'The Leftovers' TV Book Club: What changed from page to screen

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Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Seen HBO’s The Leftovers, and want to chat about how it compares to Tom Perrotta’s original novel? You’re in luck—so do EW‘s Hillary Busis and Neil Janowitz. Their spoiler-heavy conversation—filled with thoughts on bleakness, the new Kevin, and creepy bronze baby statues—is below.

HILLARY: So you know that part in This Is Spinal Tap, where the guys in the band see the cover of their latest album for the first time? It’s just this shiny, blank, dark square, an empty void Nigel describes thusly: “There is something about this that’s so black. It’s like, ‘How much more black could this be?’ And the answer is: ‘None. None more black.’”

This, in short, is how I would describe HBO’s take on The Leftovers. How much bleaker could it be? None. None more bleak. The tone may come as a special surprise to anyone who has read Tom Perrotta’s original novel—which, granted, isn’t exactly a lighthearted romp, but doesn’t make you want to pull down the shades, crawl into bed, and never, ever get up again. There were a few bright-ish spots in the pilot; Tom and Christine bantering about The Bachelor made me excited to see how the show will develop their relationship, and the scene of Kevin being waylaid by that deer had a nice, magical eeriness. Oh, until the deer was RIPPED APART BY A PACK OF FERAL DOGS. Geez.

Am I overreacting, Neil, or does TV Leftovers seem like what’s left over when you rip away the book’s heart and humor? (I should add, at this point, that I actually really liked the series, and am eager to continue watching how it builds on Perrotta’s post-Departure world. I just don’t think it’s the type of show anyone could live through binge-watching.)

NEIL: Well, in fairness, the deer was guilty of breaking and entering, destruction of property, and, one could argue, jaywalking. I’m not saying that any creature ever deserves to be mauled by dogs, but this was not a buck beyond reproach.

That said: Although there was mention of dogs in the book, they never did any mauling. But just as the pilot elevated the presence of the strays into a disillusioning metaphorical arc—these are not our dogs, Hill—so too did it throw a morose-colored lens in front of pretty much every other thread from the book. And I get that. What makes for good TV? A town full of people who are, as Kevin puts it during the parade planning meeting (and, naturally, in the show’s trailer), “ready to f—ing explode.” What doesn’t so much make for good TV? A town full of people who are emotionally inert.

So I expected the tension to be ratcheted up for TV audiences. What I found surprising was how much violence made its way into the pilot. This town isn’t ready to explode—it’s already mid-detonation. The book’s peaceful (though uncomfortable) appearance by the GR on Heroes Day becomes a Game of Thrones-scale melee. An exasperated Melissa loogie on the face of a GR pursuer becomes a frenzied Liv Tyler slap assault. Kevin, while trying to see Laurie in the GR cul-de-sac, repeatedly punches the sentry, who then retaliates in form. Holy Wayne vaguely menaces Tom with a knife. Even Jill, who was depicted in the book as a bashful, vulnerable Thora-Birch-in-American-Beauty-type, is given a more aggressive, even petulant, ‘bo-throwing persona.

And then there’s the dogs. Goodbye Dudley, indeed.

I’m with you, though—I enjoyed the pilot and am looking forward to seeing where they take it. Am I worried about the book’s humor and heart sitting this one out? The former, maybe, but as far as the soul of the book goes, the thematic trajectory is still more or less the same (albeit with added turbulence). Of course, the primary source of both humor and heart in the book was Kevin, and he’s the most radically different character in the show. What do you make of the changes to our mayor-turned-lawman?

HILLARY: You’re right to single out increased violence as the greatest specific change from page to screen. (Another example: Tom’s college flashback, in which he watches helplessly as two students jump off a building.) And while I also get that a quiet meditation on grief doesn’t pack the same punch as actual punches, I’m not sure I’m fully on board with the show’s decision to change Kevin Garvey from a likable guy to somebody much more disturbed.

It’s all summed up in what each character does for a living. Book Kevin, an “ex–Mapleton High football star and prominent local businessman” who’s “a popular and highly visible figure around town,” is a politician—not the sleazy, self-promoting type that often turns up on TV, but a genuinely good-hearted sort who’s doing his best to keep Mapleton and his family from falling apart in the Sudden Departure’s wake. Book Kevin has layers and regrets—his relationship with Jill’s friend Aimee is one of the novel’s more troubling aspects, though Perrotta keeps things from crossing a line—but his fundamental decency never changes.

