Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian screenwriters

Funny things sure do happen sometimes. I decided on the weekend that, with my comment about screenwriters in my post on Hail, Caesar and with the Oscars being screened today, Monday (downunder time), that I would devote this post to screenwriters. Then, I turned on the TV to look at the Oscars, and guess what? They changed the usual order of announcements and put the screenwriters first! A tribute to Trumbo perhaps? Whatever, the coincidence made me smile.

Now, I have written about screenwriters before in a post on Australia’s AWGIE awards, but in that post I focused on a few authors who had also written for screen or theatre. This time I’m going to focus on those for whom screenwriting is a major part of what they do. There are a lot of them, so all I can do is choose a few to represent the many. I’m not going to analyse their work – that would take too much time – but just introduce them, and identify some of their works because they are often just not known as the person behind these works. Here goes:

  • Stuart Beattie would be the least known to me of the writers I’m listing, even though he’s the most prolific. He writes, it seems, in genres I tend not to watch, like thrillers and adventure. However, he was a co-writer on Baz Luhrmann’s controversial film Australia, and he adapted John Marsden’s bestselling young adult novel Tomorrow, When the War Began to a film of the same name.
  • Andrew Bovell writes for theatre, movies and television, sometimes adapting his own work from one form to another, such as the films Lantana and Blessed which he adapted from his plays, Speaking in Tongues and Who’s afraid of the Working Class, respectively. Non-Australian moviegoers might know him for his adaptation of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man.
  • Laura Jones is the daughter of Australian writer Jessica Anderson (whose The commandant and One of the wattle birds I’ve reviewed here.) Jones started her career with television teleplays for Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC. Her first screenplay, an original, was Hightide made by Gillian Armstrong, and her next was Angel at my table, made by Jane Campion and adapted from Janet Frame’s memoir. She has gone on to write many adapted screenplays, including Portrait of a Lady, Angela’s Ashes and Possession. Some great films there …
  • Jan Sardi has been nominated for an Oscar so, given today is Oscars day, I had to include him! The film was Shine. Sardi also adapted Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook and Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer. He is apparently currently working on adaptations of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (my review). He is also the current President of the Australian Writers Guild (AWG).
  • Eleanor Witcombe is the oldest of my group and is not, as far as I can see, still working. She was born in 1923, and is had to be in my list because she adapted two significant Australian women writers, Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. Witcombe wrote for theatre and television, including the television miniseries adaptations of two more classic Australian women’s books, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians and Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South.

Many of Australia’s successful directors have also written for some of their films, such as Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann, George Miller, Rachel Perkins, and Peter Weir. Such creativity. I’m in awe.

Now, just in case you are interested in writing for film yourself, I came across in my research a document by ScreenAustralia, published just last year, titled I’ve got a great idea for a film. You can read it online. It mainly lists resources, both Australian and overseas, for all aspects of script development.

Do you tend to be aware of screenwriters, and do you have any favourites? 

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian screenwriters

  1. I can see I should be a fan of Witcombe and Sardi but I have never heard their names before. It’s depressing, WG, all these things I should know and don’t.

  2. Screenwriting must be one of the hardest most thankless jobs, yet one of the most important. Sadly, I can probably count the number of screenwriters I know by name on one hand. But then I don’t remember the names of most actors either. I used to drive my movie buff sister crazy as she would rattle off names associated with a new movie she was trying to get me interested in seeing and I would blankly stare at her because the names meant nothing to me. You do know who Tom Cruise is? She snapped at me once and thankfully I did because I fear my sister would have exploded otherwise 🙂

    • Haha, Stefani, love that story. I used to be better than I am now. So many new directors, for example. My son knows them and will compare, while I’ll say, “oh, I’d forgotten s/he made that!”

  3. “George Miller (he of Babe not Mad Max fame)” ??? ST ! – one and the same conman.
    Miller made so many changes to the original MM screenplay that you might say he adapted it. (What he didn’t do was direct it: that was actually done by the Lighting Cameraman, David Eggby.)

  4. I am ignorant of any screen writers and only knew of George Miller’s name when M-R mentioned it. And whats worse, is that I could only think of the American screen writer, Neil Simon. I have just finished reading Ernestine Hill’s biography, and she attempted to write a play but found it all too difficult.

    • Oh, I’d like to read that biography Meg. Your comment reminded me that Toibin and Lodge’s books on Henry James both basically start, if I remember correctly, with the failure of his play.

