The Leftovers: Comparing the Book and the Series

The Leftovers series on HBO was developed by Damon Lindelof, the showrunner for LOST, and Tom Perrotta, the author of the book from which the show is based. After reading the book, I gained an even deeper appreciation for Damon’s storytelling than I’d had just based on his work on LOST. That’s not to suggest that the book is bad or not worth reading. Rather, the book could really be considered more like the raw, unrefined kernel of the idea that became the series.

Here’s your warning: I’m going to spoil whatever I need to if I ever get around to making a point. So, look out.

The primary difference for me was character depth. You might expect that a book would be “deeper” (expose more of the motivations, inner thoughts, backstory, etc.) than a TV show. While you will get much more detail about things like the Guilty Remnant or Holy Wayne’s movement in the book, the show is more effective at giving a real emotional weight to the characters.

That character depth is part of the second big difference: the characters themselves. Let’s give a quick rundown.

  • Kevin – This is the biggest change.
    Book: He’s father of two, former owner of a successful liquor store chain, and current mayor of Mapleton. He’s generally happy, but also doesn’t let himself dwell on or really engage with the any of the problems confronting him. The poster image of Justin Theroux smashing a wall with his fist in no way matches Book-Kevin.
    Show: He’s father to Jill and adopted father to Tom, career cop and current chief of police. He’s super intense, constantly drunk, extremely confrontational, and possibly crazy. The show-Kevin is restless and conflicted about who he is and who he thought he should be.
  • Laurie – pretty close to the same person
    Book: She’s a former stay-at-home mom that joined the GR about 2 years after the Departure. She talks when she’s allowed to. Thanks to the some of the book’s narrative being from her point of view, the reader gets to know exactly where she stands on her commitment to the GR and her lingering attachment to her family.
    Show: Laurie is a divorced and remarried mother of two and former therapist (maybe psychiatrist) that joined the GR some time and for some reason. She exhibits some trouble letting her family go as completely as she should (to be a member of the GR in good standing that is).
  • Jill – a little further from the source material than Laurie, but still pretty close.
    Book: Good student gone bad thanks to her mother leaving the home and the influence of Aimee. She drinks, gets high, has sex, skips school, shaves her head, but ultimately decides to straighten out after becoming disillusioned with that lifestyle. She has a flirtation with the GR because a former teacher that has become a member reaches out to her. She breaks that off before it gets close to being a problem though.
    Show: Same starting point, leaning even heavier toward painting Jill as a nerd before Laurie’s exit. She drinks, gets high, participates in sexy situations (though we don’t know how far she ends up going), skips school and leaves her hair alone. She attempts to join the GR to try and get her mother’s attention. It remains to be seen if the events in the first season’s climax will scare her strait or not.
  • Nora Durst – same starting point, same ending point
    Book: Former wife and mother of two whose entire family Departed. Lives off of settlement money, rides her bike a lot and is probably losing her mind. She watches episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants to remind herself of her kids. Has a sister and other family members that generally don’t like to hang out with her because of the way she makes them feel. Learns from Matt Jamison that her husband had been cheating on her with children’s pre-school teacher. She eventually talks things over with the other woman and can feel some small amount of closure on that wound. Invites Kevin to go to Florida with her and they go.
    Show: Former wife and mother of two whose entire family Departed. Works for the Department of Sudden Departure, lives in a museum-like diorama of the way her house when her family departed. Goes to extremes to experience any kind of feeling, like asking people to shoot her. Although she is Matt Jamison’s sister, he still tells her about her husband’s affair before he publishes it in a newsletter. No other siblings and her parents died in a fire. Invites Kevin to go to Florida with her and freaks him out.
  • Others –
    • Matt Jamison – in the book he is a former pastor that is irrationally disgusted by people believing that the Departure was the rapture, so he single-mindedly goes about setting the record straight by publishing newsletters that outline the moral downfalls of the Departed. In the show he’s expanded on quite a bit. His motivation is grounded in that a sleazeball judge Departed and left his vehicle careening into the side of his own car, leaving his wife highly impaired.
    • Dean the Dog Killer – in the book he’s just a guy that kills the gone-feral strays and resists paying a fine for it. He gets about a paragraph. In the show, he’s deeply wrapped up in Kevin’s declining mental health. Viewers aren’t even sure if he’s real until he speaks up at a town hall meeting halfway through the series.
    • Patti Levin – In the book, she talks every time we see her. We only see her a couple times and not until the book is half over. She’s basically the regional manager of the GR. She’s no more inspiring or mysterious than any other middle manager. In the show, she’s possibly spiritually attuned to the departure and keen on writing herself into the fabric of the GR’s own mythos as a martyr. Also, she is shown to have traded roles with Laurie from their previous relationship as therapist and patient. After the Departure, Laurie needs Patti’s guidance. This reversal never took place in the book because there was no prior relationship.
    • Tom – basically the same guy in both media. His backstory doesn’t include a deadbeat biological dad, but the book fills in everything else about his time in college and then falling in with Holy Wayne. The biggest difference in Tom is that he gives up on Wayne much earlier in the narrative, but stays with Christine just for Christine and the baby’s sake.
    • Holy Wayne – pretty much the same guy, but it’s not specified that he’s black or foreign in the book. A lot of the mysticism surrounding Wayne’s supposed ability to relieve pain is absent from the book. Also, he survives the book.
    • Meg – Meg is Laurie’s trainee in both media. In the book, they actually talk quite a bit and become as close as sisters. Book-Meg does not show the ambitious, craziness that TV-Meg eventually exhibits, but Book-Meg IS willing to become a martyr for GR.

The show had several ideas that expanded on the book, strengthened the narrative and gave it some shape that was missing from the book. Where the book is like an excerpt of an account of the lives during those months, the TV show deliberately builds toward a pretty spectacular climax. Although the GR is annoying to the Mapleton townspeople in the book, they are mostly ignorable. They never enact what I called “Project Mayhem” on the town to steal pictures and order up knock-off versions of Departed family members. All of the stuff that supports that climax was written specifically for the show.

For Damon to have read the book and seen a TV series inside is kind of amazing. I’d recommend the book to fans of the show if only because I think Damon is a pretty great writer and if people saw where the show came from, they’d probably agree. The book is a good read on its own merits, but it’s an easy choice to pick the show as the better version of The Leftovers story.

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