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The Casual Vacancy: My take on the book by J.K. Rowling #book2movie

I wish I liked the book more. I didn't hate it but I didn't love it and I wanted, very much to love it. In our house, we'd read JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to our son when it was first published in 1997.  He was four when we started that first book and like millions of children the world over was utterly enchanted by the witchy world JK Rowling created. Over the years we took him and his friends - in various degrees of costumed finery - to all the midnight book parties. He grew up with Harry, read all the books, saw all the movies. I'll never forget the summer he spent at a performing arts camp putting on a sort of bastardized Harry Potter play; he was cast as Ron Weasley and insisted we tint his hair red for the show.   

I'm telling you this so you understand just how much I wanted to be enchanted by JK Rowling's  'adult' novel, The Casual Vacancy. The author was such a huge literary presence in my household and in a weird way I felt like I owed it to her. Besides, while fantasy isn't my favorite genre I had no doubt about Rowling's abilities as a writer. Anyone who could create the magical world Harry resides in should have no trouble making the happenings in an ordinary British town compelling, right? 

So I finally got around to reading the novel which was published back in 2012. And instead of staying up too late reading Rowling (like my son had), instead of flying through Rowling's pages (like my son had), I found myself all too easily putting Rowling's book aside. Initially it was because it was difficult to get a handle on the large cast of characters; who was who, who knew who, what were their intentions, who was the 'Harry Potter' of the bunch, if you will. Except there wasn't a Harry Potter, no heroic protagonist to follow with all your heart and soul. That's in keeping with mainstream grownup fiction of course. As adults we enjoy reading fiction that feels real, seeing characters relate to each other and grapple with the relationship and familial issues that we all face, the problems and politics of our own lives, if you will. In The Casual Vacancy there are plenty of those people problems but no magic wands, and very little, if any, magic. The closest thing we have to our Harry is the almost mythically good Barry Fairbrother who is basically dead on arrival, the novel opens with the most popular man in Pagford collapsing on a golf course. 

His death is 'the casual vacancy' the title refers to as Fairbrother sits on the town's council and his passing means there will have to be an election and his replacement voted in. What follows is how the townspeople of Pagford respond to those who step forward to take his place, how the people of Pagford and the residents of 'the fields,' the nearby low income neighborhood that many - but not Fairbrother - want to be rid of, move forward and navigate their way without the calming, caring presence of Fairbrother himself. 

And therein lies the rub, as they say. Because in this large cast of characters, the absent Fairbrother often feels like the only good guy in the room. The rest of them, like the rest of us, are riddled with flaws and so many petty selfish concerns that it's difficult to really like any of them. Arrogant and entitled community leaders, brutish fathers, unfit mothers, myopic men, weak women, junkies, and a handful of teens, helplessly, hopelessly trying to find themselves amidst all the adult shenanigans. 

Not that the teens aren't up to the usual stuff, there is sex and inappropriate acting out and disgust at the hapless adults who rule over their lives, but perhaps because Rowling truly has an affinity for her younger characters, the kids are the solitary saving grace of the book.  My favorite of these is Krystal, a sixteen year old from the Fields fighting a losing battle to keep her baby brother out of foster care because her mother is a junkie who just can not get the heroin monkey off her back. She was also a favorite of Fairbrother who got her on the school's rowing team. He's one of the few, perhaps only, people to offer her any encouragement. What will become of Krystal without him? 

In the film It's a Wonderful Life we see what would happen to the people of Bedford Falls if George Bailey had never been born, and it's a beautiful thing to see how one person's presence can change another's course. In The Casual Vacancy we see what does happen to the people of Pagford without Barry Fairbrother. Frankly it's not that beautiful or heartening, in fact, it's downright depressing.  It's a Wonderful Life may be fantasy, but right now I'm wishing Rowling had stuck to that genre. She did an amazing job in painting a vivid picture of Harry et al and their days at Hogwarts but when it comes to the Muggles of Pagford, the picture gets a bit muddled. So many people seem to do the absolutely wrong thing that it makes you want to scream. Ultimately though, like many of the citizenry of Pagford, I just didn't care enough.

It's not all bad news for me though because I do think it will make an excellent television series. All that pathos and drama makes for great, yep,  drama. And as you know, I wouldn't be writing about The Casual Vacancy if a movie or television show based on the book wasn't in the works. I gave you a casting update back in June, now the BBC/HBO collaboration has actually started filming in the Cotswalds which looks picture perfect from where I sit across the pond. 

