Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (1)

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, CandyLooking 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?

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (1)

  1. I have a love-hate relationship with film adaptations. When done well they can really bring the novel to life but anything that doesn’t ring true to the book, whether it be casting or the events in the story, only serves to make me grumpy for “ruining” things. I hear you though about finding out that a book has been optioned for a movie and then nothing ever comes of it. Very frustrating especially for those few that find me thinking, yeah, that will be a good movie.

    • Ah Stefanie … The challenge is all in interpretation of “true to the book” isn’t it? I can take a lot of deviation if I see what aspect of the book the director/scriptwriter/etc has taken. For example, I liked Rozema’s Mansfield Park which I think captured the spirit of Jane Austen, but many don’t because she played around too much with the actual novel. I mayn’t even agree with the interpretation but can still like the film if I can see what’s being done and think they’ve given it a good shot.

      • You make a good point. I love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie even though he leave out a lot and changes around some important things. Lots of people were angry because of that but I thought in spite of it all he was true to the story and the things he cut out or rearranged had to be done for the sake of the movie. And maybe that’s the hardest thing, books and movies are two very different things and what works brilliantly on paper may be a huge bore on film.

        • Exactly Stefanie … it’s all about our individual definitions of what being “true” is … and I guess that’s what makes discussion of issues like this fun.

  2. I haven’t seen The Eye of the Storm yet; neither have I seen Three Dollars. Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of my all-time fav films.

    I don’t know about being ‘wishy washy’ when it comes to film adaptations. I feel about the same way as you–different mediums and different approaches. I am fine with the film version being an interpretation. I resent a wonderful book being made into a crap film.

  3. I was about to mention Looking For Alibrandi but then saw it go an honourable mention 🙂 Thank heavens you didn’t mention the sad, sad film version of The Silver Brumby!!

    • Phew … I nearly listed it in my top list but then decided just to keep that to 5. So many good films based on books, really. Alibrandi was great … but fortunately I didn’t see the Brumby one.

    • Thanks John … I’m embarrassed to say that I still have to see that film. It came out at a hugely busy time in my life so I missed it, and have never managed to catch up with it. I really should though.

  4. Absolutely loved Eye of the Storm! Although in that case I haven’t read the book… Sometimes also have trouble with film adaptations. It helps to see the movie and only then read the book, I reckon.

    • Thanks Annette for commenting. I think a lot of students take the “see the film first” approach – I only hope (not that I’m a teacher) that they do go on to read the book! (I do take your point though … sometimes, too, I read the book later just because I hadn’t manage to read it before.)

  5. I never realised Jindabyne was from Carver. One film I’m waiting for is Madeline st John’s Women in Black, which Bruce Beresford has apparently been hoping to make for ages.

  6. The 1986 For Love Alone is the adaptation I want to watch, based on the Stead book, with Hugo Weaving playing Crow the cold boyfriend. If there is a single actor on earth who seems more naturally like Crow then I’ve never seen him. You could put the man back in his elf gear and he’d still make a good Crow. Normally I can’t imagine a fictional character being represented by any actor at all, but say to me, “Jonathan Crow” and then “Hugo Weaving,” and I will say, “Forsooth.”

    Three Dollars seems special because they filmed about four seconds of it at a local shopping centre, and ah, sweet, there’s David Wenham on our escalator. Those feet that trod the seachange turf have trod our turf likewise; those limbs that went through the window in Gettin’ Square and flapped off in their bum-snug daks have neighboured with our air.

    But Chopper is the one I like, the queasy plague-and-darkness palette that makes the entire thing look institutionalised and indoor even when the characters are free (Chopper begins and ends the film in prison; the cinematographer makes sure that prison follows him everywhere), the acting, the brutal humour, the whole depiction of a man who seems to have nothing in his head where other people have foresight, planning, or empathy. And the idea of people who lead dramatic gun-and-drug lives but their language and standards are suburban — Vince C. asks Chopper how he likes his new house and Chopper politely agrees that it’s lovely — they have no imagination, life bewilders them, they can’t find a language that would suit what they do. Chopper can stab or shoot a man and then ask, “Are you all right, mate?” as you do when someone’s hurt; the fact that he’s the one who hurt him doesn’t stop him using the right formula.

  7. Generally speaking I’m not a fan of film adaptions of novels, primarily because they usual have to fillet the story to get it into 90 minutes. But you’re right that the ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ adaptation is fantastic. The adaptation of Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ is pretty damn fine, too. Although not a film as such, the BBC’s adaption of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is certainly very watchable and brought out the cinematic qualities that you can find in Waugh’s writing. Oh, and I agree with you about ‘Jindabyne’ – an excellent film. By the way, if you’d like to read about the writer’s experience of having their work turned into a film, check out (I did the interview, so this is a bit of a shameless plug, but it’s certainly on topic!)

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