Tom Perrotta: "My protagonist was too nice a guy for a dark tentpole drama on Sunday nights"

The novelist on creating the world of "The Leftovers" and the art of transferring a story from page to screen

Published July 8, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Tom Perrotta      (AP/Evan Agostini)
Tom Perrotta (AP/Evan Agostini)

It’s hard to find an American novelist who’s had better luck with adaptations of his work than Tom Perrotta. His novels “Election” and “Little Children” were made into acclaimed films, and “The Leftovers,” from 2011, just made its debut as a series for HBO.

Deemed by Stephen King “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw,” the novel looks at an American bedroom community three years after a portion of its population mysteriously and suddenly vanished. Was it the Rapture? Punishment for their sins? A mass hallucination? We never find out; the emphasis in both the novel and the film is on how those remaining cope with this inexplicable development – a tragedy for some, just a head-scratching event for others. Some – including a white-clad cult called the Guilty Remnant – insist that the survivors never forget, many others do their best to move on with their lives. (The show describes the loss as 2 percent of the world’s population.)

"The Leftovers," the HBO series, was created by Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), with some episodes directed by Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”). It has so far drawn a combination of respectful reviews, praising its intelligence and excellent cast, and more damning assessments that concentrate on a tone much grimmer than the novel on which it’s based: Compared to Perrotta’s gently satiric, well-observed prose, HBO’s version is far more tension than release. Both have as a main character Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux in the series), though he changes significantly from the page to the screen.

Salon spoke to Perrotta – a co-creator and executive producer -- from the show’s Queens set, where HBO was shooting the series finale.

We assume that after a tragedy a community will come together, but that doesn’t really happen in your story, does it? One thing that’s very clear, whether you’re reading “The Leftovers” or watching it, is that people respond really differently to loss or grief. Was that central to the way you were thinking about this story in the first place?

Yeah. One of the important points about the book and the show is that the action takes place three years after the event. So your theory can hold. Right after a massive tragedy people do come together, and it’s really more later, once that original crisis passes, that I think certain divisions emerge.

I mean, you can think about it with 9/11; there was this surge of patriotism and the country went to war in Afghanistan without really a whole lot of debate. Obviously there were some people who were naysayers, but it wasn’t anything like by the time we got to Iraq a couple years later, when there were already much deeper splits, they were interpretive splits. What did 9/11 mean? How does this action address it? That’s a real-world example. In the story, some people want to move on and say this happened in the past and it’s over, and other people want to say, wait a minute, the world changed and we need to reorder our lives as a result.

Right. And those differences are very extreme in some cases, and they end up on different sides, with even individual members of the same families at odds with each other. Because of the different ways they, as you say, interpret that interpretation-resistant event.

Yeah. And I say interpretation, and that’s a good blanket term, but it’s also probably a very emotional equation for the characters. Some people just felt this trauma more deeply than others, I think. See it as a much more central event than others do, and it almost comes down to, did you see this as something terrible that happened that didn’t divide time into before and after, or do think it’s the beginning of a new timeline, which requires the beginning of a new life narrative?

To what extent when you were writing the book and perhaps working on the show as well, to what extent did Sept. 11 or the economic crash of ’08 shape the way you saw and described Oct. 14, the day these people vanished?

That’s really interesting that you bring up the economic crisis. A lot of people have asked about 9/11, and obviously because I started with a parade and I called it Hero’s Day, and we use a date to describe the sudden departure, it’s Oct. 14, I was definitely thinking about, I was using 9/11 more as a model for how we as contemporary Americans try to process these big things.

How do we remember and move on? That’s what Kevin wants to do, that’s what the government wants to do, and that’s the important public process. The Guilty Remnant is saying there is no moving on. And when those people say they want to remember and move on, what they’re really saying is they want to forget, or to limit memory to one day a year. Which is another way that we process publicly, or process history publicly.

So that I think, it’s not so much that I’m commenting on 9/11, but I was reflecting on the experience of living through that, and used it as a model.

