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Tom Perrotta On Creating, Evolving, and Ending HBO’s Acclaimed ‘The Leftovers’

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Author Tom Perrotta talks to Awards Daily, as this April starts the third and final season of the critically acclaimed cult favorite The Leftovers.

Celebrated author Tom Perrotta explores the simple aspects of life. Faith. Marriage. Fidelity. Infidelity. Life. Death. You know, really “light” subject matter. Tackling such heavy topics proved fruitful for the Boston-based writer. His novels Election and Little Children became critically acclaimed films starring the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Kate Winslet, and Patrick Wilson. Co-authoring duties on Little Children brought him a much deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tom Perrotta
(Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.)

“It’s kind of an amazing experience, especially for someone like me who never expected to be there,” Perrotta said. “I really was purely a fiction writer for most of my life and was just a fan of movies… It was almost like a Zelig experience.”

But it’s his 2011 novel The Leftovers that brought Tom Perrotta to the small screen. The novel, an hypnotic exploration of a rapture-like event called the “Sudden Departure,” evolved from a public and personal events. Research on Christian fundamentalism for his novel The Abstinence Teacher, the 9/11 tragedy, and the unexpected death of his father all contributed to the story. Perrotta shopped the novel to HBO with an eye toward a dramatic series, and the critically acclaimed The Leftovers premiered in June 2014.

April brings an end to The Leftovers and its touching mediation on grief and loss. For the uninitiated, The Leftovers centers on the Garvey family (led by Justin Theroux and Amy Brenneman) as they navigate life after the Sudden Departure. Unlike most standard network dramas, The Leftovers is one to contemplate and savor bit by bit. Its first two seasons are now available to stream via HBO GO or HBO NOW.

Evolving The Leftovers Beyond The Page

To bring The Leftovers to life, Tom Perrotta partnered with Damon Lindelof, writer/producer of the Emmy-winning ABC series Lost. Their collaboration and the instincts of the talented cast helped to shape the series in ways that were direct departures from the novel. Characters forged new relationships that drove the narrative in compelling directions. Critics Choice Award-winner Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst, in particular, saw dramatic changes from page to screen.

Tom Perrotta
(Janel Moloney, Christopher Eccleston, Carrie Coon. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.)

“The book Nora is a very isolated figure. She’s basically just living inside her grief,” Perrotta explained. “In the show, we’ve given her this job with the Department of the Sudden Departure, and it’s been a source of many wonderful episodes for the show.”

The characters differences exist beyond Nora Durst. Patti Levin had a minor presence running the Mapleton chapter of the Guilty Remnant in the novel. However, Ann Dowd’s remarkable performance as Levin led to an expansion of the role, even as certain events made a Season 2 return… challenging. Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison also grew in importance in the transition to screen.

“Maybe there are writers who would be alarmed by this, but to me that’s been the greatest surprise and adventure of collaborating – seeing the novel get transformed in all these interesting ways,” Perrotta said. “Many times it’s by the writing, but it’s also by the actors who bring their own personality into a role and make us see things we might not have seen had a different actor been playing that role.”

Tom Perrotta
(Liv Tyler, Ann Dowd, Amy Brenneman. Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.)
Leftovers Down Under In Season 3

Season 1 of The Leftovers took place in the novel’s original setting of Mapleton, New York. Season 2 shifted the action to the fictional town of Jarden, Texas, untouched by the Sudden Departure. The 8-episode final season again relocates, moving the cast to Australia. Shrouded in secrecy typical for the series, The Leftovers Season 3 introduces Scott Glenn as a series regular while adding Lindsay Duncan to the cast. The ending may be bittersweet, but it’s one for which Tom Perrotta and team were prepared.

“We did know that this was our final season which was a gift from HBO,” Perrotta explained. “We designed the whole season with that in mind. The whole season is about endings.”

For Awards Daily’s full interview with Tom Perrotta, check out the podcast link with this article or by subscribing to the Water Cooler Podcast on iTunes.

The Leftovers Season 3 premieres on HBO April 16. You can find Seasons 1 and 2 on HBO GO and HBO NOW.

Tom Perrotta
(Kevin Carroll, Regina King, Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.)