Imagine the Dursleys from Harry Potter, locking their orphan nephew beneath the stairs and generally abusing him — but with no magical realm into which the boy can escape. That is the prevailing tone of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a realist tragedy laced with dark comedy. The novel, which uses a parish council election to highlight abuses, hypocrisies, and injustices in a small town, recalls the 19th-century novelists: the detailed social dissection of George Eliot, the righteous fury of Dickens, the sharp, equal-opportunity satire of Anthony Trollope, the fatalistic bleakness of Thomas Hardy. Tonight, as if in homage to its eminently adaptable forbears, The Casual Vacancy (which premiered on the BBC) begins airing as a miniseries on HBO. The adaptation, while imperfect, highlights the best aspect of the novel: Rowling’s energetic indictment of bourgeois apathy and her championing of the downtrodden.
Giving The Casual Vacancy the lush miniseries treatment, with exquisite actors, brings out the progressive impulse that underlies Rowling’s novel, while trimming some of her linguistic excesses, as well as the over-the-top scenes in which she piles on the sex and drugs, clearly delighted to be free from the rules of YA lit. And in some ways it’s a treat. There’s nothing more beautiful than a BBC opening credits sequence: lush green fields, cameras panning over church towers, haunting music, a signal that you are about to watch something meaningful and important. The Casual Vacancy does offer us something meaningful in its a full-throated defense of the welfare state and close examination of small cruelties to one’s neighbors feeding into larger social ills.
In one of the opening scenes, actors Julia McKenzie (known for portraying Mrs. Marple) and Michael Gambon (aka Professor Dumbledore) lie in bed together, appearing to be the sort of bumbling older couple we rely on for sympathy and comic relief. But they end up being the common, grotesque villains of the miniseries, whose interest lies in “herding people into ghettos because they don’t fit the aesthetic,” according to their nemesis, Barry Fairbrother. The series’ plot gets underway when Fairbrother, the valiant liberal crusader of the town, drops dead and Pagford grows bitterly divided over his open seat (the vacancy of the title). Online sabotage and in-person hostilities ensue, and no one is innocent. “Set your sights a bit lower,” one character says to another, and that seems to be the motto of too many people in the bucolic-appearing Pagford — and indeed, Rowling would probably add, in the world at large.
The faction that follows in Fairbrother’s footsteps is attempting to save the Fields, a public housing estate to which Barry was devoted, and the social services. They stand (or nominate) the cowardly school principal, Colin Wall, for the seat. The others, led by Gambon and McKenzie’s Mollisons, are trying to “clean up” the town (and please the gentry) by bringing in a spa to replace those services. They stand their infantile, middle-aged son Miles for the council seat as their proxy — and you can see how much delight these two fabulous actors derive from portraying unrepentant baddies. Sadly, none of the do-gooders in town have Fairbrother’s integrity, and as egos comically butt against each other, the most vulnerable people in the town suffer, particularly young Krystal, played by newcomer Abigail Rawling. Krystal’s mother is a junkie who’s in charge of her younger brother and keeps herself occupied staving off social services, chasing off her mom’s dealer, and hoping the advances of local boys mean they really like her and aren’t just using her. She breaks your heart; if you’re looking for the 19th-century-style tragic heroine, you’ve found her.
By employing flashbacks to Fairbrother’s previous ministrations on behalf of all the rejects and sad teens in town, the miniseries heavy-handedly explores how much of “the system working” depends on the sheer will of good people, and how those kinds of everyday heroic efforts are exhausting, to the point of bringing Fairbrother to an untimely death. Yet his loss seems to suck up all the goodwill in town. In his absence, Pagford seems filled only with awful parents — abusive, negligent, incompetent, and cruel — and tortured teens, so much so that the series might as well be titled “grownups are hypocrites.” Some of the novel’s awful characters are made almost likable here, notably the spouses of the candidates: Keeley Hawes as deliciously rebellious daughter-in-law Samantha Mollison and Monica Dolan as kindly Tess Wall. Yet it’s missing the spark of heart that was so present in the Harry Potter series; there’s not a single even moderately happy marriage or parent-child relationship to ground us, and to make us forgive some of the more laughable plot points.
Yet one still wants to shake one’s fist at Rowling’s editors: If the story had been tighter and just a tad less relentlessly grim, this adaptation might have soared further. I recall a sentence from Ian Parker’s profile of Rowling in the New Yorker: “Some sentences cause you to picture a Little, Brown editor starting to dial Rowling’s number, then slowly putting down the handset.”
As it is, The Casual Vacancy remains engrossing and worth watching, full of Rowling’s kinetic potential as a storyteller married to a beautifully-rendered production. The moments in which Rowling’s Dickensian moral vision is animated by the cast are poignant. In truth, the screen may be even more more effective than the book at bringing that vision to life. Teenage Krystal secretly weeping when her junkie mother, clean for a hopeful moment, says, “You’re a right good girl,” has all the tear-jerking subtlety of a Victorian orphan on her deathbed, but also all the shaming moral power. As the credits rolled, I was left musing less over Rowling’s shortcomings, and more over her courageous to attempt to tell this type of angry yet humanistic story in a contemporary setting.