The Casual Vacancy (BBC adaptation)

02 Mar

AKA “why the fuck is there an adaptation of this shit”. Well, aside from the obvious cash cow milking. Contains spoilers, if anyone cares. Warnings, if for some reason you force yourself to endure it, for domestic abuse, child abuse, fat shaming, depression shaming, and of course rape. Because this is Rowling writing grown-up books.

I’ll be honest, I barely remember the book. I only read it once, a couple of years ago, and disposed of it very quickly as soon as I’d struggled to the final page. As Dorothy Parker once said, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” My brief recap of the book and why I think so poorly of it can be found HERE. So this review is going to be a bit short on commentary since I don’t really know how it stands up to the original; it’s also likely to be pretty biased because I was so disgusted by the book that there was really no chance of me liking this.

That said, the writeup in the TV listings magazine said that the person adapting it had made several bold changes, which I hoped would mean no gratuitous victim-blaming rape scene and a sensible ending. Let’s see if this optimism was warranted, shall we? It’s a three-parter but due to sheer lack of interesting commentary all three parts will be condensed into one post.

Incidentally, Sir Michael Gambon is in this, as a minor character I don’t remember anything about. I think having Dumbledore here (Dumbledore v2.0, at least) pretty much says everything that needs to be said. He’s also playing a racist, classist, manipulative snobbish wanker again, though his emotional abuse is restricted to one person, his unpleasant prejudices are more blatant, and we’re spared everyone else insisting that he’s wonderful.

So, part one. It seems that this adaptation has the same structure as the original book in that the first third is just introducing the cast and seeing the start of everyone’s reactions to Barry’s (hilariously overdramatic) death. Nothing really happened – as an example of the pacing, it was four and a half minutes before anyone said anything. Four and a half minutes with no dialogue. The characters are still one-dimensional clichés with no real substance and all thoroughly unlikeable, their stories are still full of gratuitous attempts at Drama! and I still don’t really care. We also still have blatant slut-shaming, obnoxious judgemental classism, and various other nastiness. So far it seems there were no ‘bold changes’, except that they didn’t kill Barry right at the beginning but tried to show a bit of him onscreen first so the viewers would care 0.0001% more than the readers did. And I’m no longer optimistic about them removing the rape scene, since the eventual victim is being made to look even less sympathetic than I remember and I can’t help but worry that they’re working up to ‘she deserved it’. Next episode should hopefully be better, though, since the middle third of the book was actually fairly good.

Part two, then. At least it doesn’t take so long to get going this time. And as with the book, now we know who all the characters are, it’s a lot more tolerable for the most part. The Drama! was all demonstrated in the first episode as part of the introductions and a lot of it gets ignored completely here in favour of the plot, which is a big improvement. And Krystal, our eventual victim, is being shown quite a bit more sympathetically this time, though I’m still not convinced they’re going to handle her storyline well next episode and she really does get treated like shit. One of the main offenders of the book is more of a bastard than I recall too, which I approve of since everything he did was whitewashed in the original from what I remember.

The writer of this adaptation has tried, I’ll say that. They’ve softened some of the worst bits, and they’re trying to make other bits funny or otherwise entertaining, and there are a couple of decent scenes; but the original subject matter just isn’t there, the characters are terrible, and they’d have done better to try an original script loosely based on the book.

And to leave the sex out. That was just sad.

They should also have left out a really weird dream sequence that seems to have existed purely to title-drop and babble about death. I don’t really remember that being in the original, but it certainly sounds a bit like Rowling, which isn’t a compliment.

And finally part three, covering the section of the book that drove me to a state of bloody fury. Let’s see just how bad this gets, shall we?

Another slow start, more dullness. I do like the way they’re handling one of the teenagers this time, they’ve made him look like the total bastard that he is, whereas the book whitewashed it all and tried to make him sympathetic. And I like the way they’ve handled one of the adults, Krystal’s social worker; she was pretty pathetic in the book and spent most of her time chasing a commitment-phobic guy who wasn’t interested in anything but sex. They didn’t include his character and let her be competent and pleasant. And Krystal and her druggie mother are being given actual characterisation and balance, they’re not just a label screaming POOR PEOPLE ARE TERRIBLE.

Sadly they did seriously minimise one of the few characters I actually liked, one of the teens. I’d have liked to see more of him, he was fairly decent.

…well. They’ve made Krystal decide to get pregnant before being assaulted, at least. She’s actually lying about being pregnant because she’s hoping her ex-boyfriend’s mother will look after her and her little brother so she won’t have to live with her junkie mother and the constant threat of rape from the drug dealer. And while she’s fighting with her ex, her brother falls in the river. So it seems like we’re not going to get the rape scene after all? Praise zombie Jesus.

