he was a bit too loud and authoritative in a way that appeared stuck up and brash. Here, that works marvelously for Howard. You can basically sense the privilege and need to present a dignified appearance oozing off of both of them.

Kinnear plays Barry Fairbrother fairly well. He comes off as an everyman who has natural compassion and self-deprecation in regards to his own faults. He plays the aforementioned dramatic speech very well. One aspect of the writing that was significantly weakened in the face of his early collapse is that he simply shrugs it off in conservation with Tessa as the result of a hangover he suffered from drinking several beers the night before.

In the original book, Simon was demonized for taunting Barry over not looking after his health better, when Rowling’s idea obviously was that people wish to deny the reality of their own mortality and that death will come to them as well as other people. Here Barry had strong reason to suspect something was wrong with him and should have gotten medical help, just as Simon believed.

Samantha is played marvelously by Keely Hawes, however. Right from her first scene, it’s clear she epitomizes the discontentment and contempt with her life, husband, in-laws, and the entire community she resided in that largely defines the character. After being told early on by Miles that Howard and Shirley are furious with Barry, she offers this flawless rant: “I’ll buy him a drink. Fuck it, I’ll buy him his dinner, 3 courses and cheese, might even give him a hand job.” Miles is portrayed by Rufus Jones and written rather indifferently, though, as simply a put-upon bumbling, ineffectual clod.

Lolita Chakrabarti, Monica Dolan, and Simon McBurney’s performances as Dr. Jawanda, Tessa, and Colin are simply adequate, however. McBurney fails to come across as adequately vulnerable and insecure enough to play Colin, actually. The contrast between their parenting is shown on display very well, though, as Colin actually smells Fats smoking marijuana in his room at bedtime and has to be talked out of confronting him by Tessa, ever unwilling to put her foot down as a surrogate mother.

We also see very little of Sukhvinder at all. Her mother calls attention to her as quiet and doing very little to join others unless she is told to, and from that point she is mostly a silent observer in a few scenes. I doubt one would ever suspect her important role in the climax from this, and one wonders whether the storyline with her self-harm will be included in the next part.

The scene where Kay arrives at the Weedons’ house and becomes concerned at the obviously unsanitary conditions for Robbie and Terri too worn out from heroin on the couch to answer the door is played for appropriate drama and tension. Her dysfunctional, combative relationship with her daughter is very clear.

And that brings me to Abigail Lawrie’s performance as Krystal Weedon. She is, quite frankly, remarkable, dominating the screen from the offset and making it clear she is someone who is living a life she hates and should not be messed with. I couldn’t take my eyes away in her every scene.

Kay is played as a professional by Michele Austin, and is made more sympathetic in a scene where her superiors shame her basically for caring at all.

As for Andrew and Simon, Andrew is portrayed well by Joe Hurst as a lanky, average teenage boy who comes across as likable in comparison to his friend. Richard Glover makes it clear Simon is an asshole, that is for sure. From the moment we see him stomp out of his car with his shaved head, slump of his shoulders and perpetual glare, we know he’s someone to stay away from, and his subsequent acts of damaging his son’s bicycle to prove a point and emotional abuse of them merely hammer that in. He’s actually underplayed in comparison to the book, though. It always comes off as a performance, never as a naturally unpleasant, conniving and self-serving man. He has better control of his temper here, definitely, and there is only one instance of physical abuse. This is against Andrew, and it does not last very long. In fact, it comes as a response to blunt provocation from Andrew, who tells him “Everyone knows you’re not Barry” in contrast to the book’s characterization of him as a pragmatic introvert who holds elaborate fights with his father in his mind but attempts to quietly placate him in real life.

But what I have been building up to here is the biggest issue I have with this whole production: largely this is inevitable owing to how multi-faceted the characters were in the original book and how much of their personality was fleshed out through flashbacks and internal monologue by Rowling, but the characters do come across mostly as imitations of their literary counterparts. There is a lack of emotional investment in them and a lack of real penetration to who they are – they rather come across as hollow imitations of themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Fats. In the internal monologue Rowling gives him in the novel, we get a fascinating glimpse into a philosophy that, while flawed, still has basis in reality. We know he’s a pseudo-intellectual, but we know why, too. It feels natural, and he is a character who fascinated me right from the get-go. (So he did for other readers, as well, such as one commenter on Rowling’s Goodreads question who compared his philosophy to Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange

.) His rebellious streak and contempt for his parents is clear from his first scene where he opens the car door while moving, but this doesn’t provide much contrast with Andrew challenging his father, even though we know their differences eventually led them to drift apart.

So what more do we get from that to make it clear he’s more than your average angry teen rebel? Well, in a later scene, he starts a conversation with Gaia by saying “I cordially invite you to join me in contemplation of the infinite…. Those in my infinite circle call me Fats.” To his credit, Brian Vernel does deliver this dialogue without any trace of self-awareness, but without any sense of pride, either. It comes across as unnatural, and illustrates what this character writing is: a shallow imitation of characters only J.K. Rowling could write.

The rest of Fats’ time on-screen is devoted to his discussion about Andrew on his desire to have sex and a flat-out depressing imitation of his philosophical pondering with Andrew as they smoke in Simon’s shed (a bit of clever transplanting, since this is what got Andrew in trouble in the beginning of the book):

Fats: It just proves, you know, that it’s all sex and death. I mean, that’s all there is.
Andrew: And music.
Fats: Yeah, but mainly sex, because right when it comes, death, your last thought is never ever gonna be “I wish I’d done a little less shagging.” So we gotta live now.
Andrew: Yeah. Gotta live……

The reason I have quoted this in detail is because I want to compare it with the passage that is written in the book. It is lengthy, and this post is running long, but I feel I should quote it in its entirety:

“What matters, Arf?” asked Fats, after a long, dreamy pause.
His head swimming pleasantly, Andrew answered, “Sex.”
“Yeah,” said Fats, delighted. “Fucking. That’s what matters. Propun…propogating the species. Throw away the johnnies. Multiply.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew, laughing.
“And death,” said Fats. He had been taken aback by the reality of that coffin, and how little material lay between all the watching vultures and an actual corpse. He was not sorry that he had left before it disappeared into the ground. “Gotta be, hasn’t it? Death.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew, thinking of war and car crashes, and dying in blazes of speed and glory.
“Yeah,” said Fats. “Fucking and dying. That’s it, innit? Fucking and dying. That’s life.”
“Trying to get a fuck and trying not to die.”
“Or trying to die,” said Fats. “Some people. Risking it.”
“Yeah. Risking it.”
There was more silence, and their hiding place was cool and hazy.
“And music,” said Andrew quietly, watching the blue smoke hanging beneath the deep rock.
“Yeah,” said Fats, in the distance. “And music.”
The river rushed on past the Cubby Hole.

