When J.K. Rowling releases a new book, her publishers aren’t the only ones with dollar signs in their eyes. After the wildly successful Harry Potter film franchise raked in over $6.4 billion at the box office alone, there’s no doubt that movie studios are hoping The Casual Vacancy, which was released Thursday, will arrest audiences enough to justify adapting it for their medium.
Hollywood.com nabbed a copy of Rowling’s lengthy new novel, and it appears the Rowling name is the only magical thing about her new tale. While the sales will likely be fine thanks to her millions of rabid fans, the book is simply not fit for a big screen adaptation.
But once we arrive in Rowling’s Pagford, a small town butted up against a rougher city full of drug addicts and schemers, and witness the death of the man who seemed to be the town’s glue, Barry Fairbrother, the tone (and Rowling’s magical, cutesy naming scheme for that matter) no longer fits the setting. We’re not exploring the darker, more violent elements of a magical world gone wrong as we did in her last novel, Harry Potter and the Death Hallows. We’re smack dab in the middle of a small town full of real people with dark, troubling, yet relatively unexciting issues. The tone is simply ill-fitting for the banality of the story. Whimsical diction is not going to make something that’s average any better.
Her new work, however, does exactly that. From the second we enter this small town world, we’re greeted with death and vomit. Of course, that’s not to say some of the best books of recent years haven’t started with violence or grotesque elements, but Rowling’s seem arbitrary, serving little purpose beyond helping to convince us she’s not just a kids’ author.
These dark, disgusting elements could work, but we’re hard-pressed to forge a connection with any of her characters. Perhaps that’s because we have no anchor, no true protagonist. There’s something to be said for Rowling’s ability to create a full, robust landscape full of nooks and crannies and full-fledged characters at every turn. But reading through the small town problems of the people of Pagford feels a bit like looking at a map while listening to the town gossip. Sure, there are shocking and interesting pieces, but if you can find an excuse to steal away from the constant babbling, you will. The fact that her novel is so sprawling, with so many subsets of characters, all of whom are connected through a character who appears in only the first five pages is extremely problematic. We’re supposed to be focusing on the local election for the casual vacancy left by the deceased Barry, but what we get is a written reality show, following the petty dramas of the people implicated in the election.
This is where it becomes apparent that Casual Vacancy, while it may be on track to be a best-seller and it does come from a high literary pedigree, is not suited to become a film. There’s no focus, no one character to be our eyes into this fully-realized world. The events, however pedestrian, could gain a great deal of weight should we have the privilege of experiencing them through any sort of lens more specific than Rowling’s omniscient narrator. There’s no flow to the story; there’s no sense of any sort of beginning, middle, and end. The action simply is, just as the town in question simply is. Without spoiling the end, the action does ramp up a bit in the final pages, but there’s still no sense of center. It’s senseless, and it all magically seems to be happening at the most convenient time to serve the book well. But for all the time the book takes to set us up for this crowning moment, the sense of attachment to the characters involved is missing.
We’ve been watching them with the cold eye of a documentarian’s camera, simply taking in information without processing it. It’s a sensation that completely undermines the powerful elements the book attempts to include.
To enrapture a film audience, and a general one as most studios would hope to ensnare with a Rowling adaptation, the story needs a hook. Harry Potter was about magic, sure. But it’s hook was the incredible, deeply thoughtful little boy at its center. The story needs a linear backbone, a guide of sorts. And that backbone cannot be the detailed city map of teeny tiny town. A film needs a sense of propulsion, of moving forward, rather the sense of aimlessly wading through a sea of complications that don’t really affect one another unless they’re absurdly and clumsily brought together by the writer.
Fans will still flock to Rowling’s latest work, and for all its faults, its many Rowlingian comforts will likely stifle the sea of unpleasant reviews, but when the dollar bills settle and the book is deemed a hit, the movie chatter will begin. If filmmakers know what’s good for them (and they’re looking to avoid years and years of rewrites) they’d let this one stay out of the theater and nestled snugly on the bookself.
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