On Sunday night, HBO will continue a long legacy of book-to-it’s-not-TV-it’s-HBO adaptations that includes Sex and the City, True Blood, and [kinda] The Wire. The Leftovers, premiering after enough hype to kill an elephant, is centered on a Rapture-like event that causes roughly two percent of the world’s population to suddenly disappear—one second you’re sitting next to your best friend, the next second she’s gone, without so much as a bang or a zap or even a courtesy puff of colored smoke.
The Rapture/Not Rapture (depending on who you talk to) prompts Reactions—emotional, political, religious—and it’s those reactions that form the core of The Leftovers, insomuch as they affect residents of Mapleton, an unassuming suburban town that serves as a microcosm of the global post-Rapture malaise. Three years after the event, Mayor Kevin Garvey is trying to rally the wary townspeople into a sense of normalcy, even as his estranged son gets involved with a dubious evangelist, his daughter goes through a head-shaving rebellious phase, and his wife leaves him for the Guilty Remnant, a cult of sorts whose members don’t speak, dress all in white, travel in pairs and constantly smoke cigarettes ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), all ostensibly to remind people of October 14th, and to prove themselves worthy for, you know, “next time.”
Indeed, October 14th is nothing if not a catalyst for lifestyle trends: In addition to the GR, there’s Holy Wayne, a self-appointed healing prophet who takes people’s pain by hugging them; and the Barefoot People, “hippies with bullseyes painted on their foreheads” who take the laid-back hedonistic approach to their potential extinction, and generally jdgaf. Even in day-to-day life, there seems to have emerged a pattern: teachers are more lenient, parents are less overbearing. The very fact of October 14th has put the future in question, and therefore the present kind of on hold. People tend to fall into two camps, either deciding that nothing really matters, or that everything does.
I’ve read Tom Perrotta before—Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, Joe College—and he has a way of capturing the minutiae of relationships strained by internal or external forces. But being such an accessible writer can have the unfortunate effect of making his novels seem less sophisticated, and while there’s a part of me that enjoyed the concise nature of The Leftovers, another part felt like the novel could have been more: deeper, fuller, sweeping. Then again, it’s that same circumspection (relative to a very big concept) that will likely make the book easier to adopt for television. It’s got characters that readers are mentally casting anyway, and an alternating tour through their respective lives (one chapter on Kevin, one chapter on his daughter, one chapter on his son, etc.) that already plays out like a script. I’m not saying the TV adaptation will definitively be great, but I am saying that it would be difficult to truly eff up.
In the minimal HBO/Leftovers reviewing I’ve skimmed (I prefer to go into adaptations open-minded), my only concern is that the show will fail to capture the streak of humor that runs quietly but effectively throughout the novel. In an interview published at the end of my version (Kindle), Perrotta says in recent years he’d been “trying to see just how much I can broaden the idea of the comic novel, and if I could get it to accommodate this idea of a post-apocalyptic scenario.” The Leftovers feels like the tentative product of that thought process, a book primarily concerned with grief, but willing to nudge up against those aspects of grief that are slightly absurd. Unsurprisingly, it is reminiscent of novels published after and about 9/11—The Leftovers is part Falling Man, part Everything Is Illuminated; the cynic in me just wanted it to be more A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. Likewise, the show doesn’t need to be funny per se, but you can’t tell me a much-televised slideshow of disappeared celebrities (say it ain’t so, John Mellencamp!) shouldn’t elicit a wry smile.
The Leftovers is an epic idea baked into an approachable little novel, and it both suffers and benefits from being out of the author’s comfort zone: Perrotta has not yet mastered the art of the apocalyptic reveal (see: Stephen King in Under The Dome), and the scope of October 14 feels difficult to pin down, perhaps because the severity of losing two percent of people you know is entirely dependent on which two percent. Either way, the final amalgam of End-Times themes with Perrotta-style suburban doldrums works out okay, and ends up highlighting that no matter what the reckoning—terrorist attack, natural disaster, act of God—we must all contend with pain and loss, and find ourselves standing amid the rubble, blinking dust out of our eyes as we look across at each other, the ones who are left behind.
TITLE: The Leftovers
AUTHOR: Tom Perrotta
ALSO WROTE: Election, Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher
SORTA LIKE: Falling Man meets The Ice Storm
FIRST LINE: “Laurie Garvey hadn’t been raised to believe in the Rapture.”