“It’s SOMEONE’S fucking fault”: social responsibility in J K Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’

casual_vacancy_dvd_600I’d planned to publish a post on The Casual Vacancy following the recent screening of the BBC adaptation of Rowling’s novel, but didn’t find the time. It seems appropriate to pick this up again now, following a general election in which many voted out of greed and self-interest, thus securing the re-election of the Tories and another five years of austerity, a financial policy which is only serving to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And I see the Tories have already swung into action: there is talk of the resurrection of the Snoopers’ Charter, lifting the ban on fox-hunting (for fuck’s sake!) and doing away with long-term leases on council houses. It’s hateful. Never have I been so ashamed to be English. I feel bound to trot out the much-quoted aphorism that a society is judged by how it deals with its weaker and more vulnerable members, and I’d say we’re scoring pretty fucking low at that. The day after the election, a friend posted on Facebook: ‘Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite’ (Joseph de Maistre), to which I replied ‘Ain’t that the truth’. We deserve everything we get now, and unless those of us who are unhappy with the status quo continue to fight and to protest against the cuts which do nothing but benefit the rich, what we will get is the demise of the welfare state and the NHS. The poor, the sick, the disabled, and everyone else who isn’t a rich white healthy able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male is screwed. (Guess what? That’s MOST OF US!)

Rowling herself is an avid and outspoken supporter of the Labour party and The Casual Vacancy is a novel about what happens when the support needed by the most vulnerable members of society is taken away. I’m going to be discussing both the novel and its television adaptation here, so please note there will be spoilers.

The Casual Vacancy (hereafter TCV) was Rowling’s first novel for the adult market, but on reading it I couldn’t help feeling that she hadn’t quite shaken off the mantle of ‘children’s author’. First, it is undoubtedly a heavily moralistic book. A great deal of children’s literature is moralistic or didactic in tone because it’s supposed to be edifying and educational. Second, a non-adult narrative viewpoint is an important feature of YA fiction/children’s literature and TCV features a number of teenage characters with whom we spend a great deal of time. The liberal use of free indirect discourse (FID) gives the reader access to the thought processes of most of the characters, adults and children alike. Third, the novel dishes up for a younger audience the sort of stuff that those readers like best, namely, ‘a bunch of kids teach the stupid adults the error of their ways’. Three of the novel’s teenage characters enter into open battle with the adults, posing online as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother to admonish their parents: first Andrew, then Sukhvinder, then Fats. So far, so Harry Potter.

However, the novel’s Wikipedia page suggests that Rowling would respond unfavourably to the idea of TCV being a YA novel in disguise, noting that at the time of publication, ‘[c]ritics questioned whether younger Harry Potter fans might be drawn into wanting to read the book…Rowling responded saying, “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write”.’ So let us take Rowling at her word and assume that at least as far as authorial intention is concerned, the moral lesson of the book is aimed at adult readers. (Incidentally, you know you’re in the hands of a moralist when one of the characters is called ‘Fairbrother’. George Eliot did the same in Middlemarch with Camden Farebrother.)

Barry Fairbrother

Rowling has in fact made no secret of the fact that this is a book intended to remind its readership of the responsibilities that come with living in a community made up of other people. In an interview for The New Yorker she comments, “[t]his is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery”.’ So how does the moral message of the book manifest itself? I’ve mentioned a couple of things already: the novel’s avenging ‘ghost’ and the use of FID which allows us to see into the minds of the characters. And as well as being able to read their minds, the reader can see into the characters’ histories: the narrator provides the kind of background knowledge that promotes an understanding of why the characters behave the way they do. Terri Weedon (played by Keeley Forsyth in the BBC mini-series) is the one that springs to mind. Terri, a drug addict and neglectful parent, inspires little but revulsion until you learn the details of her past, the most shocking part of her backstory being how as a little girl she was happy to be in hospital being treated for the burns inflicted by the man who was supposed to be caring for her, because at least she wasn’t being raped and beaten at home. No wonder she turned to heroin for comfort.

