J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' Charts the Perils of Adaption

In bringing J.K. Rowling's first post-Potter novel to TV, Sarah Phelps sands away the sharp corners and personal complications that made the book so memorable.

Despite the absence of the witches, wizards and magic, the everyday drama of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy seemed destined to be more difficult to adapt than Harry Potter. Still, it was only a matter of time before the novel made the jump, and while the serialized TV format fits Rowling’s writing far better than the Hollywood blockbuster ever did, the results are a mixed bag.

Given its backing by both HBO and the BBC, the acting and production values of the adaption are unsurprisingly strong. However, this adaptation can’t make up for what is lost by the structural changes, concessions, and exclusions that ultimately define Sarah Phelps’ take on the material.

For the unfamiliar, The Casual Vacancy center on the denizens of the small English town of Pagford and explores the butterfly effect that the death of local Parish Councilman Barry Fairbrother has on their lives.

One of the biggest flaws in Phelps' approach to adaption rears its head early on. Despite her script already bending the scope of the book across a scant three episodes, Phelps uses almost half the runtime of the series debut following the everyday doings of the late Barry Fairbrother. Not only does this inclusion waste valuable screen time but it also works to disrupt the strength of Rowling’s original material.

In The Casual Vacancy, our impressions and understanding of who Barry Fairweather was are established and developed through the ways that different characters remember him. The novel even opens with this, using the reactions of various characters to news of Barry’s death as effective introductions. By introducing the main characters before Barry’s death, Phelps not only disempowers the novel’s preoccupation with death but also stifles it in establishing why each of the characters in the story matter.

The Casual Vacancy is a work that treats all its characters as flawed -- more than others, but they all have weaknesses. For obvious reasons, the series’ simplistic depiction of Barry as a paragon of social justice doesn’t quite gel with this. The Casual Vacancy treats death like a curtain that, once fallen, allows our memories and ideas of who a person was to supplant who they really were. As a consequence of this, our perceptions of the people and events that unfold in the book are all colored by the uncertainty of not knowing firsthand what kind of person Barry was. In running against the grain of Rowling’s original work, the series has truly missed part of what made it so poignant.

Similarly-minded decisions that drive the series’ analysis of class struggle continue this trend. One of the novel’s defining conceits is the way it frames traditional British country life through the perspectives of those who don’t fit in it and the series puts all its chips on Krystal Weedon in this regard. Entire characters like Sukhvinder are diminished to being clumsy framing-devices, and the consequences on the narrative’s greater message are devastating.

If anything has been lost from The Casual Vacancy through the process of adaption, it’s the story’s bite. Sarah Phelps has succeeded in bringing Rowling’s contemporary drama to television, but in doing so she’s sanded away the sharp corners and personal complications that made the book so memorable.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.