Many may wonder why I have such an infatuation for Mad Men, but in a recent interview I watched with the creator, he hit on exactly why, because he was capable of recognizing this fact: “I love the idea that all of these characters have a private life. There is a privacy there that I think you don’t get. It’s mostly ignored, it’s mostly ignored because it’s hard… it’s easier in a novel to get psychological like that. But in film it becomes something where people say, ‘What exactly are we watching?’ And you have to find a way to constantly physically express their feelings.”

And on the surface level that’s what the scene I just quoted appears to be, a verbal expression of emotions, hence physical. But notice we get a description of Andrew’s subconscious mind to understand where he is coming from as to where Fats is actually coming from, to inform what they are saying and determine the difference between the two.

They are both young, ignorant and naive. They have silly aspirations that will be forgotten as soon as they are achieved and they encounter the real “real life”, not the one of their fantasies, but in the show we get a vague impression that that is all they are. They are a mouthpiece for the writer to make a desired point, and once it has been made, we move on. What’s more, it comes after we have no idea of Fats’ philosophy, and see him only as a pretentious teenager. There is no idea that he might be on to anything at all, even ignorant, angry, and misguided. The scene appears as if it is intended to taunt them both, to make us roll our eyes at their frailty. The Time review of the show summed up Fats’ philosophy very well, however: “Fats, like so many adolescents, has grasped a truth and then made the mistake of believing it to be the whole truth.”

It is not possible to recognize that here with the information given, but even if everything was written perfectly, you have to rely on good acting, even that being subjective, to secure the desired emotional response, and notice how it is trimmed down to such a specific time frame, and it is not going at our pace. We watch it, we think briefly of what we are seeing, then it is over.

In the book, pauses are described. We are allowed to experience those pauses, visualize them, and let them live on for as long as we want. The scene achieves a poetry to it that is sorely missing when you can simply see the scene playing in front of you and realize it is just 2 teenagers with naive ideas about life, who fantasize about being adults, losing their virginity, or having done that, continuing to exploit sex as if it is the only thing that determines an emotional relationship, because they are not yet mature enough to have experienced that feeling. Because on a physical level, that may be true. But on the literary level, we focus on a meeting of the minds. They are only capable at this point of perceiving what happens on a physical level, not the emotional level underneath, or the reasons for that strange omnipresent force known as society, only that is there and they must rebel against it, though it barely cares.

What visual media such as television and movies do most of all is portray a sense of showmanship, and drama at what is clearly going on before our eyes. The ending here epitomizes that, closing with a dramatic monologue by Andrew as he announces himself as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother on the Parish Council message board.

It’s an effective cliffhanger, definitely. But we are given no idea of his internal revenge plan against Simon, what he is planning to do with the blog, or why he feels the need to warn anyone ahead of time. It will definitely make the viewers at home yell, “Ooh, this boring old town is about to get INTERESTING!” but on an emotional level beyond simple thrills at cheap entertainment, in an attempt to relate the characters, I am afraid we are simply locked out.

There is certainly potential in Obbo coming out of prison and raping Krystal for more clear reasons most people can relate to, admittedly (though rapists obviously do commit the act out of a desire for power and control more often than a specific vendetta).

So what I am saying here is that I am trying to be sympathetic to the miniseries and understand what they are up against here. There is the necessary element of voyeurism – we feel we are watching a real community, and snooping around figuring out what is going on with these people in this town from the bits and pieces of conversations we get to see. It feels like something that could be happening in many towns all over the world, without us ever getting more than a vague impression of it, or its ripples.

I am interested in viewing the next two parts, because there is a foundation here. It may just take some time to see if it holds up with the people that have been placed inside.

Edit: Interestingly enough (and in addition to blatant spoilers for the changes made in adaptation), the trailer shows Simon responding to someone expressing sympathy for him having lost his brother (Barry) with “Don’t be. I fucking hated him.” At least in the HBO version, he says “We never really got on (and this line does not appear to be dubbed).” I doubt this was done for language, since the word “fuck” was heard on the show more than a few times. I can understand it getting a TV-14 despite this when it is broadcast on HBO, but for anyone who is qualified to answer: Is the BBC really allowed to broadcast language like that, and what are the censorship laws? Was the line cut for the BBC, along with others?

I know my reviews for The Casual Vacancy ended quite a while ago, but this is something I heard about long ago. The project was actually announced back in 2012, but I never mentioned it, primarily because Daniel discussed it here:

This could be expected given the success of the 8 Harry Potter films released to theaters, but The Casual Vacancy was already adapted into a mini-series.

It was broadcast in the United Kingdom on 3 parts premiering February 15, 2015. But seeing as how I don’t live in the U.K., I decided not to post about it then. I didn’t want to put it off for so long, but, well, that is what I do, isn’t it?

So I’ll make this brief: The miniseries will premiere on HBO tonight, the first part airing at 8:00 P.M. EST, and the second at 9:00.

I’m eager to see it since I don’t know how audiences (particularly American audiences) will respond to a book so grimly realistic as The Casual Vacancy. I’ll list some of my expectations to start off my review. For now, I’ll just say I’m interested to see how it plays out.

I wasn’t planning on writing this post, but I decided it would be best simply to convey my thoughts for posterity and because it parallels my first post I wrote on this blog. I’ve always felt I usually miss out on being in on things in pop culture as they happen. That’s one reason I was so eager to review J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy as soon as it came out.