Terri Weedon

The television audience was spared these details as it was also spared the ending of the novel, the original being considered ‘too grim’ for a Sunday night audience. Adaptations of novels for film and television tend to suffer problems of compression when the screenplay tries to cover everything and obviously a great deal of the novel had to be cut in order to squeeze it all into three hours’ worth of telly, but I do think it rather prissy of Auntie Beeb to skirt around the real tragedy of the book: the death of the innocent, Robbie Weedon, already unadoptable as a toddler. In the TV adaptation, Robbie is spotted wandering unattended by Vikram Jawanda while out on his morning run, this routine of his established early on in the series so as to render Robbie’s rescue credible. In the book, Robbie drowns in the river – and the real tragedy is that there are three people who saw him, and who could have saved him, but who did nothing.

One of these three is Shirley Mollison, wife of Parish Councillor Howard Mollison and mother of Miles, contender for Barry’s seat on the council (the eponymous casual vacancy), played with a beautifully pitched line in hard icy cruelty by Julia McKenzie for the mini-series. Shirley is spiteful and small-minded, desperate to cultivate an air of gentility because her mother had a reputation for promiscuous behaviour and the young Shirley was bullied because of this. In spite of this mitigating factor, we do not like Shirley: she bullies her daughter-in-law, sucks up to the appalling local gentry, scores points off her friends wherever possible and alienates her gay daughter. Shirley learns nothing from the events that play themselves out, and her part in them. The following exchange is very revealing:

‘[T]he boy was right by the river when I saw him. A couple of steps and he’d have been in.’

Something in Maureen’s expression stung her.

‘I was hurrying,’ said Shirley with asperity, ‘because Howard had said he was feeling poorly and I was worried sick. I didn’t want to go out at all…I was absolutely distracted, and all I could think was, I must get back to Howard…’

These excuses will not bring Robbie back from the grave, and Shirley is not telling the truth in any case: in actual fact, the reason she was so distracted at that point was her discovery of Howard and Maureen’s affair. She had intended to murder Howard – but she lies to herself about this, as well. Shirley is punished with public shame and the certain knowledge of her husband’s infidelity.

Howard and Shirley Mollison

Gavin Hughes also sees Robbie wandering alone by the river. Gavin is the boyfriend of social worker Kay, although his character does not appear in the mini-series. In the novel, he is the reason for Kay’s relocation to Pagford (much to the chagrin of Kay’s daughter Gaia), but he doesn’t love Kay and treats her with a disdain that stems from his essential cravenness. He pursues Mary Fairbrother instead, the widow of his best friend Barry. Gavin’s self-absorption is so complete that he cannot even remember seeing Robbie. He is punished with solitude: his best friend is dead, and he is rejected by Mary and eventually Kay.

Samantha Mollison is the third character who sees Robbie that day, and she is the only one to internally acknowledge the part she played in Robbie’s death. She is shaken out of her selfish frustration at the loss of her youth and expresses a wish to take part in local politics alongside her husband. Her renewed interest in her previously failing marriage is her reward. (In the mini-series, Samantha is sympathetically portrayed by Keeley Hawes – an actor always worth watching.)

Samantha Mollison

So, to return to the discussion around the novel’s moral content, we can see here a clear pattern of reward and punishment. This extends beyond the three characters discussed above, with perhaps the worst fate meted out to Fats Wall. Objectionable enough in the mini-series, this character is far worse in the novel: he bullies Sukhvinder so viciously that she is induced to self-harm; he treats his adopted father with heartless disdain; he feeds his nut-allergic best friend a disguised peanut just to see what will happen; he snogs the girl he knows his best friend fancies and he uses Krystal Weedon for sex. Fats is punished severely for his burgeoning career as a sociopath which is embodied in his pursuit for ‘authenticity’. Fats is humbled and forced to realise that you simply cannot bludgeon your way through life pretending that other people don’t exist, and he is brought to terms with this in the hardest way imaginable: he is indirectly responsible for the death of Robbie, and also that of Krystal, who commits suicide soon after her brother’s body is dragged from the river.