      As for screenwriters – and hearing you and Bill – I’m thinking that the Coens did want that little part of their film to make a point. We should know them more. We often say, that was a good script (or not) after watching a movie or TV show, don’t we. I guess it’s the by-product of what is a collaborative work.

  5. It is wrong that we don’t credit screen writers, and I don’t know why we don’t give them the same recognition as other writers. I think in my defence, I always think of screen writers adapting other people’s works for their plays. Mariane van Velzen has written a biography on Erstentine Hill, titled Call of the Outback. It is not a bad read, interesting in parts but I doubt some of the information.

    • The stories you hear about screenwriters their work is always being changed or disregarded, the director has the last say, but what would I know! I was looking for an Ernestine Hill biography so will chase up Call of the Outback right now, thankyou Meg.

      • Thought you’d be interested in the Hill bio Bill. You’d not heard of it? Admittedly, it’s only just out.

        And yes, some screenwriters have terrible stories to tell. I do know stories of screenwriters who’ve asked for their names to be removed from the credits because of the level of change.

    • Interesting Meg – Hill was a pretty slippery character so the finding “real” information may also be tricky (at least from my understanding of her life).

      Of course I agree re screenwriters. I do try to take note – but I don’t always remember. A large percentage of films are adaptations, but by no means all. The Oscars give awards to original screenplays and adapted ones. The winning film this year, SPOTLIGHT, was an original, for example. All the MAD MAX ones are original. Also, adaptation is a tricky thing too and worthy of recognition. I often think, in this regard, of JINDABYNE which was an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story! But the adaptation can be closer to the original and still show great skill and art I think.

    • My mother was Ernestine’s cousin and through this connection I hold copyright in her works. I read the original first 8 pagers of this biography and found 8 factual mistakes in them. They were corrected. Offered to read the manuscript before publication but offer turned down. Have annotated all the mistakes in my copy and am putting it into the Fryer Library (University of Qld. with Ernestine’s archives. This book catches nothing of Ernestine’s verve nor any penetrating anecdotal stories.

      • What a shame they didn’t take up your offer, Louise. She does sound like an adventurous and fascinating woman. Good on you for adding your comments to the Fryer Library collection. Gold for later researchers.

        • Sue, I hope you’ll forgive me if I use this space to say I’m posting a review of the Ernestine Hill bio later tonight. Meg’s earlier comment put me on to it and,Louise, without as you are, being able to identify factual errors except a couple around Daisy Bates, I am not surprised.
 (I think! I’m on my phone).

  6. I don’t tend to notice who the screenwriter of a film or TV program is, though I know that our neighbour across the road makes her living out of it.

    I have a George Miller story from the making of the first Mad Max film, where a female friend and I spent a morning at a shoot for one of the action scenes. We didn’t see much of the action, as it was freezing cold, so we spent the time huddling in a car with the bikie stuntmen smoking marijuana.

    • Oh dear, Anne, it’s becoming clear that they really are rather hidden, aren’t they? I have a friend who has written for many TV shows but if I Google his name it doesn’t come up, which I find interesting given how much is now available on the internet.

      Love your George Miller story.

      • I don’t know what the situation is like in Australian cinema but the perception of the screenwriter as a well paid cog ( Pat Hobby stories, Chandler and all) dies hard. It must be a challenging sort of role – so important to the film but with the screenwriter only having a little power in the process.

        • Hmm, Ian, I don’t really know here, though I’d like to think there’s a level of respect here, but given many Aussies commenting here aren’t aware of them makes me suspect the situation isn’t rosy.

          I have though talked with a few scriptwriters – mostly television ones – and they’ve been friendly, positive people. They have, I must admit, been successful ones who have managed to make a living. One though explained how he managed to achieve this – sometimes turning a rejected script into a novel, for example. You have to think creatively (as well as write creatively) and be entrepreneurial. He was a cheerful person who started way back writing for radio serials.

  7. Hi WG – just came across this post while scrolling down through my emails. An interesting one. One name not mentioned is that of Cliff Green, who wrote the screenplay for Picnic at Hanging Rock, if memory serves, as well as many others. Andrew Pye is a younger screenwriter who has worked at and for the ABC as a writer and consultant, and was a writer/producer of Love Child, among others. BTW did you happen to see the movie Trumbo? Well worth the price of a ticket.

    • Thanks Sara. Yes, I do remember him. I’m sure you’re right about Picnic. Thanks for adding him. I’m not sure I’ve heard of Pye though, so thanks for that. And no, I did want to see Trumbo … will try if it’s still on.

  8. Pingback: Call of the Outback, Marianne van Velzen | theaustralianlegend

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