J.K. Rowling, the immensely successful writer of Harry Potter who could seemingly do no wrong, has had a story of hers significantly edited by the BBC.
In adapting The Casual Vacancy – Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction after Harry Potter – for the television screen, screenwriter Sarah Phelps changed the ending. She decided the book was too “grim,” and viewers needed “some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all.”
Phelps, who has previously worked adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (but didn’t change the endings of those), said the climax to the novel, published in 2012, was too bleak.
Rowling’s story is about a community of social classes in conflict over the community center in a fictional English town, home to social services including a drug rehabilitation center and a food bank.
Sarah Phelps spoke to the Radio Times.
“What works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learned on EastEnders that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage. If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be reward. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of shits; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.”
So how did J.K. Rowling herself take the news of her story being so changed?
“I was very straight with Jo and told her that I needed to write a different ending. It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.
And was that at all scary for Phelps, facing someone of Rowling’s stature?
“It’s one thing adapting a writer who’s been dead for a century or so, but when you have a writer who is not only very much living and breathing but who is as phenomenally successful as J.K. Rowling the dynamic is rather different.”
Phelps also said that Rowling had been “exceptionally generous” about the three-part HBO co-production, which stars Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes, Julia McKenzie and Rory Kinnear and begins on BBC1 this Sunday February 15.
A preview in the Guardian has suggested the television adaptation could be an improvement on the book, saying the show has a “definite ring of Midsomer Mugglemarch about it.”
While she’s been increasingly vocal on Twitter recently, J.K. Rowling herself has appeared to pass no direct comment on the changes until now.
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