Fats and Arf

There is no justice, no reward, no possibility of escape for Krystal – not without Barry Fairbrother. She, perhaps, could have dragged herself out of the mire in which she was forced to live, and to have subsequently made a new start for herself with Robbie, but events conspire against her: she is raped by her mother’s drug dealer, the repulsive Obbo (thank goodness the BBC spared us that scene), and she is terrified a similar fate will befall Robbie. The death of her Nana Cath leaves her nowhere to turn and she concocts a plan that will lead inexorably to the final tragic events. Krystal is not spared in the mini-series either: fearlessly depicted by Abigail Lawrie, she drowns after jumping in the river, believing that Robbie has fallen in. Her legs become entangled in the cables of a stolen television, dumped in the river by Andrew’s brutal, violent father.

Krystal and Robbie

I want to finish with reference to what is, for me, the most resonant line of the mini-series, and it belongs to Sukhvinder. Sukhvinder’s role is very much reduced in the adaptation for television. In effect, she is become a Chorus figure: hers is the voice of the narrator, a heterodiegetic voice-over, which, to be honest, is probably quite the most annoying voice-over ever – it’s a load of teenage gabble which is quite difficult for someone my age to follow. Its function is not only to remind the viewer of what has happened previously, but to comment on the action, just as is the case with the Chorus figure from your bog-standard Greek tragedy. It is another Harry Potter touch that an adolescent character was chosen for this role, but it works really well. Sukhvinder herself is almost entirely silent throughout the series (something of a mercy, given the garbled quality of the voice-over) and she is apparently completely isolated from the action: she wears headphones all the time, so she is kept separate and apart, but at the end, you realise that she has been observing closely in spite of her detached air. She has only one homodiegetic line – that is, only one line that is spoken within the narrative itself – and this comes after Krystal’s body has been retrieved from the river and Vikram Jawanda, Sukhvinder’s father, has rescued Robbie. The little boy has been taken into care as a result and Sukhvinder overhears her mother telling Vikram ‘It’s not your fault…anyone would have done the same.’ ‘Whose fault is it then?’ asks Sukhvinder. ‘Because it’s someone’s fucking fault.’

Krystal Weedon

And this is the point. Things don’t just happen. There is no such thing as fate, or destiny, or any such tripe. It is always SOMEONE’S FUCKING FAULT. You can call it karma if you wish, because what goes around certainly comes around. What happens to Krystal and Robbie in the novel is not only the fault of the characters such as Krystal’s rapist, their drug-dependent mother, the three people who saw Robbie and did nothing – no, it is also the fault of those people who routinely put their own concerns first, who think that caring for and about others is someone else’s responsibility, who put their heads in the sand and pretend that other people’s misery doesn’t exist. Which brings me back to the election result and the shocking number of people who voted to increase the misery of others by supporting the Tories and their policy of austerity for all except the rich. My one small crumb of comfort is that judging by the number of petitions and the scale of the outrage I can see on Facebook today, there are quite a lot of people who are not going to take the forthcoming Tory crap lying down. Vive la Revolution!

‘Strangers on a Train’: The Hitchcock/Highsmith Smack-Down!


*Please note: spoilers below*

Before I begin, I should point out that I’m not the sort of person who usually succumbs to apoplectic rage over the perceived imperfections of a film adaptation of a book. I was, in fact, immensely irritated by those Harry Potter fans who squawked ‘That’s not in the book!’ and then insisted on listing every single detail that the latest film had left out in order to fit an 800-page book into two-and-a-half onscreen hours. No, I don’t get worked up about this sort of thing because books and films are two different media, and if you really want The Film Of The Book, well, why not just read the book? The idea behind an adaptation is to create something based on the original, but it should be something that explores the text in a different format and perhaps ends up saying something new about it, encouraging the audience to go back to the book and read it again with new eyes. In short, there is NO POINT in simply filming the book. Faithful adaptations are all well and good, but I always think of them as a missed opportunity to say something new.