And now another pop cultural event is upon us, one far important to me: AMC’s groundbreaking, critically acclaimed hit television show that created a new reputation for the network, is beginning its final season tonight. And from then on it is only seven episodes until it ends.

This might be strange to say, but I feel time goes by much too quickly for me. I finished watching Waterloo (by renting the Netflix disc) in December, and now here we are already.

I wanted a bit more time to go by missing the show, I suppose. But now in the past few days I’ve re-watched, on Netflix:
Season 1

The Hobo Code


Season 2

Three Sundays

The Mountain King

Season 3

Seven Twenty Three

Season 4

Waldorf Stories

The Summer Man

Season 5

Lady Lazarus

The Other Woman

Season 6

The Crash

Season 7


And I still have no clue how the show is going to end. I have my theories, however, my impressions on what to expect from this last season opener:

It may open in 1970. (Someone judged based on a 1974 song being used in a promo that the show would move through years every episode, to show the characters’ lives moving quickly.)

The episode will be mostly set-up. The season premieres usually are, which is why I’ve objected to them being over an hour for Seasons 5 and 6. They only serve the purpose of letting us back inside the world and showing us where the characters are now, usually with a unified theme that draws the whole thing together.

There may actually be something shocking and unexpected in it. It may even have a very unexpected opening to throw us off our guards, automatically.

We will get a good idea of change in the characters’ lives.

There will be a conflict with work that will need to be resolved.

We will probably see Don bonding more with Sally.

It will definitely give us an idea of Don trying to improve his life and appreciate what matters around him.

Other than this, I really don’t have a clue. I could go on and on about what the show means to me, how much the show has changed my life and my way of thinking about the world. I’ll just say this. Watch it for yourself. It is a well-written, truly intelligent work of art. Watch every episode in order, because it is a journey through people’s lives, seeing how they change, evolve and grow. It is deeply meaningful,  effortlessly re-creating the past while reminding us how little we have actually changed as human beings in the mean-time. The human condition, and our perpetual dissatisfaction, along with the reasons for that dissatisfaction never change.

The real question is whether any true optimism will be revealed, whether Don will manage to move forward and make his life worth living. The show has often hinged around people being unrealistic, idealistic expectations that can’t be fulfilled. They always wait for something more in essence, and “What’s happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” “We’re ruined because we get these things, and then we wish for what we had.” But the last season ended with a ghost from the past coming back to urge, in a musical number: “The moon belongs to everyone/the best things in life are free.” There is another line from Season 2 I think of: “The only thing keeping you from happiness is the belief that you are alone.”

So can humans find happiness, by figuring out what matters to us and embracing it? Is there hope for Don Draper yet? I’m interested to see what Mad Men’s ultimate answer is.

For better or for worse, I will be watching as the first episode, “Severance”, airs live on AMC at 10:00 P.M. (9:00 central) I hope you will be, too.

I started off my prior review “I Read The Book Thief – Part 3, Chapters One-Four” with the following statement: “Hello, and welcome again! It’s good to be back. I apologize for the long delay. I hope to not keep you waiting nearly as long in the future (well, to the few people who actually care about these reviews), but there were matters in my personal life I had to attend to.”

Well, more than twice as many months down the line, all I can say is that hope doesn’t always pay off, clearly. I can’t explain the long absence, either. There were certainly many, many more complicated matters in my personal life, but also I am a very slow reader and I deliberately put it aside until I had finished several other books. At the moment I am only dividing my attentions between this and one other of the four books previously listed:
11/22/63 by Stephen King

I have to thank my few loyal commenters, though, for being so kind and patient in waiting. And we did leave off on a very suspenseful place, at least:

The house was pale, almost sick-looking, with an iron gate and a brown spit-stained door.
From his pocket, he pulled out the key. It did not sparkle but lay dull and limp in his hand. For a moment, he squeezed it, half expecting it to come leaking toward his wrist. It didn’t. The metal was hard and flat, with a healthy set of teeth, and he squeezed it till it pierced him.
Slowly, then, the struggler leaned forward, his cheek against the wood, and he removed the key from his fist.

I realize I’ve said this before, but for a book about Nazi Germany narrated by Death, this has been pretty peaceful and laid back so far. But now all that is about to change, as the realities of life for the oppressed during World War II are coming to the privileged Hubermanns and their world is about to be shaken up. I’m on the edge of my seat right now, eager to see the tension and conflict that will be sure to develop, because I don’t know where the book is going as we enter Part Four, titled “the standover man“.

This is obviously another book either stolen or at least obtained by Liesel, going by the trend, and I’m intrigued by the subtitles, right off the bat.

the accordionist – a promise keeper – a good girl – a jewish fist fighter – the wrath of rosa – a lecture – a sleeper – the swapping of nightmares – and some pages from the basement

Hans is the accordionist, I’m assuming Liesel is the “good girl”, the Jewish fist fighter is obviously Max, and the last four I have pretty well figured out. Rosa gets mad at Hans for whatever deals he made that got them into sheltering Max, she lectures Max, then Max goes to sleep, and he enjoys reading over some of Liesel’s books with her in the basement. The second one, “a promise keeper” probably refers to whatever promise Hans made to someone that has forced him into sheltering a Jew during World War II.

Well, probably. The only way to find out is by diving in and reading

(The Secret Life of Hans Hubermann)

Well, with a title like that, how can I not be intrigued to be absorbed back into this book’s world? And Zusak immediately throws us into the situation:

There was a young man standing in the kitchen. The key in his hand felt like it was rusting into his palm. 

I did miss Markus Zusak’s writing so much. I love how truly palpable the tension is, primarily due to the fact that every slight action is over-dramatized to the maximum gravitas it can possibly achieve:

He didn’t speak anything like hello, or please help, or any other such expected sentence. He asked two questions.


“Hans Hubermann?”


“Do you still play the accordion?”

As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man’s voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him.

I’ve never read anything like this book. It is a true visionary in the art of writing. Especially as we proceed to abandon the present situation entirely for the rest of the chapter as Death steps in to tell the tale of what led up to this:

It all dated back many years, to World War I.

