A three-part adaptation of J K Rowling’s first book post-Harry Potter was recently on the BBC over the last few Sunday nights. The Casual Vacancy is a book which examines class, families, death and numerous societal issues. Adapted by Sarah Phelps and approved by J K Rowling herself, the book was made into a mini-series as a collaboration between BBC and HBO.
As with any book to screen adaptation, there are concerns from fans that important parts are changed or left out completely and this version of The Casual Vacancy was no exception. I shall discuss some of these changes and my thoughts on the series in this blog post. There were parts that were done exceptionally well but some bitter disappointments as well.
Aesthetics – BBC productions have definitely improved their production values in the last few years to become synonymous with quality but I think the collaboration with HBO and the decision to film in widescreen created some beautiful cinematography. The first episode especially was full of aesthetically pleasing shots of English countryside and perfectly captured the historical, picturesque village of Pagford. The golden tones throughout these scenes connoted a sense of richness and provided a stark contrast with the council estate of the Fields to demonstrate the clashes of the classes.
Wellness Spa – Generally, I am not a fan of many of the changes made in this adaptation. I was wary at first at the decision to trivialise the parish debate by making it about a wellness spa rather than a council trying to palm off the Fields onto a neighbouring council. However, I suppose anything too political was omitted due to the scheduling of the drama in the run up to this year’s general election. Turning Sweetlove House into a wellness spa signified the ideals of the rich and the aspirations to climb the ladder (in the case of the Mollisons fawning over the Sweetloves) and proved an effective visual marker for the series as we see the use of the house as a useful community centre before the decision is passed.
Death as a skeleton – I actually didn’t like the skulls appearing ahead of Barry Fairbrother’s death as it foreshadowed his death and reduced the shock factor for those watching who haven’t read the book. The whole point of his death was because it was a brain aneurysm, it would be quick, sudden and shocking. That said, I did like the image of death as a skeleton reaper ahead of Howard Mollison’s heart attack as there was a sense of foreboding, something stalking Mollison for his bad decisions.
Casting! – This is literally the best thing about the adaptation. The casting is near perfect! Julia McKenzie played Shirley brilliantly as a vile, manipulative woman disguised and softened as a “little old lady”. Rufus Jones was a suitable Miles but that said, I will watch happily watch Rufus Jones as anything! Joe Hurst was exactly how I imagined Arf to look and Simon McBurney was convincing as OCD/mental health suffering headteacher Colin Wall despite his mental health issues not being looked at properly within the narrative. Richard Glover portrayed Simon Price as equally as vile as he is in the book. The stand out for me though has to be Abigail Lawrie as Krystal Weedon. I can’t believe that this was her first television role as she carried the series through her excellent performance.
Length – To have it in three parts was a poor decision. The intricacies and development of the characters that shape them in the book were absent in the adaptation due to the lack of time dedicated to vital relationships between characters. The first episode was very good as it introduced the characters and the main narrative points at a gentle pace. However, that left just two episodes to cover most of the book! Characters were either cut completely (the Fairbrothers’ children, Kay’s local boyfriend Gavin, the Jawandas’ other children) or reduced to caricatures of themselves. Important scenes of the book like the dinner party and Howard’s party were covered but slotted in awkwardly and rushed to try to include other edited counternarratives. The second and third episodes felt like an unconnected and confusing mash up of narratives that weren’t explored fully. The series would have done the book far more justice if it was extended to five or even eight episodes to allow the characters and issues an acceptable chance.
The Ghost – Again, due to the length of the series and omission of character development, the cyber “ghost” of Barry Fairbrother was done poorly. In the book, the ghost reveals secrets of the townspeople with a sense of mystery causing a lot of mistrust. The ghost is Arf, Fats and Sukhvinder respectively as they attempt to damage the reputation of their parents and guardians with Fats ultimately taking the blame for all the postings in the end. However, on screen it is portrayed as Arf for all the posts apart from one by Fats and by the third episode, the ghost is almost forgotten.
Sukhvinder – This is literally one of the most annoying parts of the adaptation. Sukhvinder is such a brilliantly complex character who is reduced in the series to a voiceover at the beginning of the second and third episodes (which reminded me of those Glee style intros) and a sulky girl just listening to her massive headphones. I understand that self-harm and depression is possibly triggering to show on primetime television but to ignore it furthers the stigma of mental illness and lack of representation. To reduce depression to a sulky teenager character is frankly appalling. Other important elements to her character such as body image issues in relation to her friend and waitressing colleague Gaia, her bullying by Fats and Arf and her friendship with Krystal through the rowing club were noticably absent. I am so sad that her brilliant character was reduced to sulky stares and phony voiceovers.
The ending! – Again, due to length and omissions, the ending has been changed. In the book Krystal still dies but not by drowning. Having been raped by her mother’s drug dealer Obbo (another societal issue not included in the adaptation) and feeling guilty over the death of Robbie, Krystal dies of a heroin overdose after succumbing to the evils that are ravaging her mother. Her death in the book is more symbolic. Likewise in the book Robbie drowns and is pulled from the water by a heroic Sukhvinder (yet another example of her character which was unseen) rather than being found alive by Vikram. Yes, the book ending is upsetting but it made more sense to me than the television ending.
Adaptations are always difficult as you have to make changes that work televisually whilst acknowledging that this won’t please all the fans. I feel that The Casual Vacancy would have benefitted from a longer run as the casting was spot on and it seems like a slight waste that the series was so rushed and underdeveloped. I understand that some political aspects of the book (the author being clearly left wing) had to be softened so that the BBC would not be accused of bias especially in a year so politically important as this one. However, I feel let down that other issues such as rape, mental illness, self-harm, sexuality and abuse were not included or explored as fully as they could. To evade such issues is doing them more harm in terms of representation and their prominence in global debates.