The economic crisis is a more interesting one because that, of course, was actually happening when I was writing the book, and I think that … again, I wasn’t commenting on it so much as living through it. I think for a brief period when I was writing the book, it really did look like the system was going to collapse, and there was this panic underneath that, this sense that one day you could be living with this feeling that your future was so secure and the next day you could wake up. And by the way, of course, lots of Americans did live through that. They had jobs they thought were secure and they lost them, they had homes they thought they were going to be able to pay for and they couldn’t.


That’s obviously not an apocalypse but it probably felt that way for the individuals and individual families that were living through it, and there were just moments when I felt like I could glimpse this chaos just on the other side of normal everyday life. And I think that informed the story too.

Well, this is at least the second novel in which you’ve dealt with, at least obliquely, some of the ideas of Protestant evangelism. You were raised Catholic, I think, in the years around and after Vatican 2; I imagine you’re a little bit like the Laura Garvey character. You begin the book by writing, “Laurie Garvey hadn’t been raised to believe in the Rapture. She hadn’t been raised to believe in much of anything except the foolishness of belief itself.” I know the book isn’t really about Protestantism, but it’s the subtext -- when and how you got interested in some of those ideas as fictional devices?

I think that, like a lot of liberal secular Americans, I was sort of startled by the rise of the Christian right, which basically happened over the course of my adult life. My adolescence too, if you consider somebody like Jimmy Carter being … he wasn’t on the right, but he was definitely coming out of an evangelical tradition.

Yeah, he was born again and talked about looking at women with “lust” in his heart.

Yeah, if you recall those days, it seemed pretty exotic to a lot of America, and it came so gradually, because I didn’t go to high school with these people, I didn’t go to college with these people, I think I imagined that they belonged to some other era.  And then it really became interesting to me when George W. Bush was elected president, and particularly in 2004 when he was reelected, and there was a sense that he was reelected by evangelicals who were bitterly opposed to gay marriage.

That was part of what drove your novel “The Abstinence Teacher,” I think.

Yeah, it really was, and I had a sense as a novelist, like, why don’t I know who these people are? At that moment they seemed like possibly some sort of majority, or at least a big part of a majority coalition, so that was, my interest came from there. But I remember actually, in college reading … I wish I could remember the name of the book, is a book somebody wrote about the Rapture, and it was sort of just a kind of nonfiction book about people in Texas and their religion. And I remember just reading it and finding the whole thing so exotic and fascinating, it was almost like reading an anthropology textbook -- like, really? People believe that? It seems so poetic and anti-modern, that I was really fascinated by that.

So let's shift to the series a little bit. It’s foolish to track every little change between a novel and a movie or a TV show that’s adapted from it, but there’s at least one fairly big change, which is that Kevin Garvey, who is some ways the main character of your novel, is the town’s mayor in the book, but he’s chief of police in the show. He’s largely a force of solace and comfort in the novel, but he’s a bundle of tension in the series. Why do you think that shift made sense for the series?

Well, as you say, adaptation is a collaboration and I will say, this was a collaboration not just between me and Damon Lindelof, but between me, Damon Lindlelof and HBO. Damon and I wrote a draft in which Kevin was the mayor, and I think HBO was concerned that, in the simplest terms, that he was too nice a guy for a dark tentpole drama on Sunday nights, and that he was a little bit on the edge of the action. Because if there’s a war between the town and this cult and he’s the peacemaking mayor, he’s not really a participant in a direct conflict, and so making him the chief of police was an attempt to give him a little more edge but also put him in the thick of this conflict, because it’s one of the main subjects of season one.

How significant is that change, as far as you’re concerned?

I think it turned out to be quite significant, because as you say it wasn’t just a matter of taking the same character and putting him in a different uniform or a different governmental role, his character changed and in the course he became a combative and brooding figure, he’s not a natural caregiver or a nice guy. He’s on edge for a lot of the show. I think you can still see a desire for his family and for more peaceful times, but you get a sense that he’s also sort of given himself over to this dark new world, in a way that Kevin in the book is really fighting against it.