If you want to see who is playing who, I found a guide to the characters over at Hypable.com and I've gone ahead and plugged in the actor who is playing each part from the cast list on imdb.com. There are a few notable holes which I've indicated with an empty bracket [   ] If you've read the book, take a gander and let me know what you think.

For us Americans, the British cast offers few familiar names; Michael Gambon (Howard Mollison) - speaking of Harry Potter movies-, Rory Kinnear (Barry Fairbrother) whose work I know from the movie Broken based Daniel Clay's novel, but I have a very strong feeling that when we see the actors on screen we'll all have plenty of "Oh him! Or "Oh her! I saw that actor in ..." moments. Thoughts?

All images as credited/ via the Daily Mail online.

With thanks to Michael Schick at Hypable, here's The Casual Vacancy cast of characters:

Here is a quick, comprehensive guide to the good (and not so good) people of Pagford. Major characters are given in bold; family members and bit-players are given in italics. An asterisk notates an important associate of a family member.

The Fairbrother family

Barry Fairbrother [Rory Kinnear]– Member of the Pagford Parish Council and coach of the Winterdown girls rowing team. Might need a doctor shortly.

Mary Fairbrother [      ]– His wife.
Fergus – Their oldest son.
Niamh and Siobhan – Their twin daughters.
Declan – Their youngest son.
*Gavin Hughs [     ]– Barry Fairbrother’s very close friend and squash partner. A lawyer in practice with Miles Mollison, in a complicated relationship with Kay Bawden.

The Mollison family

Howard Mollison [Michael Gambon] – Member of the Pagford Parish Council, owner of the town delicatessen. Number-one fan of Pagford.

Shirley Mollison [Julia McKenzie] – His wife. Also a member of the Pagford Parish Council and administrator of its website.
Miles Mollison [Rufus Jones] - Their son, a lawyer. Partners with Gavin Hughs.
Samantha Mollison [Keely Hawes] – Miles’ wife, owns a shop in Yarvil.
Libby and Lexie – Miles and Samantha’s daughters who attend school outside of Pagford.
Patricia Mollison – Howard and Shirley’s daughter. Lives in London; “rarely mentioned.”
*Maureen Lowe [      ]– Howard Mollison’s business partner in the delicatessen, in place of her deceased husband. Catholic and aging.

The Jawanda family

Parminder Jawanda [Lolita Shakrabarti] – Member of the Pagford Parish Council, physician in Pagford. Close friends with Barry Fairbrother and Tessa Wall.

Vikram Jawanda [Silas Carson] – Her husband, a thoracic surgeon.
Jaswent Jawanda – Their oldest daughter.
Sukhvinder Jawanda [Ria Chooney]– Their middle child. Unpopular, recently befriended by Gaia Bawden. Member of the Winterdown girl’s rowing team coached by Barry Fairbrother.
Rajpal Jawanda – Their youngest son.

The Wall family

Tessa Wall [Monica Dolan]– Guidance councillor at Winterdown, close friends with the Fairbrothers

Colin “Cubby” Wall [Simon McBurney] – Her husband, deputy headmaster at Winterdown. Considers Barry Fairbrother one of his closest friends.
Stuart “Fats” Wall [      ] Their son. Best friends with Andrew Price.

The Price family

Ruth Price [Mary Critchley] – A nurse at Southwest General Hospital. Friends with Shirley Mollison.

Simon Price [Richard Glover] – Her husband, works at the local printer.
Andrew “Arf” Price [Joe Hurst] – Their older son, best mates with Fats Wall. Fixated on Gaia Bawden.
Paul Price – Their younger son.

The Bawden family

Kay Bawden [Michele Austin] – A social worker recently relocated to Pagford from London to pursue her relationship with Gavin Hughs. Given charge of the Wheedon case.

Gaia Bawden [Simona Brown] – Her daughter. Deeply antagonistic to her mother, Gavin and Pagford, but has befriended Sukhvinder Jawanda.

The Wheedon family

Krystal Wheedon [Abigail Bawden] – Troubled and troublemaking teen from the Fields, bussed in to attend Winterdown. A member of the rowing team, beginning to bond with Barry Fairbrother. Receives counseling from Tessa Wall.

Terri Wheedon [Keely Forsyth] – Her mother, a heroin addict enrolled in the Fields addiction clinic.
Robbie Wheedon [     ]– Krystal’s three-year-old half-brother. His care usually falls to Krystal, who is determined not to lose him to foster care.
Catherine Wheedon, “Nana Cath” – Krystal’s great grandmother and occasional guardian.