Having said all that, I HATED Hitchcock’s adaptation of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and I hated it so much that I have to write a post about it in order to get it off my chest. I know Hitchcock was an innovative and inspired director, and that he contributed a great deal to the art of filmmaking, but on the evidence of this film I’d have to say that as a reader of narratives, he was a bit of a duffer.


Highsmith’s novel is a brilliant piece of exceptionally accomplished writing, made all the more astonishing by the fact that this was her first novel, published originally in 1950 when Highsmith was still only 29 years of age. Hitchcock’s film appeared the following year, and the film’s Wikipedia page notes that Hitchcock purchased the rights for only $7,500 after having been careful to keep his name out of the proceedings. Highsmith was understandably annoyed about having been cheated like this. Raymond Chandler produced a screenplay for Hitchcock based on the novel, but almost none of Chandler’s work made it into the final script: you can read his marvellously rude letter to Hitchcock here. (Chandler’s name remains on the credits, though, at the insistence of Warner Bros.)

Highsmith’s novel is based on a very simple premise: two strangers, Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines, meet on a train. Bruno has an idea for the perfect murder: he will murder Guy’s wife Miriam, who is causing trouble over their divorce, and Guy will murder Bruno’s father, who is keeping Bruno on a too-tight rein. If both men are absent with alibis at the time of each murder, there is nothing to link them and their chances of getting away with it are therefore greatly increased. Guy is horrified by the idea, but Bruno goes ahead and murders Miriam while Guy is elsewhere, and Guy is eventually coerced into fulfilling his part of the bargain. Among the many themes of Highsmith’s novel is that of the double, or doppelgänger – the Hyde to one’s Jekyll, a darker side who enacts one’s secret desires, a theme that is brought out through liberal use of free indirect discourse and the ceaseless and seamless interweaving of voices. Hitchcock introduces the double idea at the beginning of his film by showing us Guy’s feet and Bruno’s feet in parallel scenes as they make for the train, but the idea is never pursued as thoroughly as it is in Highsmith’s novel – essentially because Guy has to be a Hollywood hero and isn’t allowed a dark side.


Guy’s status as hero proves detrimental to the entire film, the biggest single problem being that a hero cannot be a murderer, so Guy does not gun down Bruno’s father as he does in the novel – he tries to warn him instead*. But the most terrifying thing about Highsmith’s novel is Bruno’s relentless pursuit of Guy, so in the end Guy is left with no choice but to carry out the deed.

Highsmith’s Guy Haines is an architect at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career, but Hitchcock’s Haines is a tennis player, already well-known and riding a tide of success. This switch of profession is an inexplicable decision on Hitchcock’s part, because Guy’s status as an architect is crucial to an understanding of his character as a sensitive and creative soul whose buildings are inspired by his faith. Highsmith underlines this by ‘quoting’ an article about Guy taken from an English architectural magazine, part of which is reproduced below:

Haines [has] set forth principles of grace and function to which he has steadfastly held, and through which his art has grown to its present stature. If we seek to define Haines’ peculiar genius, we must depend chiefly upon that elusive and aery term, ‘grace’, which until Haines has never distinguished modern architecture. It is Haines’ achievement to have made classic in our age his own concept of grace…

Note that the word ‘grace’ features three times in this very short paragraph, and this is surely important. The novel begins with a temptation scene – Bruno, bearing the mark of the first murderer Cain in the form of a boil in the middle of his forehead, outlines his idea for the double murder – and Highsmith’s story ends with a confession, in which Guy blurts out the truth to Miriam’s ex-lover, Owen Markman. Now, I’m not a religious person and I don’t pretend to understand these things, but my reading is that Guy is tempted and falls, but his confession, and the beautiful buildings he creates, lead him finally to a state of grace. With Guy as tennis player, all this is lost, and we’re left with Farley Granger’s knobbly knees in tennis shorts and some rather dodgy shooting of a match that Guy is trying to win as quickly as possible for reasons that are not in the least bit clear. There is one superb, and very famous, shot which comes out of this tangle, however: all heads are turning to watch the ball except for that of Bruno, whose eyes are fixed on Guy…