If there were times when one found it easy to forget that this book is narrated by Death, now we are certainly forced to remember. At the beginning of this fourth part, the grim, charmingly fatalistic Rod Serling-esque narration of a world half-full that we found in the book’s opening chapters has truly returned:

They’re strange, those wars.
Full of blood and violence-but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. “It’s true,” people will mutter. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. It was that fox who saved my life,” or, “They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?”

Since Zusak’s writing is so dominated by these idiosyncratic touches, I should acknowledge one idiosyncratic reading tendency I use. Whenever there is a break in a book dictated by an inch-long space (dictating scene/topic separations), I take it as an opportunity to momentarily pause my reading and then resume. (As a child I always insisted my aunt and father pause for a full minute whenever they encountered one of these breaks when reading to me.)

They were conspicuously absent from The Hunger Games trilogy, which I suppose made the tension more effective. But Zusak uses those mini-breaks constantly in this chapter, and it works very well to show Death unfolding the story in a very calm, easy manner, as it details Hans’ career in the army and muses over how he managed to escape Death.

I will make one criticism of Zusak’s writing here, though. Page 174 of my copy of the book ends with this passage:

In the army, [Hans] didn’t stick out at either end. He ran in the middle, climbed in the middle, and he could shoot straight enough so as not to affront his superiors. Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chosen to run straight at me.

I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.

Since this is where the page stops, naturally I assumed this was the complete note. Ending there, it’s a very succinct, blackly comic aside that could only be delivered by our personal narrator. The point is delivered very well without explicitly spelling it out. Unfortunately, it goes on into the next page:

They are not.

They’re running at me.

I realize Zusak edited and re-drafted this book painstakingly and has described his constant search for perfection in writing, but I have to wonder: how in the world did he think that it was necessary to include those last two sentences? It’s right up there with Steve Kloves’ “She needs to sort out her priorities” line in the first Harry Potter screenplay in its absolute utter redundancy! Ugh!

The writing is much better from this point on, though, as he details Hans’ recollections, which sound exactly as if they came from the lips of any 70-something ‘Nam veteran who spends his Sundays smoking cigarettes with old buddies in his front garage reminiscing:

It was like a serial. Day after day after day. After day:
The conversation of bullets.
Resting men.
The best dirty jokes in the world.
Cold sweat – that malignant little friend – outstaying its welcome in the armpits and trousers.

I recognize that I have never served, but I think Markus Zusak just bested Goodnight Saigon and M*A*S*H for the best description of everyday life in the military. Congratulations.

I mean, the one thing people often find hardest to comprehend about those who managed to survive war is how they can look back fondly on it at all, let alone treat it as a happy bonding experience that allowed them to make good friends. Zusak explains this very well here, in a passage that also serves to explain the unascertained connection with Hans to Max:

It was a man a year older than himself – a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg – who taught him to play the accordion. The two of them gradually became friends due to the fact that neither of them was terribly interested in fighting. They preferred rolling cigarettes to rolling in snow and mud. They preferred shooting craps to shooting bullets. A firm friendship was built on gambling, smoking, and music, not to mention a shared desire for survival. 

And that’s exactly why we all love you, Hans. XD

But the realities of war are, of course:

The only trouble with this was that Erik Vandenburg would later be found in several pieces on a grassy hill. His eyes were open and his wedding ring was stolen.

<JAW DROPS> Wow. I mean, WOW, JUST WOW! I am genuinely terrified for the moment when a character we actually care about dies. I mean, forget abrupt tonal change, this book is brutal with a capital B!

All that was really left of Erik Vandenburg was a few personal items and the fingerprinted accordion. Everything but the instrument was sent home. It was considered too big. Almost with self-reproach, it sat on his makeshift bed at the base camp and was given to his friend, Hans Hubermann, who happened to be the only man to survive.

He didn’t go into battle that day.

All right, I’m willing to forget what I said about the last one. That note is flawless, succinct perfection.

The theme all goes back to Death’s quote from the prologue: “Was it fate? Misfortune? Is that what glued them down like that? Of course not. Let’s not be stupid. It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.

There isn’t always a strategy in life. A lot comes down to pure luck and happenstance, whether you like it or not.

The story that goes on to explain this, though, comes off as something out of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. I realize a lot of the appeal of this book comes from that Time quote I previously mentioned: “Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable… with grim, darkly consoling humor.

And I lost count of how many times I chuckled in spite of myself at those little bits Zusak threw in this chapter to break up the darkness. But even so, I don’t know how I can even describe the story to you that explains why a sergeant excused Hans from battle that day it’s so ridiculous.

It doesn’t matter. This is what’s important:

Still no one stepped forward, but a voice stooped out and ambled toward the sergeant. It sat at his feet, waiting for a good kicking. It said, “Hubermann, sir.” The voice belonged to Erik Vandenburg. He obviously thought that today wasn’t the appropriate time for his friend to die.

You see, the sergeant just has this reputation for asking for strange requirements from his recruits, then when they speak up, they’re immediately assigned to various dehumanizing activities. It’s obviously a petty thing to do in the middle of war, but in this case, it’s the only thing that saved Hans’ life.

Erik Vandenburg just demonstrated the ultimate devotion to a friend he hasn’t known all that long but has made these past months so much more bearable by ensuring he stays out of the deadly battle the rest of the troop has to enter, perhaps knowing he would never come back alive and certainly knowing that if Hans stood up himself, he would be ostracized as the coward that his own son believes him to be more than twenty years later.

The sergeant sighed. “The captain needs a few dozen letters written for him. He’s got terrible rheumatism in his fingers. Or arthritis. You’ll be writing them for him.”
This was no time to argue, especially when Schlink was sent to clean the toilets and the other one, Pflegger, nearly killed himself licking envelopes. His tongue was infection blue.
“Yes, sir.” Hans nodded, and that was the end of it. His writing ability was dubious to say the least, but he considered himself lucky. He wrote the letters as best he could while the rest of the men went into battle.
None of them came back.

So Hans Hubermann really is a remarkably lucky man. This becomes even more clear as Death gives us a remarkably significant spoiler!

That was the first time Hans Hubermann escaped me. The Great War.
A second escape was still to come, in 1943, in Essen.

