When J.K. Rowling came out with a new book post-Potter, many were not receptive to her story. I mean, she is clearly destined to write in the Harry Potter universe for the rest of her life! So while many warned me about her new book, I jumped into the pages willingly. And I’m so glad I did.
The Casual Vacancy provides an idyllic setting for a seedy and complex story. I wrote about my dream casting when I found out HBO and the BBC were teaming up to film. Now that the finished product has been revealed, let’s discuss.
The basic story revolves around the sudden death of a parish council member and the ensuing fight of candidates to fill the seat, particularly to address a polarizing issue. The novel which spans over 500 pages was condensed into three episodes.
The first episode starts by laying the foundation of the conflict on the parish council. One side wants to preserve an old building for the programs it houses for the poor of the community. One side wants to redo the building for a spa to bring more economy to the town. Barry Fairbrother, played by Rory Kinnear, is crusading to help the poor of the county. His untimely death shakes the community. The episode does well introducing characters, though some things have been tweaked.
What I appreciated about this episode is that the death does not take place immediately as it does in the book. Instead, we get a chance to have some groundwork for why the community is warring over this one issue and who is on each side. As the sides race to fill the empty seat with an ally, new candidates emerge. One of which is Simon Price, played by Richard Glover, who is Barry’s half brother. This connection does not exist in the book and felt rather forced to me in the show. Another candidate is Miles Mollison (Rufus Jones) whose council seat holding parents Howard and Shirley (Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie) control ruthlessly, much to the disappointment of his wife, Samantha (Keeley Hawes).
The second episode continues exhibiting the effect Barry had on some lives in Pagford. For instance his connection with the destitute Krystal Weedon, portrayed by Abigail Lawrie, is explained more in depth. To me, Krystal is the most real and honest character of the show because of the immense pressure and hardship she has. To deal with her drug addicted mother and taking care of her little brother Robbie is no easy feat and so much of her making it was due to Barry’s help.
As Barry is laid to rest, a blogger surfaces and begins making accusations about Simon Price and his council running. We already know the identity of the blogger, his son Andrew Price (Joe Hurst), which is another facet different from the book. The identity of the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother is not so quickly revealed. In fact, three different hackers post as the Ghost, though in the show we know of only two. The other poster is discovered to be Stuart Wall (Brian Vernel) who also uses the internet to shame his father Colin Wall’s (Simon McBurney) council race.
The third and last episode exhibits the final push in the fight for the council seat. The election occurs and the result is…well obviously I’m not going to tell you who wins! But scandal does come to Pagford because the Ghost sees all. Krystal’s mom Terri (Keeley Forsyth) has a slight turn around, and Krystal hopes things might be improving. However, the return of her dealer ruins that and Krystal attempts to get away with Robbie. In her attempt to seek help from Stuart Wall, Robbie wanders down to a river and when Krystal goes looking for him, he is gone. Krystal dives in to save him and she dies. We then find out a local doctor Vikram Jawanda (Silas Carson) picked him up while out running. This plot is completely different from the book. In the book, Vikram’s daughter Sukhvinder Jawanda (Ria Choony) dives into the river to save Robbie when he falls in and doesn’t manage to save him. Krystal then overdoses on drugs because of the grief. This change is the one way the show really disappointed me because it brings Krystal’s character full circle to the life she’s been trying to get away from.
Sukhvinder’s character has also been minimized. She plays an outside perspective of narrator while in the novel she is the third hacker who tries to tell the world how her council woman mother Parminder (Lolita Chakrabarti) was in love with Barry. Her struggle under the glow of her older siblings (not present in the show) leads to self harm which is a valuable story to share with youth.
Overall, the series holds true to the book well. With over 500 pages, there is a lot to condense. The cinematography is absolutely fantastic and creates the beautiful, idyllic feeling of Pagford. If not for the political turmoil, I’d move there tomorrow. J.K. Rowling followed up Harry Potter with a very un-Potter story. It’s dark and gritty and sexual and disturbing. Because that is what people really are. While some find fault, I think it proves she’s capable of providing different stories for every age.
For further insight here is an “Invitation to the Set.” And remember you can find the HBO Miniseries: The Casual Vacancy across HBO’s channels and on HBOGo/HBONow.