TV Kevin, on the other hand, isn’t a mayor but a cop—a shift that both gives the show an excuse to have him carry a gun around and also makes his simmering fury more understandable. Book Kevin doesn’t share much about his upbringing; TV Kevin seems like he might have some issues with his father, who was also Mapleton’s police chief once up on a time. (Damon Lindeloffism alert!) Book Kevin reacts calmly when he sees Laurie after she’s joined the Guilty Remnant, waiting until she comes to him and offering to feed her and her partner; TV Kevin rages at her, storming the group’s compound in a drunken rage. On one hand, volatility is inherently more dramatic than stability; on the other, I’m not sure whether TV really needs another effed-up antihero. What’s your take on the show’s Kevin—and its version of Laurie, for that matter? (We haven’t seen much of her yet, but I’m very impressed by how many emotions Amy Brenneman can express without saying a word.)

NEIL: When it comes to Kevin’s book-to-TV journey, there are two changes to assess: His job and his demeanor. We could have had volatile Kevin as a mayor, or we could have had good-hearted Kevin as a cop. Instead, it was a complete transformation.

I’m not sure what motivated the alteration of personality for the show, but I can see the value, both in terms of drama and world-building, of making him an officer. Early in the book we learn of some of the challenges facing law enforcers: Tension with the stalking-inclined GR (particularly after a search of their compound led to the shooting death of a member), and the rise in “police suicides”—situations in which people act in a threatening manner in the hopes that the police will kill them. Casting Kevin as a cop opens up the possibility that he’ll be faced with those incidents in real time (to say nothing of the likelihood of him getting called to one of the sexy choke parties that Jill’s attending). There’s a lot of material to be mined there, and that will only help with the narrative.

But I do think I’ll miss the mild-mannered, even vaguely dopey Kevin of the book. His interactions with Aimee at times entered American Beauty territory, but overall he served as a nice release valve. I can’t see Justin Theroux’s Kevin being too concerned with the composition of his softball team.

I agree that Brenneman was great. The GR is such a peculiar organization that much of its screen time has to be spent establishing exactly how they operate, and in the pilot, that didn’t leave much of an opportunity to get to “know” TV Laurie (to whatever extent that’s possible). We saw her appeal for inclusion before the Heroes Day stunt, which that felt more assertive than I generally found Book Laurie to be. Beyond that, we didn’t see much from her other than standard GR behavior. Which makes sense, since most of what we learn about Laurie early on in the book is provided by narration. It isn’t until Meg enters the picture that Laurie’s character really takes form.

And that, of course, is why Meg arrives so early in the show. In the book, we’re always omnisciently following one of the main characters—Kevin, Laurie, Tom, Jill, and, later on, Nora. Meg never got that treatment. She was always viewed through the Laurie lens. In the show Meg gets her own scenes (albeit ones with Laurie in the periphery) right from the get-go. I’m curious if that was just a means for delivering her to Laurie, or if we’ll continue to get Meg’s perspective. How do you see her fitting in? More importantly, how would you want her to fit in?

HILLARY: Short answer: Liv Tyler + smallish role in the book + show without many name actors = more Meg.

Long answer: Revamping Meg’s story line lets the series have its dramatic cake and eat it, too. The book follows Laurie as she makes the transition from housewife to GR member; readers learn about the organization as she becomes more enmeshed in it. The show excises that backstory, at least in the pilot, choosing instead to keep Laurie’s identity hidden until Kevin arrives at the GR compound and reveals that she was once his wife. It’s a nifty bit of misdirection; until this point, those who haven’t read the book have been led to believe that Mrs. Garvey is among the Departed. When we find out who she really is, though, it becomes more clear than ever that those with disappeared family members aren’t the only ones who have suffered major losses in the Departure’s wake.

