TO EVERYONE ---
The show has one of the best looks at class relations of anything I've seen for tv. It's about how the loss of a person whose life crossed class divides worsens the life of an entire community. It shines most when it's showing the life of one impoverished teenage girl who seems tough and able but has lost her lifeline and knows it, but it also makes the community surrounding (and to some extent neglecting) her feel like a living entity. Even if due to cuts from the book (or flaws from the book) some of the characters don't feel quite like human beings, they still feel like they belong where they are.
And the place where they are is pretty amazing: this seemingly idyllic village with livestock always in view, where an ignorant observer might assume there can't be a care in the world. Much like Margie at the end of Fargo, I found it tragic that people could get so caught up about money on such a beautiful day; but that's the world, both ours and theirs.
TO THOSE WHO HAVE READ THE BOOK (veiled spoilers if you haven't) ---
The show manages to hit two of the main themes of the book well: (1) that kindess or cruelty which might seem to make no difference CAN make a difference which only an omniscient observer could trace, and (2) that more specifically the lives of the poor have a million compounding difficulties that the non-poor can never quite understand (even though they can help).
It unfortunately completely neglects the third theme, which the book builds slowly and then reveals at the end: that poor people's own kindness & cruelty can have as much effect on a community as anyone else's, and the death of a poor person almost no one valued can be as tragic as that of the best-known do-gooder in the village. When that death comes on the show it's definitely tragic, but only because the character was so vivid to us, not because of the things they'd done or might have done.
Admittedly, that third one is very hard to pull off in limited time & budget, and the excision that hurts the most in this respect is the rowing team. It helped bring characters together in a slightly more casual way than the tv does and showed that giving people a chance isn't just charity, it's an investment that can actually pay off.
Speaking of excisions, it says something about both the book and its themes that although they only cut one of the twenty major characters, Gavin Hughes, and even though that's probably the character I would have thought of as the most disposable, I felt his absence throughout the show. I realize now that characters were linked to each other in three ways: through socializing, through work, and through family. Without Gavin Hughes, Kay Bowden has no social connection to the village, and although her work & family plots are well done it makes her presence seem odd when neither work or family are directly involved. It also steals a plotline from Samantha Mollison, which I regret since she was my favorite character in the book and the show in general diminishes her quite a bit (while at the same time making her more sympathetic).
Despite the fact that the only big cut character is a man, it's the female relationships that suffer the most in the consolidation. The show gives the Prices a direct connection to the Fairbrothers, so you no longer need nor get the interesting cross-class friendship of Ruth Price & Shirley Mollison. Similarly there's a connection of the Whedons & Fairbrothers, so they lose the rowing team which brought Krystal, Sukvinder and others together as teammates and enemies at various times. Sukvinder is probably the biggest walking casualty; she in, but loses both her self-harm plot and her role as part of The Ghost and becomes much more of an audience surrogate, watching everything but often wishing she didn't have to see so much ugliness.
In retrospect, it's pretty amazing to me that the show captures as much of the book as it does (and some of the consolidation does lead to very powerful moments by bringing together things the book leaves distant), and in particular the argument that people can make a bigger difference than they think is well done, but I can't help thinking a few more brief flashbacks might have really brought it home.
(Final note: The ending is softened in a few major ways from the book ending. But as when I watched Baz Lurman's Romeo+Juliet, I found myself more impressed by the unpleasant things they left in than scandalized by what they took out.)
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE SEEN THE SHOW --
First off I'll say, if you liked anything about the show besides the ghost & death visions I highly recommend reading the book. There's so much more to know about the characters and experience with them.
The show consolidates these in sometimes powerful ways. You get the direct juxtoposition of Barry's widow complaining (with seeming justification) that he spent 600 pounds on a high-quality door for the Whedons with that same door saving Krystal from some terrible punishment by the drug dealer, something that may or may not be in the book but wouldn't feel as immediate.
But the power comes at the expense of subtlety and nuance. In the book, Barry's do-gooding is less superhuman. He isn't spending 24/7 trying to fix the door in every poor home, or even the Whedon's. He's doing his council job, coaching the rowing team, giving people rides home, and occasionally putting a good word in for people like Krystal who he feels are under-appreciated. Book-Barry is probably unaware of just how important he is to people like her, whereas show-Barry really is like something out of a comic book.
Along the same lines, the show is much more openly on the side of Barry's faction on the council. While I'm sure JK would vote for them, she has more chance to lay out both cases and let the reader decide, and further to make it clear that some of the people in the progressive faction have serious personality flaws of their own which could make an average person turn against them.
There are also some specific events of the show that make less sense without the book's greater breadth. Samantha's disastrous dinner party seems like deliberate sabotage in the show, but in the book (thanks to the presence of a character cut from the show) makes a lot of sense. (Samantha in general has a lot more going on in the book; she was my favorite character). Ditto with the specific interaction of Krystal & what's dumped in the river.
The only caveat I'd give to this (other than just losing the interesting death effects and the standout performance of Abigail Lawrie as Krystal) is that the combative half-brother Simon Price, who I found hard to take in the show, is even more so in the book, at greater length and with less meaningful connection to justify him.
Questions & reactions eagerly welcomed as always.