And now for Bruno. Robert Walker puts in a marvellous turn as Hitchcock’s bad guy, but he is a cut-price two-dimensional version of Highsmith’s Charles Anthony Bruno. Hitchcock’s Bruno is a murderer who is inept enough to display his name for all to see in the form of a tasteless tie-pin:


Bruno as Highsmith wrote him is young, rich, bored, an avid reader of detective novels (hence his fascination with the perfect murder), and he is terrifying. He is both stupid and an alcoholic and this combination means that he is extremely dangerous because he is unpredictable. His wealthy, cushioned life has made him arrogant. He thinks nothing of murdering Miriam – indeed, it is only a game to him – and he plots the killing of his own father so that he can have full and immediate access to the allowance his father metes out so carefully. The detective Gerard notes that Bruno hates women, and indeed, his latent homosexuality is as clear to the reader as is his Oedipus-like status: the only woman Bruno will tolerate is Elsie, his mother, who in Highsmith’s novel is an attractive, still fairly youthful woman. Hitchcock turns Elsie into a senile old baggage, thus depriving us yet again of an area of potential intellectual interest.


However, I did find something that I liked about Hitchcock’s handling of the Bruno character. Bruno’s ‘bed-trick’, in which he pretends to be his father so he can confront Guy, was a point which sparked my interest, namely because I wondered when I was reading the novel whether it would turn out to be Bruno underneath the bedclothes. Given Bruno’s implied death wish and his adulation of Guy, I entertained the possibility that Bruno would consider it a great adventure to be shot dead by the man he clearly adores. But far more likely that Hitchcock wanted Bruno to call Guy’s bluff at this point so Bruno could direct his attention instead to trying to frame Guy for Miriam’s murder, because from this point onwards, the film departs completely from the narrative as set out in Highsmith’s novel and instead we get a lot of farting about with a lighter which Bruno is desperately trying to deposit as evidence of Guy’s presence at the scene of the crime. As if that would prove anything.

Hitchcock’s plot is ludicrous and scarcely credible. The events of Highsmith’s novel have been twisted beyond recognition simply so that the director of the film can stage set-pieces such as the fast and noisy destruction of the carousel at the end. And I hate the way Hitchcock directs women, how he reduces them. The Anne of Highsmith’s novel is an independent woman with her own successful career: Hitchcock turns Guy’s fiancée into the simpering daughter of a rich Senator, all ready to be passed from one man to another…


…and the film introduces the character of Barbara, Anne’s sister, who plays Scooby Doo’s Thelma to Anne’s Daphne. Of course, the other important thing about Barbara is that she wears spectacles and Bruno’s reaction to the sight of her (because Miriam too, wore spectacles) miraculously informs Anne that he is the murderer:


What utter, utter tosh. But here we come to the only other thing I liked about the film, and that was the way in which Miriam’s murder was filmed, reflected in the lenses of her spectacles which have fallen to the ground:


This shot is really rather good, especially because it leads one to ask exactly who is doing the seeing. We watch the scene through the eyes of the spectacles, as it were: ironically, the spectacles are seeing something that Miriam can no longer see. The spectacles are an inanimate witness to Bruno’s crime.

While I’m on the subject of Hitchcock and women, I feel I have to say something about Miriam as victim. Most notable here is that while Highsmith’s Miriam suffers a miscarriage before she is murdered, Hitchcock’s Miriam is still pregnant when Bruno strangles her. So, for Hitchcock, a pregnant woman and the old man working the carousel are fair game, but Bruno’s rich father is out of bounds in order to protect Guy’s status as hero. That stinks. It just stinks.

Annex - Granger, Farley (Strangers on a Train)_02

I’m reading Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley now. I hope Clément (1960) and Minghella (1999) did a better job of adapting this one for film, otherwise I really am in danger of turning into someone who says things like ‘That’s not in the book!’


*Compare this with Hitchcock’s Rebecca – Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, does not murder Rebecca as he does in du Maurier’s novel. If memory serves, Rebecca falls and fatally hits her head, so our hero can remain blameless.