………………. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..          what what what I’m sorry just


I’m trying to hold myself together here. I still regret how much I lost control of the critical-analysis train (to see the least) at the end of Part One. So I am just going to write one paragraph below and you can all ignore it, then we’ll get back to analytical commentary.


What’s most shocking is that the random flash-forward we got before makes suddenly more sense, and I don’t think Zusak is an author who will throw red herrings at us. The flashback wasn’t just to 1943, it was specifically September! Either Hans already had a near-death experience by that point or he came close to death within the next three and a half months. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And I’ve said before that Zusak wastes next to no words and I know the editing was insanely thorough. So I’m pointing to this line, “He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be

” as evidence that Hans was wounded in an explosion or he was shot and plaster was in his wound but it has now been removed. I’d say this is going to keep me on the edge of my seat for all of 1943, but for all I know Death might just come out and tell me what happens to Hans in the next chapter. This is so much worse than Rowling I can’t do much but shake my head in disbelief.

The one good conclusion I’m going to draw from this is that I may not have to worry about Hans dying in the war, after all. Unless he dies in the next two years, of all. And for all we know, Zusak will probably have him step on a grenade on January 1, 1944. Sigh.

The real point one can make from all this is how perfectly Zusak’s work loops around and gets back to itself, explaining what came previously, no matter how long it takes. And, even though it was clear already at this point, Hans pays a visit to his friend’s widow at the end of the war, makes a useless offer to paint her house in an attempt to make up for her loss, and meets her son.

“This is Max,” the woman said, but the boy was too young and shy to say anything. He was skinny, with soft hair, and his thick, murky eyes watched as the stranger played one more song in the heavy room. From face to face, he looked on as the man played and the woman wept. The different notes handled her eyes. Such sadness.

It gets worse. Guess what Hans is playing for them on his accordion? The passage came earlier, but here it is:

“He taught me to play,” Hans informed her, as though it might help.
Perhaps it did, for the devastated woman asked if he could play it for her, and she silently wept as he pressed the buttons and keys of a clumsy “Blue Danube Waltz.” It was her husband’s favorite.

I’m speechless. I said it before, but Death is literally writing this book and aiming everything specifically at me. I have never been a big classical music lover, but there is one word I will say about The Blue Danube Waltz:
2001. My favorite film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece saying so much with not a word in five gorgeous minutes of pure wonder at how far man has come, for better or worse, from the primitive apes who found it a remarkable victory to exercise any control over their barren landscape dominated by predators to the conquerors of outer space, the limits to which are unknown and nearly incomprehensible to most to this day, and dwarf the human beings themselves in its vast bitter emptiness. I have watched that sequence alone from the film on too many dark nights before bed to count, and I can’t even begin to explain here how much that piece has meant to me in consequence.

And Erik, Erik, you never imagined it, not close. I almost get teary-eyed just thinking of it (I will repeat quietly, almost).

Perhaps surprisingly, the chapter goes on for another six pages from here to detail Hans’ dislike for the Nazi party and his unpleasant history with the local officials. His reasoning for not joining is surprising in that it displays only a bit of his personal backstory. It primarily just shows his virtues as a human being, the way I suspected. Whether that’s disappointing or not I’ll leave to you, but I will quote the specific note here because it is rather heartwarming in its simplicities:

He was not well-educated or political, but if
nothing else, he was a man who appreciated
fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and
he couldn’t forget that. He couldn’t join a
party that antagonized people in such a way.
Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his
most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many
of the Jews believed, he didn’t think the
hatred could last, and it was a conscious
decision not to follow Hitler. On many
levels, it was a disastrous one.

At first the problem only seems to be that he is losing customers once word gets out that he isn’t a party member. But he eventually actually applies to join and then things get much worse.

After lodging his form at the Nazi headquarters on Munich Street, he witnessed four men throw several bricks into a clothing store named Kleinmann’s. It was one of the few Jewish shops that were still in operation in Molching.

Naturally Hans, being the kind person that he is, offers to help the owner clean up, but surprisingly the owner actually shows a great deal of empathy for Hans in urging him not to. And Hans shockingly makes the terrible decision of actually trying to go back on his membership application, before he abruptly realizes this is a big mistake and backs down.

This reminds me of similar scenes in The Incredibles when Bob Parr has to face the anger of his boss over attempting to genuinely help his clients deal with insurance claims, while simultaneously allowing them to bypass bureaucratic loopholes that aim for maximum profit for the corporation, not the customers. It’s an idea that could be very eyerolling, but I think both that film and The Book Thief pull it off very well in making the character seem like a genuinely good person who is doing it out of a deep-seated desire for justice, and it’s very interesting to see the reality of an individual being punished for daring to break from the conformist mindset, as authority-mandated herd mentality too often prevails in real life.

And from there his luck seems to suddenly run out:

The door at Kleinmann’s Clothing was still moist with dew. Hans dried it. He managed to match the color as close as humanly possible and gave it a good solid coat.
Innocuously, a man walked
“Heil Hitler,” he said.
“Heil Hitler,” Hans replied.

1. The man who walked past was Rolf Fischer, one of
Molching’s greatest Nazis.
2. A new slur was painted on the door
within sixteen hours.
3. Hans Hubermann was not granted
membership in the Nazi Party.
Not yet, anyway.

The last line is very telling, in that Death is going out of its way to hint at future events in the story, but without directly telling us what will happen. And this gives us a subtle and foreboding clue, too:

Toward the end of 1938, when the Jews were cleared out completely after Kristallnacht, the Gestapo visited. They searched the house, and when nothing or no one suspicious was found, Hans Hubermann was one of the fortunate:
He was allowed to stay.

But one can only hope the Gestapo doesn’t search his house again now that he has something or some one suspicious to hide, right? All right, I’m going to make my prediction: Hans will be accepted, the Nazis will hold a meeting at his house, and Max will be found but we probably won’t find out until later. And this will probably happen in 1943, so Hans will likely almost die and have plaster stuck in his leg, then, too.

The chapter ends with the story coming full circle. Death now reveals that it was on June 16, 1939 that Hans was approached by Kugler at work, was asked if he could keep a promise, and subsequently made plans to talk later at night.

