Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie television adaptations

Today’s Monday Musings is the third in my series on filmed adaptations of Aussie literature, though this time I’m talking television adaptations. The television adaptation of books – mostly into miniseries – has become big business over the last few decades. You only have to look at the BBC and the success it’s had with the so-called bonnet dramas to know that.

A miniseries seems to me to be a more natural form for novel adaptations than movies, if only because the additional length offered by the miniseries caters for more character and plot development. It’s not only for its wet shirt scene that the 1995 adaptation of Pride and prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is so beloved!

Anyhow, here are some of my favourite Australian television series that were adapted from novels*:

  • A Town Like Alice (1981) was one of my favourite novels of my teen years – that and anything by Jane Austen, not to mention Voss from my late teens. Written by Nevil Shute, it’s a wartime romance on a grand scale about English rose Jean Paget, her experience as a prisoner-of-war in Malaya, her initial not always harmonious meeting with Aussie bloke Joe Harmon, and her post-war life in the Aussie outback. We “colonials” loved the idea of an Englishwoman preferring life with a dinkum Aussie bloke to one with the toffs over the sea! Mythmaking perhaps, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of that every now and then!
  • Harp in the South (1986) was based on the novel of the same name by Ruth Park about whom I’ve written before on this blog. The book was another teen favourite of mine. Published in 1948, it’s a gritty realistic though sympathetic novel set in the slums of Sydney and is one of several books by Park that dealt with “battlers”. It’s some time since I’ve seen the series but I recollect that it effectively conveyed the world of the novel that Park created.
  • My Brother Jack (1965 and 2001) was adapted from the Miles Franklin Award winning novel of the same name by George Johnston. Published in 1964, it is the first of a trilogy, and is regarded as an Australian classic. The 1965 adaptation was written by Johnston’s wife, Charmian Clift, but if I’ve seen it I don’t recollect it. I did however see the 2001 adaptation. I enjoyed its depiction of between the wars Australia, and its exploration of Aussie masculinity through the uneducated, hardworking Jack as seen by his educated, more obviously successful but less happy journalist brother.
  • The Slap (2010) was adapted from Christos Tsiolkas‘ Miles Franklin Award winning novel of the same name. This is a multiple point of view novel with each chapter being  told from a different character’s point of view. It’s not always sensible for adaptations to follow the style and structure of the original but in this case the producers did, and it worked well. It was gripping viewing.
  • Cloudstreet (2011) was also adapted from the Miles Franklin Award winning novel of the same name, but this time by Tim Winton. It’s a big novel in which realism and something more magical are used to tell the story of two families who find themselves sharing a house at no. 1 Cloud Street. The adaptation did a wonderful job of capturing what is a complex novel with a large cast of characters and spanning several decades. The script, the visuals, the music work together to create something accessible but thought-provoking at the same time.

Interestingly, all of the above adaptations used the same title as their original novel. I guess there’s a good reason for that! And the last three were all based on Miles Franklin Award winning novels. Anyhow, these are just a few of the many Aussie novel television adaptations … there are way too many, and many that I’ve enjoyed, to discuss here – such as Nancy Cato‘s All the rivers run, the audiobook of which I am currently listening to.

Do you watch television adaptations of favourite novels? And if so, do you have favourites?

* Some of these books have also been adapted for film, but I am only focussing on the television versions here.

34 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie television adaptations

    • I certainly liked The slap … Though many found it too confronting I think or didn’t like what he was saying. I was really pretty impressed by the adaptation as they were hard characters, in some way, to convey weren’t they?

  1. I remember watching The Harp in the South series and loving it! I then went onto read the trilogy. I rewatched the All the Rivers Run mini series a couple of years ago too and thought that apart from the colourisation which would never have held up in modern TV, the rest of it didn’t stand up too badly.

    • It’s a great trilogy idn’t it Marg. I read the first two in my teens, but the third one came out later and it took me a long time to get to it. I loved the way she went back and filled in the parents’ story. I’d like to see All the rivers run again when I finish the audiobook.

