Before I begin, I should point out how I’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen any of the movie adaptations. To me J.K. Rowling was identifiable for creating a cultural phenomenon that’d I’d deliberately swerved. I’ve just never been drawn to wizards and dragons. Not that I haven’t ever read fantasy novels, but the idea of getting on the Potter bandwagon never appealed. The dismay people gave me was always followed up with: “Read them. You’ll enjoy them. She’s a good writer.” It was the final part of that endorsement which made me pick up The Casual Vacancy.
Upon its release it received a mixed reception, as one would expect from a children’s author dipping their toe into the world of adult novels. The endorsement from Stephen King – my favourite author of all time – made me take notice. He had always preached the power of great story telling. Surely children’s books are the purest form of this. So I approached the tale regarding the fictional town of Pagford with the idea it’d be a simple yarn. Pure storytelling. It was much more than this.
To cut to the chase – in my opinion – it represents a turn as a literary piece. The best evidence of this is how the snobbish literary reviewers tried to pan it. There’s nothing more they hate than a commercial author stepping on their toes. Had the authors name been the always excellent Julian Barnes we’d have seen a different response. Other negative comments could stem from the dark themes that casual fans hadn’t been prepared for.
One review I saw lambasted Rowling for using the word “cunt.” The implication being, she used it to enforce an adult view, that it wasn’t her natural mode. I’d argue that a novel focusing on addiction, rape, and neglect quite easily can use the word as a matter of course. As for the grimy nature, that’s life. She wasn’t giving us a Disney version of the world.
Her master stroke is how she makes each person’s individual struggle relevant whilst keeping everything graded correctly in the larger context. Samantha Mollison’s bland life, passionless marriage, could easily seem trivial compared to the struggles of Krystal Weedon, but we can see the personal loss in both. Admittedly, the story of Krystal is the one that will move you most.
This weekend the BBC starts their three-part version of show, which was produced in partnership with HBO. Early reports indicate they have given it a lighter ending. This aside, I’m hopeful they do the novel justice. They have a strong cast including Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes and Rory Kinnear. It will be a tall order to condense the thirty-plus characters from the book into a television show and maintain the feel of depth across them all.
The book may have been underappreciated and this new show may not be one for the mass audience. But the rewards will be rich if it meets the standards of the novel. For those that fail to connect: there’s always the Harry Potter movies.
(Main photo: Chloë Walker, Flickr.)