‘The Leftovers’ Transforms Tom Perrotta’s Hero Into a TV Antihero — and It Works


With the exception of Election, Tom Perrotta has had a hand in all the film and television adaptations of his works, even the ones that remained stuck in development hell. This means Perrotta not only has the opportunity to make sure his novels aren’t compromised, but he also has the chance to tell the same story in different ways, if he so chooses. For the most part, HBO’s brilliant adaptation of The Leftovers, which Perrotta co-writes with Lost‘s Damon Lindelof, has stuck to the source material. The series has, however, taken liberties with the character of Kevin Garvey (played by Justin Theroux), which has made for more engaging — and darker — viewing.

In the novel, Kevin Garvey is an ex-football star and current town mayor. Garvey is characterized as so nice and trusting that he basically lucked into the mayoral job. Originally, he was the owner of several successful local businesses, but after the Sudden Departure, and after the previous mayor had a psychotic break, the town was searching for someone to pin their hopes on, and Kevin was that person:

Then, just last year, out of the blue, he was presented with a petition signed by two hundred fellow citizens, many of whom he knew well: “We, the undersigned, are desperate for leadership in these dark times. Will you help us take back our town?” Touched by this appeal and feeling a bit lost himself—he’d sold the business for a small fortune a few months earlier, and still hadn’t figure out what to do next—he accepted the mayoral nomination of a newly formed political entity called the Hopeful Party.

He won the election but only plays a passive role in running the town. He takes simplistic, PTA-type steps to bring the town together (parades, singles mixers) but remains on the sidelines, offering comfort but little else, while everything goes to hell around him — including his own family. In the book, Garvey is a fascinating character, and it’s exciting to sift through his day-to-day actions, but that’s largely due to Perrotta’s prose, which picks up on Garvey’s internal monologue and inner conflicts. It’s a thoughtful, meditative novel that speaks to the unspoken aspects of grief, simultaneously wonderful and devastating, but its protagonist is too submissive to hold down a dramatic HBO series.

With The Leftovers television adaptation, Perrotta and Lindelof switched Garvey’s profession from mayor to chief of police (the mayor is now a black woman named Lucy, and even she is noticeably tougher than the book’s mayor). This switch wasn’t the original plan; in a new interview with Salon, Perrotta explains, “Damon and I wrote a draft in which Kevin was the mayor, and I think HBO was concerned that, in the simplest terms, that he was too nice a guy for a dark tentpole drama on Sunday nights, and that he was a little bit on the edge of the action.”

As the town’s mayor, Garvey watched everything happen around him. As the town’s police chief, he’s in the middle of everything, taking an active role in keeping the community together — and sometimes even causing more problems than he fixes. In the book, Garvey wants (and urges) everything to get back to normal; in the show, Garvey knows that normalcy isn’t an option.

Take the opening scene — in both versions — where the Guilty Remnant cult interrupts the Heroes Day parade. They show up with signs and stand quietly on the perimeter. At the end of the scene, and after the police are urged to leave them alone, Perrotta writes that “the people in white lowered their letters, turned around, and drifted back into the woods.” In the pilot episode, however, a riot ensues as citizens and officers find themselves in a violent, bloody battle. Garvey himself is involved, in a way that transforms him from the nice and calm mayor of the book to the show’s perpetually on-edge chief of police.

What’s most interesting are changes in Garvey’s very basic nature: Instead of the sad but aimless character in the book, Garvey is now more tense and angry. He yells, he argues, he throws punches, and he (unfortunately) murders dogs — where’s the “Hopeful Party” now? This isn’t the Garvey that readers are familiar with, but this is one of those rare instances where a faithful adaptation wouldn’t be as good or thought-provoking as a transformation.

It’s becoming almost cliché to place the “antihero” label on a TV character, but at this point, this type of protagonist has basically replaced the hero in prestige television. Almost overnight, TV seemed to abandon the simplistic good vs. bad narrative to instead provide viewers with characters who have more complex motives and inspire thrilling discussion. I’m sure it won’t be long until we hit peak antihero, with these once-fresh characters feeling used and recycled, but as of now? There’s no other way The Leftovers adaptation would work.