“Eh, the book was better.”
Said anyone who ever read a book before watching a movie or TV adaptation of said book.
“The Leftovers,” the HBO series starring Justin Theroux and Liv Tyler, met “The Leftovers,” the literary novel with genre pretensions by Tom Perrotta at the end of June and … the streak remains unbroken.
Now, fact is it’s virtually impossible for the book to not be better. (Worthy companion books written to tie in with a screenplay are another story, another column.) Novels just have the time and the space and the leeway to occupy readers’ imaginations. We get to make a movie in our head from the book, and anything that deviates from that is going to get judged.
But most of the time if we read a book there’s a span of months, if not years, before the TV or movie version gets made. That movie we made in our heads settles, dissipates. It’s easy to look at “Game of Thrones” if you’re years away from the first reading of that book; not that it’s stopped purists from noting the significant changes between the books and the show. It’s less easy to ignore the differences, though, if you’re fresh from reading the book and diving into the series.
So my experiment began: HBO, in its wisdom, sent me both Perrotta’s book and some of the episodes in June - I finished the book over the July 4 weekend and dove into the series when it debuted on June 29. Here, then, are my very unscientific findings:
A good start: Perrotta is involved in the project Damon Lindelof, who will never live down “Lost” and who I admire anyway. Also, while I wasn’t a fan of Perrotta’s “Little Children” (or its 2006 adaptation), the 1999 version of his book “Election” (not read) is a favorite. The hope here is that with Perrotta’s paws on the project, it should retain the spirit if not the literal scene-by-scene depiction of the book (which is about how people are falling apart three years after two percent of the human race disappeared without explanation).
Side Note #1: Literary fiction leaves me cold in most cases. The focus on (incremental) character development over actual plot is not for me; I’m a story gal. Gimme story first and I can live with lesser-felt, lesser-realized characters. “Leftovers” skirts the two - there’s just enough genre in the post-apocalyptic concept to hook me, but I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t going to ever give “the reason” behind the vanishings.
Sidebar to the Side Note: That kind of thing is what drives genre fans bats about literary co-opting of such subjects; it’s like reading a novel about a murder where you never find the killer. The existential pursuit is all a literary author seems interested in, while most genre fans want at least some hints.
Early verdict: One big eyebrow raise. After two weeks, “Leftovers” isn’t the typical “CliffsNotes” take on the book - I read “Ender’s Game” after seeing “Ender’s Game” the movie and the latter was exactly that, and satisfying because it gave us the story, well presented, without changing too much of significance. But “Leftovers” is a series, and the creators seem to already be angling for a second season: This show goes even more deliberately than the book, without the accompanying interior character development. So you get a lot of showy scenes that aren’t part of the book, and which change the equation.
For example: Justin Theroux plays a police captain (the town mayor in the book) who appears to hallucinate a bald, tobacco-chawin’ guy who shoots wild dogs. It’s the TV version of a “literary” flourish, and it feels … what’s the phrase? Ham-handed? Needlessly obscure? Trying too hard? Whatever you want to call it, Theroux’s cop is not mentally ill in the book, just sad and untethered (you would be too if your wife and son had joined separate cults and your teenage daughter is skipping school and had unsavory friends). But since he’s shared this mirage with his co-workers, they now look at him as delusional. If the show wants him to keep hallucinating (and for god’s sake please explain how his kitchen got ripped up), that’s going to change him as a character - and he’s the heart of the book.
In summary: We’re just three weeks in, and while Theroux’s going off the rails isn’t the only change, it’s one of the biggest. The good news is I’ve also caught dialogue directly cribbed from the book, which is like hearing a favorite guitar riff used in a new song. A pleasant surprise. But what happens at the end of season one? Do we finish the book and move into new territory? Because as predicted, “The Leftovers” the book has an end … that is not necessarily the end. And in a way, I’m looking forward to seeing where Perrotta and Lindelof go when there’s no more reservation to go off of. Then, there might be something worth exploring. After all, one thing a TV show (or a movie, really) has going for it that a book doesn’t is that it doesn’t have to end just because the words have stopped coming.
Stay tuned: I haven’t been raptured yet.