Oh. And Krystal drowns trying to find him in the river. Which is what I thought I remembered happening in the original. And then we see that her brother was rescued by someone else and doesn’t die as in the book. So Krystal dies for no reason, and yet this is still so much better than her canon storyline – where she’s raped, immediately (within five minutes) decides it’s inspired her to get pregnant to get a council house, shows no actual trauma at all, then gets her brother killed through neglect and commits suicide afterwards.

And we actually get a bit of follow-through where some of the characters seem to decide not to be terrible people any more. Unlike the book, which just stopped a page or two after the deaths.

Is this better than the book?

Sort of. The bad bits are still bad, which spoils it. But they removed the horrible victim-blaming rape scene! And they’ve cut out a lot of the more pointless and irritating bits, and trimmed down the cast a bit so it’s easier to focus on who’s who. And as with most adaptations of badly written books, just getting rid of the characters’ inner monologue helps a lot. The cast is mostly pretty good too, though surprisingly one of the best actors is the little kid. And as I said above, some of the characters have been written much more positively. They stripped out the stupid and unpleasant victim-blaming depiction of bullying, too.

But it’s not really enough to make up for the bad bits. And if they were going to change the ending it would have been nice to keep Krystal alive, she existed purely for everyone to shit on. The point of the ending, if there was a point, was that the tragedy allegedly shocked everyone to their senses, and there were so many others they could have killed off if that’s what they wanted.

Anyone not from the UK – not that I think this was good enough to ever be made available outside the UK – you could probably sit through at least part of it just to see what middle-class villages and lower-class social housing estates look like, since that’s always hard to describe, and to hear some different regional English accents, but it’s not really worth the effort.

Overall verdict: they did a very good job with some very bad material. It’s not interesting enough to watch, particularly, but it’s not terrible.

[Harry Potter posts will resume as soon as possible. The next chapter is in the process of being drafted, but once we got started we found something to criticise in virtually every paragraph, so it’s going to take a while!]


Posted by on March 2, 2015 in loten


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3 responses to “The Casual Vacancy (BBC adaptation)

  1. DawnM

    March 10, 2015 at 12:02 am

    The ending sounds so much better than the hideous train-wreck of misery which is the book. Which really says something.

    • Loten

      March 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm

      That’s the perfect description, yes!

  2. Kirk Engstrom

    February 6, 2018 at 3:38 am

    I respect your right to have an opinion, but I really don’t agree with the idea that the rape scene in The Casual Vacancy was in any way victim-blaming. I think it’s clear we were meant to be sympathetic to Krystal and any reader would realize Obbo was the one at fault. (I don’t see how Sukhvinder was victim-blamed for her bullying at the hands of Fats, either.)

    I don’t think Fats was whitewashed in the novel, either. He was a very flawed and immature character, and a bully who disrespected his parents, his friend, and used Krystal for sex (though this was basically mutual on both sides). But Rowling was trying to show that even he wasn’t beyond redemption and the moment when he came to grips with the fact that his actions led to a 3-year-old’s death and a teenage girl committing suicide was what made him “wake up” and realize that his actions have consequences and his so-called “authentic” philosophy was harmful bullshit. He was partially responsible for what happened because he agreed to have sex with Krystal on the riverbank and leave Robbie unsupervised, but he wasn’t completely responsible. (It was Krystal who proposed the idea.) In both versions, at any rate, his mother is shown to be at fault for guilt-tripping him about it long after he had descended into self-blame. Here, I think Fats has basically no reason to feel guilty about Krystal’s death, actually, because he wasn’t responsible for her drowning herself and it’s not his fault she (here pointlessly) left Robbie unattended. He didn’t even know Robbie was there! And in my opinion, he’s far more one-dimensional here than in the book due to the ABSENCE of his inner monologue!

    And I would like to stick up for Kay. She is shown in the book to be a woman of principles who tries to help Krystal and Terri, and fight for the addiction clinic being kept open. I also don’t agree that Gavin “wasn’t interested in anything but sex.” Gavin never shows an interest in even having sex with Kay in the book, and only sticks around with her because he was too cowardly to tell her how he felt about their relationship until she forced him on it. (Kay also had a great moment at the end of the book, when Gavin calls trying to hook up with her again and she simply hangs up on him.)

    Krystal’s plan to get pregnant to get a council house was, I think, an act of desperation on her part, to get herself and her brother out of the horrible living environment, and I think she does show rape trauma in the book when she panics at seeing Obbo in the house again and immediately flees with her brother.

    And the book did include a few moments of redemption, for Fats and Samantha at any rate, and possibly a few hours. I don’t think the miniseries added much here.

    Yeah, in any case, you can’t tell, I was not a big fan of this miniseries at all, and do agree it’s not interesting enough to watch. I enjoyed hearing your opinion, though. It gave me much to think about, and I’ll include my thoughts in full here:

    (Also, the dream sequence was fucking horrible and a mockery to subtlety and the idea of symbolism having any kind of real depth, and it did not appear in the original book, which never really even touched the idea of someone fearing their own mortality. The closest we got was with Simon in the beginning, but he mostly shrugs it off, too.)


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