Director, Jonny Campbell, Discusses The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling, and Adaptation
Director, Jonny Campbell, has been injecting his realistic sensibility into British television, with work such as the Doctor Who episodes, “Vincent and the Doctor” and ‘The Vampires of Venice,” the British version of Shameless, and Ashes to Ashes. His last endeavor, the three-part miniseries, In the Flesh, a new take on zombies, won 2 BAFTA Awards and was nominated for a 2014 GLAAD Media award. Now, Campbell brings us The Casual Vacancy, based on the novel of the same name by Harry Potter scribe, J.K. Rowling.
There are a lot of challenges that come from adapting material, especially something written by Rowling, whose massive worldwide fan base offers guaranteed viewership. I had the chance to talk to Jonny, who is down to earth, passionate, and was gracious enough to explain his views on the miniseries, adapting work, and directing a miniseries with me, yesterday.
With a calm demeanor and friendliness, I felt instantly at ease when talking to Jonny. It seemed more like a conversation with an old friend, talking about their current work project. I imagine he is able to inject that same friendliness into his work, as he seems capable of getting out some of the best performances from actors as seasoned as Michael Gambon (who is no stranger to Rowling’s work) to newcomers like Abigail Lawrie, who was plenty capable of holding her own.
“That was her first ever audition. She’d never auditioned for anything before,” Jonny stated, of the young woman whose character, Krystal, plays a central role in the miniseries. “She’s got this sort of inner grace about her,” the director continued, clearly impressed with the young actress, who steals every scene she is in. “She’s a special actress.”
I was just as impressed with Abigail, who as Krystal, plays a teenager forced to hold her family together, as her mother copes with drug addiction, and she has no choice but to raise her three-year-old brother. I once read where someone called The Casual Vacancy…Harry Potter without the magic. While I think that is a fair generalization, the story is much more devastating than Rowling’s series about our favorite boy wizard. It’s also hard to generalize a story that addresses issues as nuanced as class warfare and socioeconomic status, which Rowling dives into unapologetically.
Campbell addressed the raw realness, which is part of what attracted him to the story in the first place. He discussed how the story unfolds, “something really clever Sarah [Phelps, the screenwriter] did, was with all these kind of domino effects.” Each domino falls with each tragedy leading to another.
“If you put these characters in period clothing nobody would object to what they’re doing,” he countered after discussing J.K.’s influence from 19th century writing, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. “We’re definitely trying to emulate that. It’s a challenge to do a story where these characters and some of the eccentricities of a 19th century story must live in a contemporary setting.”
As a budding film director, I admire Johnny’s passion, which was ever present when we spoke. It’s clear he enjoyed working with the cast, which includes established British talent like the aforementioned Gambon, Emilie Fox, and Rory Kinnear, who holds the distinction of being the catalyst for much of the action and a central voice in the story, from beyond the grave. As for Fox, her part is so small, it seemed a shame to waste her talent, but Gambon is terrific, and he shines in a role where he plays what could only be described as the anti-Dumbledore. As the leader of the Parish Council, Howard Mollison, he has no honor, no integrity, and, of course no magic, but there is little hope, magic, or any kind of happiness in this tragedy.
One of the most striking things about this series was that everyone looked familiar to me, even though many of the actors were not people I knew. Perhaps that was deliberate casting? These characters could represent anyone, in any small town full of secrets, and without the idyllic small town feel that is so prevalent in most of what we see on television.
In spite of the distinction between Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy, which is a much more serious work, it is inevitable that comparisons will be made. When we were discussing the difficulties in adapting Rowling’s 500-page book into a three-hour miniseries, Jonny brought this up, with the hope that people would give the miniseries its own chance.
“Like any work, once you put it out there, it’s out of your hands. The real challenge was finding ways to condense this monster of a book, which really isn’t a page-turner. It’ incredibly rewarding when you have the time for it,” Jonny professed before praising Phelps’ writing, stating that Sarah really found a way to take the structure J.K. laid down, and build upon it, while truly making it her own.
For Campbell the real challenge was the built-in fan base, that accompanies any work based on Rowling’s writing. “I had to think outside the box. You can’t please everyone. The characters kind of amplify what is happening in our lives. You have to seize on the big moments these characters have. There was a lot of planning involved, discussion between J.K. and Sarah, early on, and then I came on, and Sarah and I worked on that. You have to understand there was a lot of setup [to the story]. You have to say, look, this is the story I’d like to tell and it arrives here from the big things that happen.“
And that is exactly what the story does. While fans of the book may be disappointed, that the ending has been changed, J.K. gave her seal of approval, stating on her Twitter account that the changes made her cry her eyes out. Referring to the allusions of the river, which plays a significant part in the story, Jonny explained the relation between the river and children like Krystal and her young brother, whose parents are drug addicts, and thrust them into these churning unknown waters of the system.
“The river was important to J.K. when she was writing the story and that image was important to us.”
The first two episodes of The Casual Vacancy aired tonight, and are available on HBO on Demand and HBO GO. The third and final part will air tomorrow night. I recommend you watch it, as it is bound to lead to plenty of discussion.