JK Rowling adaptation starts strong with a solid cast and surprisingly unique direction
JK Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” is a mammoth of a novel: a 503-page tale of elitism and working class struggle in modern day England with more characters than Game of Thrones and little “traditional” excitement. Every character in it is miserable, be they rich or poor, and the most joyful moment of the story is a reasonably successful teenage date. As you can tell, it’s just the sort of feelgood fun that the public wants to sit down and watch on a Sunday night. Not since the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers has such a high-profile show been so absolutely miserable. Therefore, it is most pleasing to report that the first episode of this three-part BBC/HBO adaptation had retained the almost complete lack of happiness and humour that made Rowling’s book so unique and so heartbreaking. The problem that this show faces, however, is trying to condense the novel into such a ridiculously short space of TV time. If you thought the Harry Potter films were too short to properly tell the stories of the novels they were respectively adapted from, wait until you watch The Casual Vacancy! Think about it: the average page length of a Potter book is almost certainly less than Vacancy’s. Yet each Potter film was 2.5 hours long, while the Vacancy miniseries is in total less than 3 hours. As we said earlier, this story has an absurdly large cast of characters. This first episode struggles hugely to introduce them all and develop just a few (some minor figures come and go in seconds, with only the novel’s core two or three families given proper screen-time). With so many to deal with already, why on earth would those in charge choose to expand the role of Barry Fairbrother- a martyr for social justice who is bonked off within four pages of Rowling’s novel, played here by the brilliant Rory Kinnear- to almost half an episode’s worth of drama?! Sure, Kinnear is hugely talented and brings a necessary warmth and relatability to this first episode that was noticeably missing from the first act of the novel, but the extended life of Fairbrother simply takes away from other characters who have actual, Rowling-written storylines! The cast, in general, are above sufficient. Michael Gambon brings great prestige to his scenes as villainous florist Howard Mollison, clearly having a blast with the part. Keeley Forsyth is guilty of a fair amount of overacting as heroin addict Terri Weedon, but Abigail Lawrie is a surprising standout as her daughter Krystal- the novel’s most well-crafted and tragic character. As we all know from the Potter books, Rowling is really, really good at writing adolescent males, and the pathetic sexual frustration of Andrew Price (Joe Hurst) is realised superbly on screen. If one was afraid that The Casual Vacancy would merely be a glossier episode of EastEnders with some added lens flare and a few BAFTA winning thespians, those fears will be more than sufficiently assuaged by this first episode. It’s not groundbreaking television, and it has so far come nowhere near the standard of honest, human storytelling that Rowling perfected in her novel, but it’s full of surprises. What a surprise that is!