THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta, the book on which the HBO series is based, tells the story of the Garvey family and other survivors of October 14–the day in which 2% of the world’s population simply vanished.
The book is less concerned with why this happened, though this mystery is central to the book’s emotional resonance, and more concerned with its aftershocks among those either lucky enough to have survived or unfortunate enough to have been left behind. The event is like the Rapture, but people of all religions are taken, including sinful people who might not have deserved it, and on planet Earth, life goes on. As science and religion don’t have answers, cults spring up. Everybody else loses their sense of purpose.
The book is very well written, but I was kind of ruined by watching the show first. In my view, the show captured the true pathos of such an event. The real loss, the disruption, the nagging spiritual malaise that comes with the sense that somehow everybody left behind had been rejected. The insult of being confronted with an impossible event that can’t be explained and probably never will. The incredible loss of so many people. In the series, we are confronted by a world gone haywire, a world just like ours but in which everybody is living with something they are trying to forget but can’t. Everybody is trying to move on, but they don’t have a clue where they want to go. They only know they want to stop feeling bad.
In contrast, the book is kind of sleepy, and I frequently lost interest. While in the show the Sudden Departure is a terrific plot premise and informs everything that happens, I often forgot the event happened as I read the book. While one character lost people directly, the rest didn’t. The event isn’t critical to the character who lost her entire family–she could have simply have been somebody who’d lost her loved ones in a car crash. Their motivations aren’t clear. For page after page, nothing really happens, and most of the plot lines come to relatively weak conclusions. The plot dissolves in sprawling character development, making it read more like a literary novel. That’s fine, that’s great, in fact–Perrotta is a great writer–but I found myself wishing it had reached above a rich portrayal of the mundane toward something higher and more thrilling, considering the concept–and especially again after I’d seen the show, which did exactly that.
On the other hand, while reading the book, you can see where the show’s creator, one of the co-creators of LOST, seeded it with annoying LOST-like elements. Fortunately, he appears to have been motivated to do that out of belief that’s what viewers want, but not from what he wanted to do, as those elements aren’t laid on as thick as in LOST, and aren’t nearly as annoyingly inconclusive.
In short, the novel is well written and pretty good, but the show is a masterpiece.