Tom Perrotta Brings 'The Leftovers' To HBO

Jun 27, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 9:36 am

Think for a second. Say there is a rapture — a Bibilical event in which people around you

disappear.

What would you do? Wouldn’t you wonder a little, “Well, why not me?”

In Tom Perrotta‘s novel “The Leftovers,” there are hellish questions on Earth after millions are whisked off to heaven.

And now, “The Leftovers” is an HBO series. Perrotta isn’t new to having his work adapted to the screen. Previously, Perrotta’s novels “Election” and “Little Children” were adapted into Academy Award nominated films.

But this time, Perrotta is behind the wheel of the adaptation: he is the show’s co-creator and executive producer, and he co-wrote the pilot as well.

Here & Now’s Robin Young talks to Perrotta about the process of bringing his book to television.

[Youtube]

Interview Highlights

On adapting “The Leftovers” for TV

“I’ve had books turned into films before, and in that case what you’re doing is trying to compress the story so that it fits in a 2-hour format. Here, we have ten 1-hour episodes for the season so the book has grown beyond its boundaries. We’ve created new characters, we’ve invented new stories to tell. It’s really been a process of transformation, creating something new.”

On what’s changed in the adaptation

“I think one of the things that really happened in this transformative process is that the quietness of the book was amped up … I think readers will find that ‘The Leftovers’ has been given a shot of adrenaline.”

On the book’s deeper meaning

“There’s something crazy about this idea of people just disappearing. But, there’s also something very true about it.”

“I know people who’ve died suddenly. I think the first time it happens to you, the world feels different forever. So I wanted to use it as a metaphor, but I also wanted to sort of undermine apocalyptic conventions and really create an internal apocalypse. The world looks fine, but the people are deeply shaken.”

“My father died in a car accident. It was ten years ago, but still, he was there one day and he was not there the next. It took me a very, very long time — I don’t think I still have fully absorbed that. You just fear for the people you love in a different way once that happens. And it happens pretty much to everybody in some way or another.”

Guest

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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

If there was a rapture - a Biblical event in which people around you just disappeared - if you're a Christian, wouldn't you wonder why not me? In Tom Perrotta's 2011 novel “The Leftovers,” that's just one of the hellish questions asked on Earth after millions are whisked off to heaven. And this Sunday "The Leftovers" debuts on HBO. As it begins, a busy mom in the small town of Mapleton, New York, is in the car, talking on the phone, when suddenly, something goes missing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEFTOVERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The red, but..oh my god, press it in with a pen or something, perfect. It'll start. OK, I'm in the car right now. Can you make the formula? I'm going to be home in...

YOUNG: Her baby's gone along with 140 million others - two percent of the world's population. Is it the Rapture? Well, the Pope is gone, but so is the notorious actor, Gary Busey. In fact, this Rapture includes Hindus, Muslims, Jews, alcoholics. Tom Perrotta not only wrote the book "The Leftovers," he also co-created the show and serves as executive producer. He joins us in the studio. Congratulations, right?

TOM PERROTTA: Oh, thanks. Yeah.

YOUNG: It is congratulations?

PERROTTA: Oh, absolutely.

YOUNG: So what's it been like to see the book go to TV?

PERROTTA: It's been a very strange and exciting process for me. You know, I’ve had books turned into films before, and in that case what you’re doing is trying to compress the story so that it fits into, you know, a two-hour format. And here, we have 10 one-hour episodes for the season.

So the book has grown beyond its boundaries. We’ve created new characters. We’ve invented new stories to tell. So it’s really been a process of transformation and creating something new. You know, it's been great.

YOUNG: Well, has the book, besides growing, changed? I mean, the book is the world three years after this sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population. And there's a quietness to this book, sometimes an almost mundane-ness to the world, which makes it even more chilling, you know.

But we're talking HBO where people want screaming zombies with their apocalypse, want red weddings - bloody red weddings, you know, with their mythology. Were you pushed, or did you feel inclined to do more of that kind of explosive television.

PERROTTA: Yeah, I think - I think one of the things that really happened in this transformative process is that the quietness of the book was amped up. So - and we had Peter Berg direct the first two episodes. He's the director. He did "Lone Survivor." He did "Friday Night Lights," and he's known for his virtuoso action scenes.

So he really brought his flare to the show. And then Dan Lindelof, who co-created "Lost," was the co-creator of the show with me. And he brought his ability to tell a very suspenseful, twisty story. So, yes. I think readers of the book will find that "The Leftovers" has been given a shot of adrenaline.

YOUNG: It's not as much internal dialogue, it's external action - a little more external action?

PERROTTA: Yeah, and I think that's inevitable in the film because it's really hard to get inside the head's of characters. But we have an amazing cast and I think what you get instead of the inner lives are these faces - these incredibly expressive faces and voices of our actors.