Doing this, however, means that show watchers don’t have an easy in to the GR. Enter Meg: She’ll be our new Laurie, in a sense, transforming gradually from sad Mapleton citizen to devoted GR adherent to martyr. It’s a journey I’m excited to watch, especially because the strange evolution of Meg and Laurie’s relationship is one facet of Perrotta’s novel that might be more affecting stretched out over 10 hourlong episodes instead of one 368-page novel. (One in which Meg doesn’t even show up until page 116, for that matter.) This approach will also make Meg’s death even more of a gut-punch, assuming season 1 follows the novel’s general trajectory and ends where Perrotta does. (Though clearly, we’ll get no shortage of gut-punches as the series progresses.)

I want to switch gears entirely and talk about one device employed by the show but not the book: Those brief, nightmarish flashbacks, which sort of seem like Lindeloff’s way of establishing his Leftovers as a higher-brow, more messed up version of Lost. They’re as disorienting as they are informative; the most important one establishes that TV Kevin was having sex with a woman when the Departure hit, but it’s tough to tell whether that woman is Laurie or someone else. I can understand why the show would choose to convey information in this manner; it’s a way to get inside its characters’ brains in the same way that a novel can. The flashbacks are also sharper and more ambiguous and, yes, more violent (in content and in execution) than similar digressions in the novel, mirroring the show’s overall tonal shift. Do you think Lindeloff and co. are using flashbacks effectively? Or do you wish these scenes had a bit more meat to them, à la the book’s longer excursions into the past?

NEIL: We knew flashbacks were inevitable—the book is an exploration of how different people respond to one massive traumatic event, so it’s essential to spend time with them before and during in order to understand the after. But considering how much mystery exists in the present-day Leftovers world, I don’t know that it was necessary to amplify the uncertainty by inserting frenetic blips from the past. Were they effective? Sure, in the sense that we now know there are additional skeletons in Kevin’s closet. He’s an ENIGMA, Hill. But we could tell as much from that woman’s reference to Kevin’s father (and his deflection in response), and from the reveal with Laurie (plus the smashing of the family photo), so the super-brief flashbacks feel a bit… superfluous? Manufactured? Lazy? Pick your adjective.

(Then again, as we’ve established, the show was never going to be an understated meditation on loss and resilience.)

There’s not much meat left on these here bones, so I’ll bring us home with a speed round: What was a minor detail from the book that you’re glad to see make it into the show, and what was an omission that you missed?

HILLARY: I loved how weird and unsettling the show’s commemorative statue was, the one unveiled on Heroes Day—it really does look like the baby is falling instead of flying away into the sky. I missed not actually getting to see Holy Wayne hug somebody’s pain away, but since this is only episode one, I’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt and figure that scene will happen at some point down the line. Neil: Same questions.

NEIL: Whoa—when I wrote the question, I had the statue in mind, too. The description of it in the book was powerful—

“A creepy bronze sculpture produced by one of the high school art teachers. It was supposed to show a baby floating out of the arms of its astonished mother, ascending toward heaven, but something had misfired. Kevin was no art critic, but it always looked to him like the baby was falling instead of rising, and the mother might not be able to catch it.”

—and it was realized perfectly in the show. Good call on Wayne hugs. TV show Wayne sure doesn’t seem like a hugger.

Since you mentioned the statue, I’ll give a shout out to the Frost twins. They were odd, minor characters in the book, and like Jill, I could never get a good read on their intentions. Yet they still amused me. Their surprisingly upbeat, even comical depiction in the show may prove to be its main (only?) source of levity. I already want them to get a spin-off.

As for book omissions—hear me out on this—I appreciated how effective it was to have Kevin check out Nora’s butt on Heroes Day, and then feel guilty about it. Beyond seeming like a genuine guy moment, it was a great way to establish Kevin’s character and what was happening in his headspace while also foreshadowing their eventual relationship. But that was a much different Kevin. Only time will tell if this Kevin can suppress his agita long enough for a slow dance in the school gym.

Never forget Gary Busey.


Update 7.1.14:

NEIL: Because I don’t trust my own eyes (or, apparently, Hillary’s), I originally suggested that maybe it was Kevin running around naked, and not his father. Being that I was most certainly wrong, I’ve gone back and edited out the couple lines that made reference to my flawed theory so as to not confuse future readers.

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