  2. I hardly watch any television at all, but I do have a weakness for adaptations of the novels of Charles Dickens, great characters, convoluted plots and fine character actors make them a cut above the rest

  3. The Slap has just finished here – I thought it was an excellent adaptation, possibly better than the book for me, although it has been a while since I read it. I am inspired to re-read it! I agree that the format translated really well to film and I felt that the extremely macho tone of the original was toned down, to the benefit of the TV version.

    We haven’t had Cloudstreet here – can’t wait!!

    • Welcome Hilary … And thanks for the comment. I thinked you’ve probably nailed why some liked the series better … But don’t you think that reduced the impact? My one criticism would have been that it was softened a little …particularly Harry, the cousin … Still, it was well done over all I thought!

  4. I agree that the series of ‘The Slap’ was better than the book – parts that were weak in the book were beefed up by great actors. I think the last episode was a little weak though…

    • Yes, I agree re the last episode Tony … It sort of trailed off with not quite the sense of resolution I thought the book had. The actors were great though … And it was well directed.

  5. Sadly, the ABC wiped their wonderful 1972 adaptations of Red Heap and various other Norman Lindsay works. It was a long, long time ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything better on the ABC, (although, as I haven’t read the books themselves, I can’t judge whether the television versions were actually faithful to the originals). It might be interesting to see some remakes of Lindsay’s works

    • Oh that sounds interesting, zmkc. I don’t recollect Red Heap at all … And I certainly haven’t read the book. It would be interesting to see him done again, I agree.any contacts at the ABC!?

      • Thanks Ben. That’s good. I know NAA is supposed to be the home for old ABC programmes but their database isn’t… Or didn’t used to be… Very user friendly. I should check it again, just for my own interest.

  6. Clearly television has been good to Australian novels! US TV used to be good for novels, back in the 70s and 80s some of the big blockbusters were made into TV miniseries that were also big hits. These days, not so much. Seems they are more likely to be snapped up for film adaptations and TV stays entrenched in “reality.”

  7. I agree, the adaptation of the ABC series of The Slap was better than the book. I might be a bit prejudiced because I wasn’t a fan of the book. Another great series was You Can’t See Around Corners, which was an adaptation by the same name of the book by Jon Cleary. The television series was updated to the Vietnam War rather than WW11. Unfortunately, many of you might not be of certain age to remember either!


      • I’m in two minds about that book…while the different characters’ perspective appealed to me, the profanity certainly took away a lot from the story. Do people actually speak like that in Australia or was that just a device to add more drama to the story? I do have a favorite part though (just went back and re-read my review and saw that Tony had already mentioned the TV adaptation – I had totally forgotten about it!).
        I love Stephen King’s books but haven’t watched all that many adaptations of his novels. I hear Dark Tower is set to be made into a movie (or was it a TV series, I forgot) and look forward to watching that! The books were amazing!

        • I’m afraid profanity is pretty common in Australia, Delia – though not for me, but I’m viewed as a bit of a “square” that way. I don’t even use the “s” word! I see profanity as lazy and best reserved for something really serious or shocking when you need to get attention, and not as part of everyday vocabulary. But, that language in The slap is as I recollect close to the book. I guess I tend not to be bothered by such language in literature, movies etc, where it is clearly reflecting the environment/setting being portrayed.

          I don’t read King as I said so wasn’t aware of The dark tower, but if it’s King I’ll be looking out for it.

  8. Haven’t seen many of these but I do remember as a kid watching Seven Little Australians on TV. Perhaps it was the book serialised? I was quite a fan. I also remember other bushranger/settler shows that I quite like. Oh and Little House in the Prairie!

    • Oh yes it was, Catherine. I’d forgotten that one. Favourite childhood book… I saw the tv show but can’t recollect it in detail. My daughter was a huge Little house on the prairie fan … The books and the series.

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