Sarah Phelps is used to treading in the footsteps of giants; her acclaimed screenplays include BBC adaptations of Dickens’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. However, when it came to dramatising JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for the small screen, Phelps felt rather more exposed, “like Man Friday, making his print in the sand”.
“It’s one thing adapting a writer who’s been dead for a century or so,” says Phelps, “but when you have a writer who is not only very much living and breathing but who is as phenomenally successful as JK Rowling, the dynamic is rather different.” Especially if you intend to change her ending…
Phelps sees The Casual Vacancy as the natural successor to the socially engaged rural novels of Mrs Gaskell and Thomas Hardy, although it has to be said that Rowling’s original denouement makes Hardy seem like a cock-eyed optimist.
“I was very straight with Jo and told her that I needed to write a different ending,” says Phelps. “It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.
“Also, what works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learnt on EastEnders that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage. If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be rewarded. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of s***s; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.”
The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first novel for adult readers, came out to global hype, enormous sales and mixed reviews in 2012. Set in the fictional West Country village of Pagford, it is a forensically detailed account of social problems and power struggles in an idyllic setting; behind those golden stone walls and flowery water troughs, bitter rivalry for a place on the town council exposes interweaving stories of child neglect, domestic abuse and aggressive corporate development.
“It feels like a really malign Midsomer Murders,” says Phelps with relish. “We all have a kind of atavistic attraction to these beautiful parts of the country, but then you look closer and there are all these people being foul to each other.”