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: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Casual_Vacancy_%28miniseries%29)
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?