In support of Australia’s National Year of Reading the National Film and Sound Archive is, later this year, holding an exhibition on film adaptations. And that made me think about my favourite film adaptations, which in turn made me think it might be a good Monday Musings topic. So, here I am. This post will focus on films adapted from novels and short stories. I will write other posts in future on adaptations from plays and adaptations for TV.
The Australian film industry, like most, has drawn from novels, plays and stories since its early days. Some of Australia’s best known silent films are adaptations, including The sentimental bloke (1919) (CJ Dennis), On our selection (1920) (Steele Rudd), and For the term of his natural life (1927) (Marcus Clarke). For this post, however, I’ll be focusing on my favourites from the last few decades.
Are you one of those people who refuses to see a film until you’ve read the book? I’m not really, though if it’s a book I’m keen to read I do prefer to read it first. I take a pretty free and easy (wishy-washy, did I hear you say?) approach to film adaptations. That is, I don’t expect them to replicate the work they are based on and am very happy for artistic licence to be taken. Film and Literature are different media and it’s impossible, in my view, for one to replicate the other. This might sound a bit ingenuous, but I’m just not too fussed about getting my knickers in a knot over the issue. I care more about whether I enjoyed the film (and, of course, whether I enjoyed the book).
I have to admit that some (though my no means all) of my favourite Aussie film adaptations are of books or stories I haven’t read or that I read after seeing the film. However, they are still adaptations and they are films I like, so I’m going to list them here (with the work they are based on). Like all lists it’s going to be hard to limit it, but limit it I must, so here goes, in film date order …
- Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is credited with kickstarting the renaissance of Australian film in the 1970s. It was based on a novel of the same name, by Joan Lindsay. It was quite controversial at the time – not the film itself – but the question of whether it was based on fact or not. It wasn’t! It’s a great story, beautifully filmed by Peter Weir – and has become pretty much an iconic Aussie film.
- My Brilliant Career (1979) was based on Miles Franklin‘s novel of the same name. It was made during a period when the Australian film industry was dominated by nostalgia (or period drama). When you’re on a good thing, stick to it, and all that … but this film had something special. It spoke to the second wave of feminism in its story of Sybylla who gives up a man to stay true to her dream of being a writer, and it launched the career of pioneering woman film director, Gillian Armstrong.
- Three dollars (2005) was based on a novel of the same name by Elliot Perlman whose latest novel, The street sweeper, I’ll be reading and reviewing later this year. I love this film (and book, which is one of those I did read first) because it’s about a man who sticks by his principles, who won’t let corporate greed or urban apathy get in the way of his humanity despite significant cost to himself. And it starred David Wenham (aka the luscious Diver Dan from a favourite television series).
- Jindabyne (2006) is a bit of a ring-in here because it was based not on an Australian work but on a short story by the American writer, Raymond Carver. The story is titled “So much water so close to home” and has been transplanted to Australia and overlaid with an indigenous theme, but the essential story about men who, on a fishing trip discover a dead (murdered) girl and, rather than hike out to report the death immediately, continue their trip, remains the same. It’s a taut, tight, visually beautiful film about moral responsibility.
- The eye of the storm (2011) is based on Patrick White’s novel of the same name. White is often described as “unadaptable” – and later this year I plan to write on the saga behind an attempt to make a film of Voss. We are still waiting – though it was adapted for opera, with David Malouf the librettist. Meanwhile, I reckon The eye of the storm effectively shows that White can indeed be adapted to film. The film had an amazingly long run (in my city anyhow) for not-the-best-known book by an author generally regarded as “hard”.
These are just five of many that I’ve seen and enjoyed over the years – I might also have mentioned Bliss, Candy, Looking for Alibrandi and Romulus my father, for example – but for all those I’ve seen, I wonder about the ones that haven’t been made. Over the years, we hear books are optioned – like Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, Thea Astley‘s Drylands, Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music – and we wait, and wait, and wait to see them, but they never appear. Given that adaptations can often guarantee an audience (though perhaps less so of literary fiction), it’s surprising to me that so many of our wonderful novels have not yet been adapted. I can only wait and hope…
Meanwhile, do you enjoy film adaptations, and what are your favourites?