Well, it’s an understatement to say these are all different mediums. You’ve gotten a close-up look at those differences with “Election” and “Little Children” and working on this too … I wonder if there are certain things that work on the page but not so well on the screen or vice-versa?

Anyone who’s written a novel and then writes screenplays knows you can’t really go into the character’s head unless you have a voice-over that’s kind of an inner monologue. What you get in compensation are the faces and voices of these actors and so they have to suggest the whole inner life, and some of them are amazingly good at that.

But obviously you can’t move around in time with the same ease that you can in fiction. But the biggest observation I would say is my tone on the page is a mixture of sort of dark drama and some sort of comic tone, whether it’s wry or … but that mix of comedy and drama turn out to be kind of hard to get on the screen, and I notice different adapters dealt with it in different ways.

Like Alexander Payne just really turned up the satire in "Election." It was there, but it was muted and one element among others, but by making it the dominant element he turned a book that had comic elements but is in no way hilarious into a hilarious movie. And so you lose some of the subtlety in the characters and they don’t grow and change in the same way. They’re much more comic types that need to repeat their failures because they don’t really understand themselves; that’s a very time-honored comic character pattern. Whereas the characters in the book are more realistic characters who can reflect and possibly change, and so you gain something, you gain a lot, he gained a lot by making it a satire, he made a great satirical film. But he also had to suppress certain elements of the book to do that.

And then I think Todd Field made a wonderful movie of "Little Children." But also, I would say, objectively, it’s a couple shades darker than the book; he just pushed it harder in that direction, I think. He did succeed, I think, in getting some of the comedy of the book onto the screen, especially in the first half of the film. But he did darken it up and tighten up the plot in a way that I really admire but, again, it’s hard to do that complex tone. Films want to have more of like a single unified tone, and that happened to some degree with the TV show; the apocalyptic darkness in "The Leftovers" got turned up, and I think some of the more suburban comic elements got turned down.

I was going to ask you specifically about your tone. I think your books go different places but one thing that we expect from you at this point is a mix of kind of gentle satire and maybe light comedy and a little empathy — they’re funny without being mean. The characters are, in some cases, people who would be easy to make fun of but you aren’t savage or bitter toward them. That sort of Tom Perrotta tone on the page is pretty different.  To what extent does the series still feel like yours?

It feels like a version of “The Leftovers,” like I definitely recognize the books in the adaptation but I’ve tried to treat it as its own thing. I had never even tried to say in the writer’s room or in conversations “This is the way it is in the books, so this is the way it should be in the show.” I feel like part of being a collaborator in a medium like this is to be willing to kind of reimagine your story, and I learned that from Alexander Payne, who just said, “Here’s the book, but here’s the movie I want to make.” That movie turned out to be a better tribute to the book than maybe a duller, more faithful movie would’ve been. I’m really interested to sort of see where an adventurous adaptation will lead. As they say, certain parts of the book — even parts that I’m very fond of — might not work in the new version that is on the screen.

Collaborations are always complicated, but in a broad sense, what was the division of labor like here? After you wrote the book, which came out in 2011, what was your role like versus Damon [Lindelof]’s role in the adaption?

I am a veteran screenwriter, so that’s the part of the filmmaking process that I’m comfortable with. And then there’s this whole other part of it, which is the producing part, which in film is a whole separate role. But in TV the executive producers are often the writers so that really appealed to me, the idea that you could have a kind of complex, long-term relationship with the material. Because if you write a screenplay, that’s the end of it. You turn it in to the director and you’re not involved in casting, you’re not involved in editing, you’re not involved in the day-to-day production.

