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.