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HBO's The Leftovers makes too big a mess of a letter-perfect book


The mayor (Amanda Warren) and police chief (Justin Theroux) try to keep the calm in Mapleton after “The Sudden Departure.” HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, LIv Tyler, Chis Zylka, Margaret Qualley, Carrie Coon, Emily Meade, Amanda Warren, Ann Dowd, Michael Gaston, Max and Charlie Carver, Annie Q, Paterson Joseph
Produced by: Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey

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HBO may have made a serious misstep in its packaging of materials for The Leftovers.

Besides the early episodes of this new series, the network also sent the superb, same-named 2011 novel by Tom Perrotta.

It’s a marvel of economical, straight-ahead writing. An easy read although not cheaply so. And although the story ends open-ended, it also brings closure in varying degrees for the main characters.

You know the old axiom. Big-screen or TV adaptations seldom live up to high caliber books. But HBO’s version is likely to be a distinct disappointment if you’ve already read The Leftovers. Having just finished it, I’m wondering what the network was thinking. What could have been an intimate, powerfully told four-to-six-hour miniseries instead has been left to the devices of showrunner Damon Lindelof, best known for taking Lost on a trip that became a deadened end for many fans. It’s not quite an abomination. Not yet anyway. But this isn’t a series that looks as though it will be getting better in future weeks.

Perrotta also signed off as a co-creator of the 10-episode Season 1. But as he says in HBO publicity materials, “Damon is the final arbiter, of course . . . I’m just trying to be as helpful as I can. Whenever we depart from the source material, I consider myself just another writer in the room trying to come up with the best way to tell the story. I think it’s important for me to try and be a good collaborator and not throw my weight around.”

The Leftovers immediately departs from the source material in a very material way during Sunday’s 75-minute premiere episode before going completely off the tracks in Episode 3.

The book’s principal protagonist, Kevin Garvey, has been turned on his ear -- from a well-meaning, relatively mild-mannered mayor of fictional Mapleton, NY to a haunted, high-strung, violence-prone police chief played by Justin Theroux. The mayor instead is a black woman named Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren).

Some of the bare bones basics remain. Two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanished without a trace in what’s officially been dubbed “The Sudden Departure” but is also interpreted as “The Rapture” in some quarters. Three years later, on the Oct. 14th anniversary, the mayor is going ahead with plans for a big inaugural “Heroes Day” parade, which chief Garvey opposes. (In the book, as mayor, he instigated it.)

Looming as a potential problem are the white-clad, cigarette-puffing members of the Guilty Remnant, all of whom have taken vows of silence save for their stern leader Patti (Ann Dowd).

The featured speaker after the parade is Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose husband, six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter all disappeared on that unforgettable day. In the book she’s a sympathetic figure, struggling to re-emerge as a semblance of a whole person. Through the first three episodes of HBO’s The Leftovers, Nora borders on being unlikeable. Her brother is the crazed Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston). He also existed in the book, and his mission was basically the same -- to “out” Mapletonians who secretly were bad people before disappearing. That way the reverend can prove they weren’t “selected” from on high for their virtues while he failed to qualify.

Episode 3 is devoted entirely to Rev. Jamison, who largely was on the periphery in the book besides not being Nora’s brother. His wildly implausible effort to find the money needed to save his church is a complete departure from The Leftovers’ printed pages. And it all ends in another development that likewise wasn’t in the book.

Meanwhile, Chief Garvey is prone to nightmares and also pulled in by a crazy townie who lately is specializing in killing dogs that roam in packs. Garvey also has two children, restive high schooler Jill (Margaret Qualley) and runaway son Tom (Chris Zylka), who’s hooked up with a cult leader known as “Holy Wayne” (Paterson Joseph).

Amy Brenneman also plays a Garvey, and likewise is among the 98 percent who were spared on Oct. 14th. But an HBO advisory says, “We think it would be best for the viewer not to know the relationship” of Laurie and Kevin. Oh, all right. Those who haven’t read the book will find out by the end of Sunday’s opening episode.

On a somewhat trivial note, both the book and the HBO series name some of the celebrities who vanished during the Sudden Departure. This is done via anniversary news coverage in the TV version. Kevin is watching in a bar when a montage of the missing famous includes Condoleezza Rice, Salman Rushdie, Shaquille O’Neal, Jennifer Lopez, Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey, Bonnie Raitt and Pope Benedict XV!.

“I get the Pope. But Gary (expletive) Busey? How does he make the cut?” the barkeep grouses.

Busey doesn’t make the cut in the book. Nor do Rice, Raitt, Rushdie and Bourdain. But Lopez, Shaq and the Pope do, along with John Mellencamp, Adam Sandler, Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and “Miss Texas.”

Striving for poignancy while at the same muddying up and bloating the book’s basic story, the HBO version frequently resorts to a piano theme that gets trite after several repetitions. A lot of muscle tone is lost during the course of all the altered or added events. Kevin Garvey, by the way, also has an addled, institutionalized father who didn’t exist in the book.

None of the performances so far are enough to override or ameliorate all the concoctions and detours of the TV version. And Lindelof doesn’t inspire confidence in an eventually satisfying outcome -- no matter how many seasons it might take -- when he says in publicity materials, “There are certainly characters in this show who are very interested in discovering the answers to the mystery of what ‘The Sudden Departure’ meant and where they went. But I had to take this job knowing that there was a possibility that this show might never want to answer those questions, much in the same way that the mystery of life is that we don’t know what happens when we die.”

So with visions of Lost still too recent, here we go yet again. But after reading The Leftovers and being immensely satisfied with it, I’m not inclined at all to embark on what looks to be a very meandering journey towards who knows what or where.

Perrotta’s assured writing, filling 355 pages of the paperback version, has already spoiled me beyond repair. I only wish that HBO had followed up with a finite miniseries more faithful to the book instead of an open-ended extreme makeover.


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