Special Edition: Adapting J.K. Rowling for The Small Screen

By Jennie Jarvis

Earlier this month, BBC One announced that they have optioned the rights to JK Rowling’s first “adult” novel The Casual Vacancy, with plans on turning the book into a television show. The BBC’s official press release about this decision included a quote from Rowling, who said, “I always felt that, if it were to be adapted, this novel was best suited to television…”

This brings up a question that I get asked at workshops often. If a novel is going to be adapted for the screen, how does one determine if it will work best on a large or a small one? When will a novel fare better as a television show over a movie?

For me, the answer to this question comes down to what the primary storytelling device is within the narrative: plot or character. If a narrative is plot driven, it would do best on the big screen (adapted into a movie). If it is character driven, then I think it has a really good shot on television. Let’s take a look at Rowling’s newest novel paired with her widely renown Harry Potter series as an example of this difference.

In the Harry Potter series, there are a number of interesting characters and the world is detailed and rich, but at the end of the day, each book is about plot. Each Potter book follows Harry as he is, essentially, solving some kind of mystery. The first Potter book introduces Harry into the wizarding world as he is pursuing the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the American version). Even from the very early chapters where Rowling is focused on introducing us to characters such as Hermione Granger, Rubeus Hagrid and Neville Longbottom, she is still operating from a place of plot. Harry can’t get any of his school supplies until he has visited the bank (where we get our first clue about the Stone). In the earliest scenes of the developing friendship of Ron, Hermione and Harry being built, we find out where the climax of the plot will take place (in the trapdoor under Fluffy). Every scene in the book is structured in such a way to build the overall plot.

Later on in the series, the plot-driven aspects of the narrative are even more apparent. Goblet of Fire feels particularly like a movie from the moment that you pick up the book. The novel opens with a murder of an old muggle man, and the action doesn’t stop until the last page of the book. The story of Goblet even has action scenes, such as rioting Death Eaters, dodging dragons, violent mermaids and blast-ended skrewts (evil faceless crablike creatures that shoot fire out of their butts). Harry is our hero, fighting off monsters and saving French damsels in distress. This book, as well as all the other Potters, are driven by what happens, not necessarily by WHO is causing things to happen.

This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t developed. Minerva McGonagall is both harsh yet caring. Albus Dumbledore is both all-powerful and fatally flawed. Characters make decisions based on what is real and true to their personalities and not just because they are walking, talking stereotypes. They are memorable and well loved, but they aren’t the driving force behind the story.

This is why the Potter films so naturally were adaptable to the big (film) screen. The primary storytelling device of movies, especially Hollywood movies, is plot. We want to see things happening, and not just characters sitting around talking or thinking about their lives. When we talk about a movie, we want to be able to say, “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” Movies are about plot and event. Characters are important, especially in the independent film scene, but they aren’t the force that drives the story.

The Casual Vacancy, on the other hand, is all about characters. For those readers who haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet, the novel opens with the death of small-town Council member Barry Fairbrother. The rest of the entire novel focuses on how the residents of the village are shocked by his death and the fight to replace him on the town Council. And that’s it. Sure, there are a number of B plots, in which we follow the day to day activities of a number of characters in the weeks and months after the funeral, but nothing else really happens until the very end of the book (and I won’t reveal that for the sake of spoilers).

I’ll admit that, as a film and young adult fiction fan, the lack of anything happening really irritated me through most of the novel. But I kept reading because the characters were so defined and well thought out. Their voices were believable, fresh and unique, and they became real people to me. The character of Krystal Wheedon, a low class girl that was barely holding her life together due to her drug addicted mother and her poorly neglected younger brother, was particularly captivating. She was the worst kind of human being in so many ways (convinced that the only way to better her life was to trick her “boyfriend” into getting her pregnant) but still I wanted to see what she would do next.

In television, we don’t need a lot of plot to fall in love with the show. The benefit of tuning in to the same characters each week allows us the chance to extend our hearts out to the flawed and well developed humans that we see on the small screen and make them a part of our families. It doesn’t matter what they do as long as they are consistent and interesting. There isn’t a lot of plot in Downton Abbey, but it’s hugely acclaimed because the characters are so captivating.  Even if someone knew the history of Henry VIII, they were still captivated by seeing how the characters helped to make that history unfold in The Tudors. Plot doesn’t matter as much in television, as long as the characters are unique and memorable.

Sure, there are exceptions to my overly simplified adaptation guideline of plot = film, character = television theory, and I don’t want to ignore those. Game of Thrones is heavy with plot, but it’s world building allows for a richer television experience. The Hunger Games’ first person narrative made for a very compelling inner struggle in the mind of the protagonist, but it’s once a year competition made for a much more efficient film than television show. Never Let Me Go was a beautiful character piece – both in novel and film. Dexter has enough plot to have made a great movie, even though it found lots of success on television. I’m not saying that makers of these shows or movies made the wrong choice. But as an overall guideline in trying to determine how a novel should be adapted, looking at how a story is driven will determine if we want to watch that story in one chunk (in a film) or follow the characters over the course of one or multiple seasons (on television).

As much as The Casual Vacancy disappointed me overall as a novel, I can’t wait for BBC America to pick up the television adaptation so I can watch it here in the States. These are going to be the kinds of completely flawed and imperfect yet oh-so human characters that will be well worth watching – almost like reality television but so much more appealing and less depressing because we know these characters don’t actually exist in real life. With the unique voices and self contained location laden with internal political struggles, this show will surely be one that creates all the right kind of small screen drama.

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  1. #1 by My Rite of Passage on December 18, 2012 - 9:42 am

    What a great and informative article – thanks for sharing. Both plot and character are, of course, vital elements in story-telling, but often a writer’s preference or tendency is to place emphasis on one or the other. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except – as you say – the choice is bound to create a specific outcome.

  2. #2 by Richey Lee on February 19, 2013 - 10:42 am

    Hi Jennie,
    I agree with your summary of Rowling’s works and especially when you wrote that Dexter’s plot could have been made into a movie. Although, if it were made into a movie Dexter would have had a lot lees screen time and story development. Makes you wonder.

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