Going back to Part One, the chapter “The Other Side of Sandpaper” described the events of late May 1939 in which Hans watched a NSDAP parade on the footpath in Munich Street and “wore a face with the shades pulled down“. It was then that Death mentioned his lack of support for Hitler, and gave no information beyond saying there was a reason which he has just detailed to us at length now. The chapter also mentioned Liesel writing in her journal in 1943: “People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion…
But in the following chapter, which takes place “over the next few weeks and into summer” presumably shortly after Hans was contacted by Kugler, we got this, which makes so much more sense in hindsight:

Hans pulled out the accordion. Liesel looked at him and listened, though she did not immediately notice the perplexed expression on her papa’s face that evening as he played.

*** PAPA’S FACE ***

It traveled and wondered,

but it disclosed no answers.

Not yet.

There had been a change in him. A slight shift.
She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story.
For now, there was only the one as far as Liesel was concerned, and she was enjoying it.

That really does sum up the appeal of the writing. Zusak uses more than just spoilers the likes of which an internet troll could deliver. This book is a masterful, well-woven tapestry that folds perfectly over and into itself. Zusak knows exactly what is going to happen, and he parcels out information to build the tension, telling us certain things ahead of time and keeping us waiting to explain other information. And that’s why it’s so much fun to go back through the book and realize how shockingly much we were told ahead of time. And now we appear to have everything well explained to us, and it’s only a question of what will happen in 1943.

In case you can’t tell, I really love reading this book. XD


This is a particularly brief chapter, only 2 pages long in fact. It does return us right back to the immediate situation, however.

In November 1940, when Max Vandenburg arrived in the kitchen of 33 Himmel Street, he was twenty-four years old.

Which is devastating that someone so young should have to experience this mindless hatred. And I honestly imagined him as a man in his forties or early fifties, probably because I didn’t want to be reminded of what Liesel suffered at a much younger age.

The rest of the chapter is primarily based on capturing the emotions of the characters. Max is emotionally desperate, cold, and terrified, and he simply doesn’t know how to respond to the idea that he might be safe. He just collapses, overwhelmed by where he is and what is to come.

But Liesel has even less an idea of what to make of this scene:

Max stood up, like a struck match. The darkness swelled now, around him.
“Everything’s fine, Liesel,” Papa said. “Go back to bed.”

If anything, this chapter is a fine example of minimalism. Hans has to make vague unsatisfying reassurance for both his foster daughter and his dead friend’s son and Liesel goes to bed wondering what can possibly be going on while Max stays up trying to work out with Hans what will come next.

The chapter is very restrained and distant, as if setting up much more to follow. It’s very noticeable Rosa is inexplicably not present, because obviously if she were here this would be a much more dramatic, extroverted scene. Which does bother me, because it’s obvious now Hans kept this whole thing a secret from not only his foster daughter, but his own wife as well. I get he didn’t want to endanger Max’s safety or make his family concerned, but did he not foresee that Max could end up staying with them? How long has Hans been notified of this, and failed to tell anyone?

One wild card was yet to be played.

Clearly, still so many answers are yet to come…….


And as you can imagine from the title, we proceed to get more of them in the form of further abandonment of the central narrative to deliver more backstory, this time obviously from the side of Max Vandenburg.

I’m going to take the opportunity here to discuss something I have been ignoring. One of my commenters brought this up, but I never mentioned it myself. The Book Thief was adapted into a movie in 2013. I find myself extremely wary of this film for many reasons, mostly because I simply do not feel this would translate well to a film at all. So much of it, right down to the very title, gets its appeal from the way a book is constructed, right down to the fact that the very title suggests that love of books.

I don’t see how the writing which communicates Death’s unique perspective could translate to film. As I said in my Secret Garden (1949)

review, “films suffer due to not being able to employ prose (and thus limiting your range to a smaller variety of story-telling techniques).”

A very good example lies here, as what follows is ten pages of sheer backstory and exposition designed to set up the plot. I think it would be very difficult for a film to get away with bringing the momentum of a film to an abrupt halt like this. Exposition is one of the most difficult aspects of a film to pull off, which may be why it was severely streamlined to the point of being left out in many of the Harry Potter film adaptations. I would argue this was at the expense of narrative logic (but I had a disagreement with one of my commenters recently on this issue), but the audience might sit still for some of the absolute essentials, a movie couldn’t really get away with getting bogged down in the specifics and it would need to get the point across with a fast pace, basically on autopilot, unless it wanted to change the focus of the entire film. (I would be interested to hear exceptions or insight about this in film from my commenters, of course.)

The chapter starts by simply describing Max’s history with fist fighting as a child at length (that detail that Zusak actually allowed us to know about him long before we got his name even). This can become wearying, until the purpose becomes immediately obvious in what it reveals of Max’s character:

Just when it was getting interesting, both boys were hauled away by their collars. A watchful parent.
A trickle of blood was dripping from Max’s mouth.
He tasted it, and it tasted good.

This is especially noteworthy considering how weak, terrified, and defenseless Max has always appeared to come across and view himself as in the text, but as we can see, Max is more than prepared for physical confrontation. But of course this can give him no help against a threat coming from the central government. Death gives us the impression at first that these fights Max had were basically a product of his neighborhood, but then shows us this was not true in a passage that also qualifies as a beautiful bait-and-switch:

Not many people who came from his neighborhood were fighters, and if they were, they didn’t do it with their fists. In those days, they said the Jews preferred to simply stand and take things. Take the abuse quietly and then work their way back to the top. Obviously, every Jew is not the same.

I literally was caught off guard by the last two sentences. They are amazing in what abrupt change of tone creeps in, as it’s one of the first times Death expresses actual emotion and anger at human beings, although we have had glimpses of this sort of bitter sarcasm.

Death then goes on for a while to just give a general overview of Max’s life, until his uncle dies when he is 13. It’s here that in addition to further developing Max’s character, the book actually feels overwhelming and brutal even to read as I got the full sense of the mysterious ethereal force known as the Grim Reaper communicating these words:

As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.

Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes, and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.

