Last week I gushed over the prospect of the upcoming BBC mini-series adaptation of Susanna Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a rich and textured novel that could only be done justice by such a format. I'm finding it hard to be as enthusiastic over the news that The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling's adult follow-up to the Harry Potter series, will also be adapted into a BBC mini-series come 2014.
I didn't feel up to joining the chorus of critics that panned Rowling's first adult novel, and so I didn't write a review of it when I found myself quite shocked to have rather disliked it. I suppose this post will serve as my late review, and upon reflection, the book isn't that bad. There are some beautifully nuanced characterizations and a very precise sense of place in The Casual Vacancy, a book about a small town in England thrown into upheaval when one of the city councilmen suffers an aneurysm. His death creates a vacancy on the council that is highly coveted by most everyone in town, and depending on who wins his spot, politics in Pagford could get very ugly.
It's a sometimes charming, sometimes quite dark little story. So why the critical piling-on, and why don't I wish to see it adapted into a mini-series? Well, because essentially nothing happens in this book. The Casual Vacancy offers 512 pages in which very little occurs, unlike, for instance, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an 800-page opus in which so, so much takes place. Strange & Norrell must be a mini-series in order to capture every adventure, every minute chronicle, every subtlety. The Casual Vacancy would actually benefit from being shortened into the length of a feature film, eliminating some of Rowling's more tiresome tangents.
The Casual Vacancy failed to capture me because Rowling seemed to make it almost deliberately banal, as if rebelling from her name-making career as the creator of one of fiction's most magical universes. And I realize in saying this, particularly in comparison to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, it seems as if I'm only interested in fiction that includes some sort of magic, but in a way, that's true. I just don't mean literal magic.
What The Casual Vacancy lacks is that transformative magic that can deliver a reader into an entirely new world. The Casual Vacancy, while well-written and clever, is not absorbing. Regardless of any other flaws someone might find in Rowling's Harry Potter books, no one could ever accuse them of being detached, and yet that's the exact word I would use to describe The Casual Vacancy. Rowling gives a clear-eyed and believable depiction of humanity in all forms, from the rowdiest teenager to the primmest middle-aged housewife, but she holds these characters at arm's length. She cares nothing for any of her creations in this book, and so how can we?
It's not that The Casual Vacancy is bleak, although it is that. I like bleak. I like McCarthy and Dostoevsky and Hardy. It's only that the book is so intentionally mundane. I find myself at a loss to imagine what action could be contained in multiple episodes adapting it. I feel like most of the mini-series is just going to be people staring at each other over tea. And as up my alley as that description actually sounds, I'll be quite surprised if I enjoy it this time.