Executive producers are involved in that and in TV shows. But Damon is a veteran: six years on “Lost.” If we go in the editing room, that’s a first for me. I’ve never spent time in the editing room where he’s a master. He’s spent years and years doing this so I kind of defer to him in places like that. I will express opinions but in general, there’s a whole technical world of filmmaking that is still pretty new to me. Again, because he’s done it so much, I respect his instincts on casting and I think he’s just much more fluent in visual storytelling. And the way that TV shows are set up, that role of the show runner who’s the final authority, like the director in movies. So, basically, I think the relationship is: I try to be a partner where I can, which is mostly in the writing, and a lot of the time in the writers room I was there maybe, you know, two weeks out of three for the past five or six months. And then, you know, to defer to him in areas of production. Real expertise and I’m kind of just learning.

This is based on your novel, obviously, but it’s not a miniseries or a five-part adaptation. This is a series that presumably could run for years and years. Are you likely to stay involved as it goes beyond the premises and events you laid out in your novel?

We’re waiting to hear if we’ll have another season. Like, all that is planning for the future and a little bit hypothetical but, you know, I’ll definitely stay on as executive producer and just have to see. Because I do have this book-writing life that I’d like to continue, so I don’t know that I can be in the writers room with quite the same commitment that I was this year but hopefully I can find a way to stay involved in the show and then sort of add a voice in terms of where the show goes.

Do you think that seeing and working on adaptations of, I guess it’s now three novels, has changed the way you write prose?

Yeah, but not in the way people might think, which I think if you look back at my earlier work, maybe like “The Wishbones,” it’s kind of a cinematic novel. And I think that’s why people were drawn to it. It was very much written in scenes. It was pretty straightforward in the way that it was structured and I think around that time I started to write screenplays and writing screenplays made me so much more aware of the subtle tools I had at my disposal as a fiction writer.

I think my work actually got a little more complex and literary from screenwriting. It was almost as if I could separate that part of my writing personality out. So the books [that came after] move around in time more. They’re more internal than they were then. So I think, oddly, that being a screenwriter has made me more aware of all the tools at my disposal in language.

So it sounds like you’re saying because you’ve worked in movies and TV, your books since then have become less like movies and TV.

I think so. I think if you put “Little Children” up against “The Wishbones,” “The Wishbones” might feel more like an obvious potential movie. Weirdly, “Little Children” became the movie and “The Wishbones” didn’t. But I don’t know if there’s a causal relationship, but there is a correlation. Maybe I’ve just gotten older and have changed as a writer, but I don’t think that writing screenplays has made me write books that are more likely to be adapted, oddly enough, though they have been.

Well, the relation between these things is complicated and interesting. I remember Christopher Nolan back when his movie "Memento" came out, telling me that his movies had been shaped -- and his way of thinking about storytelling had been very much shaped by novels. And Salman Rushdie told me a few years ago that movies had really shaped the way he wrote novels as well; he’s not somebody we think of as being a Hollywood-influenced novelist. So the connection between these different mediums is sort of unpredictable and it sounds like yours is too.

And I think you’re right and I think the fact is that anybody who is under the age of 75 grew up with movies. I think some of that old opposition of literature is sophisticated and filmmaking is commercial. None of that really holds up when you consider the work that’s been made in both of those mediums in my lifetime. So why wouldn’t storytellers like Rushdie be influenced by movies as they are by books? He probably spent his young life going to movies.

So, finally, what’s next for you? What are you thinking about, reading and writing and musing on these days?

That’s a good question. I started a novel last year and then when the show started up I sort of put it aside and am sometimes tinkering with it these days and trying to figure out if I can remember where I was at and what was so fascinating to me a year ago. I just kind of barrel back into it.

But in terms of what I’m reading, I’m in the middle of a John le Carré binge and I haven’t been very interested in literary genre fictions, just genre fiction that’s really well written. And he’s an amazing prose stylist and I feel like just, you know, in terms of pure prose style. I’d say that Philip Roth has kind of just an utterly commanding style and ability to express certain kinds of nuances that other writers don’t seem able to do.

Can we look forward to a Cold War spy novel from you the next time around?

[Laughs] If I could write one, I would.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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