Sunday 25 February 2018

Is BBC/HBO adaptation of JK Rowling's Casual Vacancy more incisive than Harry Potter?

The BBC/HBO adaptation of JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy - it may not be Harry Potter, but, is it, asks Emily Hourican, more incisive?

The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
Abigail Lawrie in The Casual Vacancy

Emily Hourican

For all that the Harry Potter books have made her one of the world's biggest-selling contemporary authors, it is JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy that is borrowed most often from libraries in the UK.

The book was published in 2012, five years after the last Harry Potter, while the mania was still at its height, and despite the fact that Rowling had clearly said she wouldn't write anything more in the Potter series (although subsequently she has slightly rowed back on this), there were plenty of fans who were very disappointed to discover that her new book was set in a small and idyllic English village, the fictional Pagford, where local tensions simmer beneath a charming and ordered surface, but without a wand or killing curse in sight.

In comparison with Potter, the action of The Casual Vacancy is slow-moving, even subdued, but actually, Rowling's portrait of a village divided by class, age, wealth, aspiration and social allegiance is a fairly devastating one. Pagford may be a makey-uppey place, but the kind of nasty, small-minded in-fighting that goes on among its inhabitants has the sharp sting of reality, and a touch of the Dickensian.

The BBC and HBO have now adapted The Casual Vacancy into a three-part mini series, directed by Jonny Campbell, starting tonight. In doing so, they have narrowed down the disparate storylines to concentrate largely on the character of Krystal Weedon, played by newcomer Abigail Lawrie, teenage daughter of a junkie, living on a rough housing estate called The Fields, that most Pagford residents would like to see excised from the town's boundaries and consciousness.

Defiant and aggressive, Krystal comes over as a pretty bad lot, except that beyond all the bravado, she is also trying her best to bring up her toddler brother without help or decent example. The viciously middle-class desire for ruthless social engineering is what drives the plot, with Krystal as a kind of modern Tess of the d'Urbervilles, both victim and catalyst.

For screenwriter Sarah Phelps (responsible for some of EastEnders' best plotlines, as well as BBC adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist), "Krystal is the beating heart of the story." Abigail Lawrie joins an experienced, even veteran cast, including Keeley Hawes (pictured above), Michael Gambon (who of course played Dumbledore in the Potter films, taking over from Richard Harris when Harris died), Julia McKenzie and Rory Kinnear - proof that the BBC is throwing plenty at this adaptation, hoping to keep the book's many fans happy, and possibly also to convert those who were initially unimpressed. In so doing, the ending has been changed, and in substance as much as detail.

"Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learned 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," says Phelps. And so the ending that Rowling wrote has been altered, becoming more "redemptive," and the characters - written to be almost universally dislikeable - are rendered with more nuance, and more humour. "What works in a novel doesn't always work on screen," Phelps points out.

Review: JK Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' on BBC 1 - 'a good cast wasted on complete tosh'

Rowling was, apparently, "exceptionally generous" about the adaptation, allowing Phelps great freedom. "She's a writer, she understands what that's like," Phelps said.

The Casual Vacancy may lack world-threatening spectral menace, but as an examination of the poison that runs through small communities where what's at stake is social aspiration and identity, there is a very good chance that it will produce sparks.

The Casual Vacancy Sunday BBC1 9pm

Sunday Independent

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