YOUNG: Well, and how did this come to be for you. This whole idea, you have said when the book came out, that it came out of a lot of thinking about evangelical culture.

PERROTTA: Yeah, I wrote a book called "The Abstinence Teacher," which was about the culture-war that was raging. I think it was raging much hotter 10 years ago when I started thinking about that.

And I wanted to write a story that was fair to both sides of this cultural divide. And to do that I needed to look deeply at evangelical culture. And if you do, you find that the Rapture is at the center of it. And that's the story of - you know, the book "Left Behind," that's much more kind of novelization of the biblical prophecy. I tweaked it for "The Leftovers."

The Rapture is very ambiguous as you mentioned before. I was borrowing this concept which seemed to me so powerful. You know, there's something crazy about this idea of people just disappearing. But there's also something very true about it because any one of us who gets to be the age that - I'm a little bit over 50 right now. And you know, I know people who have died suddenly and they were there one day and they weren't there. And it's something that, the first time it happens to you the, I think world feels different forever. And so I wanted to use it as a metaphor, but I also wanted to sort of undermine apocalyptic conventions and really create an internal apocalypse. The world looks fine, but the people are deeply shaken.

YOUNG: Well, and they do what people do when they're deeply shaken. They start forming cults and groups and believing in other things and trying to separate themselves out, and take sides, and it becomes very divisive. And as the premier of your HBO show opens, it's three years after whatever it was that happened in the town of Mapleton, about to celebrate its first hero's day to mark this third anniversary. But the police chief, Kevin Garvey, who by the way was the mayor in your book. The mayor is now played by Amanda Warren, a woman - they're arguing about having this event because of these splinter groups. One of them is called the GR - the Guilty Remnant. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEFTOVERS")

JUSTIN THEROUX: (as Kevin Garvey) The whole town, the same place to the same time. On the anniversary. You're inviting them to show up.

AMANDA WARREN: (as Lucy Warburton) The GR is in a threat. If they want to stage a non-violent protest, that's their right.

THEROUX: (as Kevin Garvey) You were at the homecoming. You walked right onto the field.

WARREN: (as Lucy Warburton) And then they walked right off. No harm done.

THEROUX: (as Kevin GarveyPolice Chief) They are trying to provoke us.

WARREN: (as Lucy Warburton) Then don't get provoked.

YOUNG: So a couple of questions. First of all, why did you make Kevin Garvey, now the police chief, instead of the mayor?

PERROTTA: You know, Damon and I tried a draft of the pilot where Kevin was the mayor, and HBO was very forceful in saying they thought that to have our main character as the mayor kept him a little bit separate from the action. He was kind of a peace-maker between the town and the Guilty Remnant, the GR - this cult that wears white and chain smokes. And they wanted him more in the fray.

And so the way that we responded to that critique that they gave was to shift him from the mayor to the police chief. And I didn't feel like that was an enormous compromise because both the mayor and the chief of police are trying to hold this social order together when it's on the verge of falling apart.

YOUNG: That's kind of interesting that an official isn't seen as being in the fray because it is true when you watch TV shows, the president or the mayor or whatever, they show up flanked by their handlers, and then they disappear. They come through the scene. Well, but the GR, the Guilty Remnant, as you say, they dress in white and they chain smoke because?

PERROTTA: What they want to do - they say they want to be living reminders. They really object to the sense that time is moving on, that society is returning back to normal, that people are trying their best to pretend that this thing didn't happen or to relegate it to the past. And so they're - there's some mixture of aesthetic religion and street theater.

They wear white cloths. They chain smoke. They take a vow of silence. And they wander the streets of town and just stare at people and get in their face. And sometimes they occupy buildings. Sometimes they disrupt public events, and they're starting to be a real - but they practice non-violence. But the town is becoming violent toward them.

YOUNG: So here you are, immersed in the topic you were writing about in 2011 and expanding on it. It's sad because if you think about it, the Rapture, your baby might go and you don't go - that's a terrible loss. Do you ever think about yourself?

PERROTTA: If you're asking me, do I think about losing the people in my life, and how I'd go on, yes, I do. You know, my father died in a car accident. It was 10 years ago. But still, he was there one day and he was not there the next.

And it took me a very, very long time - I don’t think I still have fully absorbed that. And you just fear for the people you love in a different way once that happens. And it happens pretty much to everybody in some way or other.

YOUNG: And it certainly happens to just about everybody in "The Leftovers." Someone they love is gone. That's Tom Perrotta. His new HBO show "The Leftovers" is based on his book of the same name. It debuts this Sunday. He's co-creator, executive producer. And we wish you a lot of luck with it, Tom. Thank you.

PERROTTA: Thanks, Robin.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson, in awe of HBO and all of the great things that they do. Can't wait to see it this weekend. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.