HBO and BBC bring J.K. Rowling’s latest novel to television.
After the conclusion of her wildly successful “Harry Potter” series, Rowling took a bold step into the world of politics and social status with “The Casual Vacancy,” her 2012 novel that has now been adapted into a three-episode mini-series.
The first two episodes aired back-to-back last night from 8-10 p.m. on HBO, with the finale slated to show today, April 30, from 8-9 p.m. Each episode is about an hour long, meaning the roughly 500-page book had to be covered in about three hours. Sarah Phelps, who penned the script, carefully wove together bits of the story in order to ease viewers into its complexity.
“The screenwriters have taken a lot of bold decisions in terms of merging characters, giving characters a closer relationship than they had in the novel, in order to facilitate, speed up the parts of the storytelling,” said Jonny Campbell, director of the adaptation. “But the essence and the spirit of the novel was always the thing we were trying to preserve, and the feeling you get when reading it.”
“The Casual Vacancy” takes place in a small British town called Pagford. Everyone seems to be connected to one another in some way, shape or form. The Pagford Parish Council is voting on whether or not to close down Sweetlove House, which provides services to the less fortunate, and replace it with a tourist spa.
One Council member, Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), opposes this plan, and his vote would save Sweetlove; however, Barry dies abruptly in the streets, leaving a “casual vacancy” in the Council for community members to fight over.
But there’s a bigger picture here: “As the story unfolds,” said Campbell, “you realize it wasn’t just about Barry disappearing; he was sort of symptomatic of a problem.”
The “vacancy” is a symbol for pieces missing in the lives of Pagford’s residents.
“It’s about the vacancy within people’s lives,” explained Campbell. “There are people who have lost Barry, like Krystal [Abigail Lawrie], or Mary [Emily Bevan], his wife. Or just people that, through the death of somebody else, start to question their own mortality, or their place in the universe, or in their marriage. [People] start to sort of find a sense of emptiness and a sense of malice, something that isn’t quite right. So, in a way, it’s focusing on something which isn’t there.”
Krystal Weedon, a distraught yet fierce teenager, is placed front and center in the adaptation. While Rowling’s novel seems to share the spotlight amongst its many characters, Phelps’s version anchors its multiple story lines around this confused young girl.
Such a crucial role to the project couldn’t have been given to just anyone. The team looked around the country in search of candidates until ultimately electing Lawrie — a first-time actress.
“Basically, it was her first ever audition, it’s not like she’s acted on television before, you know, she’s done, like, a school play. Her first ever audition, she put herself on tape for this part. We were trolling up and down the country, trying to find Krystal, and then this little tape showed up, and she read a scene, and I’m watching it going, ‘Wow, that’s pretty impressive.’
“At the very end of the performance, she finished, and you just heard her say, ‘Is that what I’m supposed to do?’ It was so instinctive. It was a really powerful moment.”
The Scottish actress was 16 years old when the filming began. After it ended, she went back to school.
And for those “Harry Potter” fans, Campbell believes an element of Harry can be seen through Krystal… although his mother wasn’t a drug addict.
The director joked about seeing corny one-liners where critics compared the “Potter” series to this novel, then he commended Rowling’s talent as a writer who can switch gears and work on a project that’s totally different from the last.
This may be the case, but Campbell can’t deny there will always be some sort of connection between the two works.
“When you start to delve down, you start to see certain themes: vulnerable teenagers, kids growing up, the relationship with their parents, the presence of evil and death,” he said. “Death being very close to them all, all through this. The notion of goodness — good and evil — existing both in a fantastical context but also in a contemporary setting, and existing within people’s hearts and minds and in their behavior. So there are lots of themes that you could argue occur in both.”