The man’s face was so accepting.

So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull-the endless jawline, stretching for miles; the pop-up cheekbones; and the pothole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.


Where’s the fight? he wondered.

Where’s the will to hold on?

All this backstory proves useful as I genuinely got the full weight of this scene, and felt like I was in there with the young Max in 1929 just as I was there with Liesel having been beaten by her foster mother into a bloody pulp on the kitchen floor and realizing she will never see her biological mother again. It’s shocking to read, but children do so often lack empathy and the capacity to really grasp and appreciate human emotions and the full magnitude of what they’re seeing at this early age.

I said it before and I will say it again: I don’t think I could have handled reading this book as a very young child. When I was this age, at random intervals I became terrified and violently overwhelmed by the knowledge that I would one day die and that this state would last for all of eternity. I remember, aged about 6-7, meeting my great-grandfather face-to-face when he was around 92-93 years old and asking him if he was afraid to die. I can still see him smiling and saying, “No,” and the great conviction that he considered it such a silly, frivolous question to ask. When he did die it was by all accounts this same scene, peaceful, surrounded by his sons and one grandson, gasping with his last breath “going up to Marian”. I’m glad I wasn’t there, though, but unlike Max, I don’t think I could have handled it.

As I’ve said before I went to my step-grandfather’s funeral 2 years ago. His death came with no warning after being put in a nursing home for a fall. I thought before that that those who work in funeral homes must inevitably see those around them as but living corpses, but looking at my Papaw I got the singular impression this would not be possible, that flesh without intelligence is but a hollow waxwork figure, absolutely meaningless. A woman I had never known silently intoned “We are all going to meet our maker, and none of us knows when it will happen, or even if we will live to the end of the day.” If it had been anyone else I would have been too sick for words by the full emotional detachment spread from a life in a dark industry cooled by the desperate unflinching belief in the inevitable and the lack of empathy towards any who share even religious doubt at what emotional effect this might have, but this man had been all but dead for years, pouring cigarette smoke and alcohol into his diabetes-riddled body every Saturday that I did see him and going without speaking primarily except to close friends.

And if you desire that cool apathetic detachment I will recount to you my mother’s words as I lay overwhelmed on a couch in a side room: “He was 57, and he did not take care of himself at all.” She spoke them gently as if they were the most comforting bits of wisdom imaginable.

Zusak perfects the art of subtlety in this next passage, to a certain degree:

“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
I like that a lot.

My reaction was always, of course, the simple amazement that people will go on living when they know it will one day end, that there is no widespread panic in the streets and how that could possibly be. I figured out why when I was 16 years old in the park after hours with a stool to peek through the windows. Not a good position to be in, and when you run away, it’s all too easy to find yourself tackled and your head thrown into the ground by a fully-grown man proclaimed by those intelligent people known as the American citizens to be our chief officers responsible for enforcing justice, this situation meaning nothing to them but the paltriest misdemeanor and the faintest fun to have on a quiet Friday night.

I, knowing full well those stories on the news, expected to be beaten violently, perhaps to have my head kicked in and tazered until I knew not what pain meant, and maybe killed afterwards, maybe even in the same second with a quick bullet to the head. None of this happened, of course, but I can tell you I didn’t fear it. Endless paranoia, terror, and misery at what might happen, what will happen, but not one peep for what is happening, what one can do not one single thing about. How could you?

Anyway, from there, Death goes on to detail to us at great length Walter’s relationship with Kugler from fist-fighting rivalry to eventual friendship. This goes on a bit too long in my opinion, but does build up to this:

“Jesus,” Walter said one evening, when they met on the small corner where they used to fight. “That was a time, wasn’t it? There was none of this craziness around. We could never fight like that now.”
Max disagreed. “Yes we could. You can’t marry a Jew, but there’s no law against fighting one.”
Walter smiled. “There’s probably a law
 rewarding it- as long as you win.”

It’s the kind of thing you can really only treat as a joke with very close friends, isn’t it?

And from here the story’s momentum builds very quickly.

Then came November 9. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass.
It was the very incident that destroyed so many of his fellow Jews, but it proved to be Max Vandenburg’s moment of escape. He was twenty-two.

The scene that follows I find confusing. Max’s family are hiding in their apartment on this night and then there’s a lot of build-up to them being forced to open the door to a uniformed Nazi.

This seems like a serious threat, but then it seems to be glossed over and the next bit is very rushed through as Max is shoved into the adjoining room and the world suddenly seems to revolve around him as everyone immediately begins discussing plans to have him in particular moved to a safe hiding location.

Okay, first of all, what exactly was the Nazi’s purpose in pounding on their door? I really wish I knew more of the history behind this time period,
because this comes off as a serious threat but then the Nazi is completely ignored and we don’t even hear about him doing anything after the front door is opened for him. I feel like a complete idiot, but the book feels strangely edited here and moving a bit too quickly to move the plot forward to Max getting smuggled away.

“Max.” It was his mother.
From a drawer, she took an old piece of paper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “If ever…” She held him one last time, by the elbows. “This could be your last hope.”

So the story comes back to Max stuck in the hell-hole of an empty storeroom (one of Kugler’s former workplaces) hiding from persecution for 2 years. As for the rest of his family…..

The remaining Jews with money in the neighborhood were emigrating. The Jews without money were also trying, but without much success. Max’s family fell into the latter category. Walter checked on them occasionally, as inconspicuously as he could. One afternoon, when he visited, someone else opened the door.
When Max heard the news, his body felt it was being screwed up into a ball, like a page littered with mistakes. Like garbage.

That is disturbing just in how little is stated. So I’m guessing the assumption is Max’s entire family was KILLED? Or just moved off to a concentration camp? (For someone whose favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m surprisingly poor on the ambiguity front.)

But at least for Max, as Death already points out:

We already know what was written on that piece of paper:

Hans Hubermann
Himmel Street 33, Molching

Although Kugler and Max are both rather amusingly concerned Hans may be a Nazi, it becomes clear this was all Hans’ plan. Hans agreed to uphold his promise to his friend’s widow when he met with Kugler in 1939 and gave him money. And he then proceeded to give him a map pointing out the direct route from the train station to his front door!

