Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dystopian Depair: The Book

Vacation time is, among other things, a great time to read more. My vacation reading this summer has included some serious public policy stuff (Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices) and the latest Susanna Gregory "Matthew Bartholomew" medieval mystery (Death of a Scholar). And, thanks to the HBO series The Leftovers, I have included the book by that name on which the series is based as my in-flight Kindle reading.

Unlike, say, P,D. James' Children of Men, which I had read and enjoyed long before seeing the movie version, my guess is that I probably might never have read The Leftovers had my interest not been sparked by the TV show. As dystopias go, other than the bizarre premise (the sudden rapture-like disappearance of 2% of the world's population), The Leftovers does not challenge the imagination very much. Rather it uncovers the increasingly obvious fissures and dysfunctions that are very much a part of our ordinary world. Indeed, what makes it interesting is how it uses an unprecedented crisis not to bring out the good or the best in people but to highlight the sadness of so much of ordinary life, the apparent despair that seems so many modern people's daily lot..

It is always interesting, however, to compare a book with its on-screen adaptations. So far, I've only seen three episodes of the TV series. So an overall comparison is not yet possible. But some differences do stand out. For one thing, TV's Police Chief Kevin Garvey is in the book an ordinary business man and the towns's recently elected mayor (although that seems to make him less of a really public figure than his TV role makes him). Made-for-TV characters like Lucy, the town's foul-mouthed mayor, and Kevin Senior, the institutionalized former Chief, are completely absent from the book. (Of course, almost everyone is more foul-mouthed in the series than in the book. HBO seems to revel - in an almost adolescent way - in being able to say what cannot be said on regular commercial networks, so much so that increasingly characters seem like vulgar caricatures who sound less and less like most actually recognizable ordinary people.)

Sadly, in the book, Rev. Jamison is a very minor, peripheral figure, publishing his obnoxious newsletter attacking the memory of the departed, but otherwise absent from the story's action. He gets none of the positive and more complex character development he got in the 3rd episode of the TV series. And, overall, the story is easier to follow in its print version. It is much clearer much earlier who is doing what and why (to the extent there can ever be an answer to why people behave in such socially destructive and personally dysfunctional ways).

Reading the book part-way through the TV series might seem to spoil it. After all, I now know how it all turns out. At least, I now know how the people the book turn out. (Spoiler alert: lots of unhappiness!) It remains to be seen still what twists and turns the TV characters' stories will take. My guess is that in the TV version, as in the book, everyone gets to be sad and unhappy in his or her own way!

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