Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (2)

A couple of Monday Musings ago I shared some of my favourite Australian films adapted from novels. Today, it’s the turn of Aussie plays. I’m no expert in adapting works but it seems to me that it would be easier to adapt a play to film than it would be a novel. I wonder if that’s true in reality? Does anyone know?

Anyhow, here are some of my favourite Australian films that had their genesis in theatre:

  • Don’s Party (1976) is one of many plays written by satirist David Williamson that have been adapted to film, and I have enjoyed most of those I’ve seen. I’ve chosen Don’s Party because it was one of the first. The play was written in 1971 and is set during a post-election party held by Don for his Australian Labor Party friends. They expect their party to win but things don’t quite go to plan, and tensions develop. The film was directed by prolific Australian director, Bruce Beresford. It beautifully but rather excruciatingly captures the new educated, socially mobile middle class, their (our!) pretensions and the gap between reality and their dreams.
  • Breaker Morant (1980) is one of my favourite Australian films from our film renaissance of the 1970s to early 80s, partly because I am a bit of a fan of courtroom dramas and this is a good one! The film was adapted from a play (first produced in 1978) by a playwright I don’t know, Kenneth G. Ross, and was directed by Bruce Beresford. (Told you he was prolific!). The subject is the court-martial of Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and two other officers for murders during the Boer War. The film plays to an historical tension between the colonial Aussies and the colonist Brits, as well as to Australians’ reputation for larrikinism or anti-authoritarianism, and it makes a strong anti-war case. It starred Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson – and, writing about it now, makes me want to see it again.
  • Lantana (2001) was adapted from the play, Speaking in tongues, by Andrew Bovell. It’s a tense drama centred around a murder, but it’s less a crime story than an exploration of relationships and trust/betrayal. The film was directed by Ray Lawrence. It has a moody atmosphere and an insistent soundtrack (composed by Paul Kelly) that makes it hard to forget.
  • Blessed (2009) was adapted from the play, Who’s afraid of the working class?, written by Andrew Bovell (again), Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas (author of The Slap) and Irene Vela. The playwrights, with the exception of Vela, also wrote the film script. As I wrote in my review on this blog, it’s a gritty exploration of mothers and their often neglected children.

There are many other Australian films adapted from plays, including several by Williamson, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (from Ray Lawler’s classic play of the same name), and The Sum of Us (from a play by David Stevens, who also wrote the filmscript for Breaker Morant!).

When films are adapted from books, we often know because the books tend to be republished (often with a movie image on its cover). The movies provide a great opportunity for books to get another airing. With plays, though, its a different situation. We don’t, as a rule, read plays and we often don’t know, I suspect, whether a film has been based on a play or not (even if it has the same title).

How often are you aware of the theatrical origin of films you like, and do you have any favourite films that are based on plays?

(BTW, My next post on the topic of adaptations will be on television adaptations.)

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (2)

  1. Usually if I really enjoy a film and think it’s something special (or interesting in one way or another), then I’ll look to see whether it’s based on a book or a film.

    I’ve seen Lantana, Don’s Party & Breaker Morant–and enjoyed them all for various reasons. You’ve got to love Don’s Party for the build-up.

    I recently watched Bette Davis in The Letter which was based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story, then made into a play. Great stuff.

    I suppose we can all think of those Shakespeare plays made into films, but other names to come to mind: Joe Orton: Entertaining Mr Sloane & Loot. Alan Ayckbourn: Private Fears in Public Places (and other titles). Then back to Oscar Wilde….

    • Thanks for mentioning the classics Guy.

      Shakespeare is a interesting point. I almost tend to see them as filmed plays rather than adaptations, and some pretty much were, but of course a lot aren’t.

      As for Maugham, it’s astonishing how many of his works were filmed isn’t it. A great storyteller!

  2. I’ve not heard of any of those films. I will have to see if any of them are available. It is an interesting question whether it is easier to adapt for film a novel or a play. I very much liked the movie of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman. Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is pretty darn awesome and I liked Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V quite a lot too.

  3. I’ll have you know I definitely pulled out the “Miiiiiraaaaaanda!” while hiking on Saturday, despite the fact that no one else had any idea what I was doing. xo

  4. Some of my favourite movies are adaptations of plays. I guess the playright has had to present his ideas largely through dialogue and visual impact with much less description and internal monologuing found in novels. Other than those you mentioned based on Australian plays, “Strictly ballroom” is another favourite of mine, based on a Baz Luhrman play. My favourite David Williamson movie from a play is “Travelling north”. It seems to me more sensitive and less farcical than “Don’s party” and more of a movie and less of a filmed play. The Australian play I most want to see filmed is “Summer of the Aliens” by Louis Nowra.

    • Oh thanks Bushmaid for your contribution. I agree that Travelling North is a great film too … I guess it’s less satirical which makes a big difference. Louis Nowra! I should, I realise now, have mentioned Cosi. I remember enjoying that film a lot. He wrote the play and the film script.

  5. Wake in Fright was a great read by Kenneth Cook, and there is very good movie adaptation. It is a not nice story, and you will find both confronting; and you will flinch at some of the barbaric events that occur. I don’t know who Hannah’s “Miiiiiraaaaaanda! is, but it did remind me of Picnic at Hanging Rock written by Joan Lindsay. The book and movie are both very surreal.


    • Oh Wake in fright … I haven’t read that. Thanks for adding it to the list.

      As for Miranda, that is Picnic at Hanging Rock. Miranda was the lead girl they follow into the rocks. I think it’s the girl left behind who calls Miranda as she disappears from view.

  6. The setting is a giveaway. If I’m watching a film and if, after twenty minutes, everyone is still in the same room or the same house, or the same railway carriage (I don’t remember the title of this railway-carriage film, but I’m fairly sure it exists) then I start to think, “This is based on a play,” and that impression of mine gets even sharper if the cast is small and they spend most of their time holding conversations in which one person takes one polarised position and another person takes another polarised position and they exchange clear clever zingers until you’re supposed to be vexed and thoughtful about the core idea, whatever it is. The Boys hasn’t been mentioned yet but it’s a stunner of a dark housebound film. The lighting is grim and poisoned again, as in Chopper, but the script is less funny, more vicious and frightening; the dangerous man is never really a larrikin.

    • Sometimes the iPad drives me nuts. I’ve written a reply to this three Timed. One seemed to save but it had errors I couldn’t edit because the text box froze, so I went into the WordPress app to edit it and then it said it was under moderation. So I went to approve my fixed up edit and it went poof.

      Anyhow, those are great clues to a play adaptation. Sometimes a bad one! Sme are more like filmed plays, which isn’t necessarily bad if that’s the intention.

      I know of The Boys, have a feeling I’ve seen it except if it’s as powerful as you say perhaps I haven’t!

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