I find myself a bit confused as to why Death seemed to be taunting Hans about his plans backfiring if Max coming to live with them was all part of the plan, but I think the idea is that Hans was not considering the reality of this situation and Death was pointing out that in 7 months he would realize how dangerous this plan had become that seemed so perfect in my mind. I still wonder if they were planning to have Max moved somewhere else or just keep him indefinitely, but I’ll leave it at that.

With another wonderful bit of insight from Death, (“You don’t always get what you wish for. Especially in Nazi Germany“) our story comes full circle and we’re back right where we left off.

Walter was notified that he was being sent to Poland, to continue the assertion of Germany’s authority over both the Poles and Jews alike. One was not much better than the other. The time had come.
Max made his way to Munich and Molching, and now he sat in a stranger’s kitchen, asking for the help he craved and suffering the condemnation he felt he deserved.

No, Max, you really are underestimating the wonders of Hans Hubermann. But on the other hand, Zusak finally took one of my other primary questions about this scene into account.

The girl had been gone quite a while, but now some more footsteps had approached arrival. The wildcard.
In the darkness, all three of them were completely isolated. They all stared. Only the woman spoke.

It’s an amazingly atmospheric ending that leaves us immediately dreading what we almost know is going to come next. And it’s difficult not to gulp as we see this all but confirmed in the title of the following chapter:


And we begin with the perfect set-up as Liesel awakens again to hear:
Was ist los?

Curiosity got the better of her then, as she imagined a tirade thrown down from the wrath of Rosa. There was definite movement and the shuffle of a chair.

But Markus Zusak expertly plays up the tension to what I will only describe as a bait-and-switch the likes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to make a more lighthearted comparison.

After ten minutes of excruciating discipline, Liesel made her way to the corridor, and what she saw truly amazed her, because Rosa Hubermann was at Max Vandenburg’s shoulder, watching him gulp down her infamous pea soup. Candlelight was standing at the table. It did not waver.
Mama was grave.
Her plump figure glowed with worry.

Unbelievable. This reaction from her is just absolutely jawdropping, and yet it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in real life. We think we know a person so well and then they turn around and do something so unexpected we can’t make any sense out of it.

I can’t even count how many times and how many people this has happened to me with, and I still can’t make complete sense of it there, but looking back on it this isn’t truly out of character for Rosa after all. Almost as soon as she’s being established as a presence in Liesel’s life Death goes out of his way to tell us that she does love Liesel despite it all. And I thought that was shocking then, there, too!

Really, her most unlikable moment was beating Liesel unmercilessly with a spoon, and even after that we see her apologize and show genuine sympathy when she realizes why Liesel had been breaking the rules.

Somehow, though, there was also a look of triumph on her face, and it was not the triumph of having saved another human being from persecution. It was something more along the lines of, See? At least he’s not complaining. She looked from the soup to the Jew to the soup.
When she spoke again, she asked only if he wanted more.
Max declined, preferring instead to rush to the sink and vomit.

Okay, seriously, who says Holocaust novels can’t be hilarious? Because I seriously couldn’t stop laughing the first time I read this. Just, no kidding.

This chapter ends on an absolutely genuine note, though:

Liesel, from the hallway, could see the drawn face of the stranger, and behind it, the worried expression scribbled like a mess onto Mama. She looked at both her foster parents.

Who were these people?

There comes a moment where you really have to ask how much you’re willing to risk and for what cost. It all goes back to my suggestion in my first review of this book that “This is obviously a very cruel world we’re dealing with. Zusak has made that clear”, which has clearly turned out to be far too naive a statement. It could be said of J.K. Rowling’s isolated world of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy, definitely, but I should have expected this because again, I’m a Mad Men megafan and I don’t care less what characters are like as long as they’re interesting and multi-faceted, but I also find I don’t have a clue how other people will react to anything. My aunt just quit re-reading The Casual Vacancy and gave me back my copy because she told me she couldn’t stand spending time with such loathsome people. So it’s just to be expected, considering how extremely more popular this book is, to say the least!

I wouldn’t be surprised if Markus Zusak made the tone so multi-faceted fearing the alienated reaction from people otherwise. It’s the same tactic I believe Steven Spielberg used in Schindler’s List, though I never actually saw that film. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether it’s truly realistic. As Lexie Mollison would say, in the words of Neitzsche philosophy is the biography of the philosopher and what not. I can see it.

And….. those were 2 short chapters, weren’t they? Sandwiched between 2 long chapters of exposition and backstory. Like I said, the book really is slow-paced, but this gave us information well-worth knowing and I’m eager to see what happens now that this new phase of the story has been set up. See you all next time.


This post is dedicated to Becky and Caitlin Glimco.


Spread the message! This vandalism must be stopped!

Edit on 1/18/15: I sent for Miracle on 34th Street (1947) off Netflix to see what version arrived. Sure enough, it was the same one I have (obviously a present from long ago I don’t remember receiving) marketed as the “Exclusive Color Version” on VHS.

The original is available on Netflix, though, under the heading of “Black-and-White Version”. So naturally moving forward from the days of VHS, it is clear the color job is simply being held by Netflix as the real schlemiel, so to speak. And I really wonder what director George Seaton and cinematographers Lloyd Ahern and Charles Clarke would think of that, considering this “real deal” was created in 1985 after they died in 1979 and 1983 respectively.

Originally posted on Reviewing All 54 Disney Animated Films And More!:

Ok guys I’m upset! Those who read my Scrooge Month got a clear idea of my feelings on the colorization of Black and White movies.  So imagine my shock when I DVR’d the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street on a major channel, AMC, and what do I see but the colorized version.  AMC should be ashamed of themselves!  I’m serious.  Putting out an assault on an artists vision as if it was the original property on national TV is worthy of the strictest censure.

Why do I hate colorized movies so much?  Well, here we go.

The Michael Bay’s of the world consider film a product but I think of it as art, especially how the movie looks.  People could be painters, sculptors or dancers and they chose to work in film.  We would never take a bronze sculpture and tell the artist he should be using jade or…

View original 922 more words


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.