Rewriting a beloved author is like pinch-hitting for Pete Rose.
Talk about pressure.
But screenwriter Sarah Phelps wasn’t intimidated in the least when she turned The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s 2012 novel, into a three-hour BBC miniseries.
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In fact, Phelps had the audacity to make many major plot changes in her version, which airs at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on HBO.
“Yes, I took some liberties with the book and there are some big changes,” she says. “But if it’s not the letter of the novel, I think it’s still very much the spirit of the novel.”
Phelps has been in this position before. She put her own stamp on the work when she adapted Oliver Twist for British television in 2007 and Great Expectations in 2011.
The difference is that Charles Dickens has been dead for 200 years, whereas Rowling is very much alive.
“Dickens couldn’t email me to voice his concerns about any changes he might not like,” Phelps says.
It’s worth noting, though, that Rowling, who’s better known for her phenomenally popular “Harry Potter” novels, didn’t feel the need to send any second-guessing emails either.
“Jo could not have been cooler or more generous,” Phelps says of the author.
The Casual Vacancy — which opens with two hours on Wednesday, followed by the final hour on Thursday — is the story of a local election to fill a pivotal council seat in a picturesque English village populated by petty people with terrible secrets.
There’s a lot at stake in this election. The winner will determine the fate of Sweetlove House, a historic country home-turned-community center that includes a nonprofit methadone clinic and provides much-needed services for the poor living in and around Pagford.
There’s a movement, led by hoity-toity gourmet food shop owners Howard and Shirley Mollison (played by Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie), to turn Sweetlove House into a revenue-generating spa and retreat. It doesn’t take long for the campaigning to take an ugly turn.
Phelps’ adaptation places added emphasis on the tragic story of Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), the teenage daughter of an out-of-control meth addict.
“When I read the book, it was Krystal’s story that leapt out,” Phelps says. “Here is this girl who has spent her young life being a parent to her drug-addicted mother and her little brother. She is mouthy, sexually profligate, damaged and difficult, but she is also brave, passionate and walks with a cocky dignity.
“When I discussed the book with Jo, I told her, ‘For me, Krystal is the heroine. I really want to tell her story.’”
Lawrie steals every scene in her first professional acting role — “she is a revelation,” Phelps says of the actress — thus making the decision to focus on Krystal a smart one.
The Casual Vacancy addresses a number of social issues, but it’s mostly a war of the haves vs. the have-nots. Phelps says Rowling’s novel reminded her of the 19th-century classics penned by Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.
“I hope people who watch it are entertained,” she says. “I hope they are moved. I hope they get a little shiver of recognition when they see some of the vile things these characters do.
“But ultimately I hope people take a look at the lives that we have become used to ignoring, the lives of the poor and the marginalized, and that they listen to their unheard voices.”
The Casual Vacancy
▪ Parts 1 and 2, 7-9 p.m. Wednesday
▪ Part 3, 7-8 p.m. Thursday