My literary week (7), adaptations

With Ma and Pa Gums in the process of selling house and preparing for a downsize move, my time has been taken up with many things besides reading – but I did get out at night in the last week to see a couple of adaptations of novels I’ve enjoyed in the past.

There’s still time … brother

Nevil Shute, On the beachOne of my favourite novelists when I was a teen – when my friends were reading Georgette Heyer – was Nevil Shute. He wrote more than 20 novels, and I sought every one out over a period of years until I’d read them all. His best-known novels are probably No highway, A town like Alice and On the beach, all of which were made into films (as were others too, I know). This post is about the last I mentioned, On the beach, which was his dystopian (or post-apocalyptic) Cold War novel about the end-of-the-world due to nuclear war. Something I didn’t know on my first reading is that on the title page of the first edition are lines from TS Eliot’s poem “The hollow men”. Makes sense, and you can read about it in the Wikipedia article I’ve linked to above.

I hadn’t read Shute for a few decades until the early 2000s when one of my online reading groups decided to read On the beach. How disappointing I found it. The story was still powerful, but the writing seemed so wooden and the characters so stereotyped. I was therefore uncertain about seeing the original Stanley Kramer movie last week, when it was shown at the National Film and Sound Archive as part of its season of atomic age films.

I needn’t have worried. It was great – and must have been a work of passion given how quickly Kramer got onto the story. The novel was published in 1957, and the film released in 1959. The Wikipedia article on the film adaptation provides a useful introduction to the film and discusses where the adaptation departs from the novel. Apparently, Shute was not happy with the changes, but it’s too long since I read the novel for me to comment on that. One of the changes, Wikipedia says, is that the film doesn’t detail who was responsible for the conflagration. There could be various political reasons for this, but it could also be because Kramer had a very clear message he wanted his audience to take home – one that he didn’t want diluted by people thinking it had nothing to do with them. He wanted everyone to take the dangers of nuclear weapons seriously – and wow, did the film make that point …

Towards the end, as the radiation is reaching Melbourne, the film shows crowds of people in a Melbourne street attending a Salvation Army service. Above them is a banner reading “There is still time … brother”, reminding the attendees, of course, that there is still time to “find God”. The final scene of the film shows the same street – now empty of life – and closes on the banner “There is still time … brother”. It floored me. It so neatly, so confrontingly, shifted the meaning from the religious to the political. And, the message (either narrowly or broadly interpreted) is as relevant today as it was then. That’s the scary thing.

From the Cold War to Cold Light

Frank Moorhouse, Cold LightIn the last novel of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy, Cold light (my review), Edith Campbell Berry, star of the League of Nations (well, in her mind), comes to Canberra, hoping to make her mark. It’s fitting, then, that an adaptation – in this case a play not a film – should be made in Canberra. However, it’s a big book – over 700 pages of it – with many themes. Two that grabbed my attention when I read it were the failure of idealism and the challenge of aging, so I wondered what playwright Alana Valentine would choose. The main promo line for the play’s advertising was “How far can a woman of vision go?”, which encompasses I’d say the idealism angle.

It was a daring adaptation, which used song, verse and, occasionally, dance to transition between scenes. The verse was particularly intriguing. It all came from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Rhyme of Joyous Garde and was recited by Edith herself. I grew up with some of Gordon’s more sentimental bush poetry, but I’d never come across this one. However, a Google search uncovered that the whole poem is a soliloquy by Lancelot after Guinevere and Arthur are dead. It’s about heady days, grand passions and big ideals, guilt and regret. I don’t believe it was referred to in the book, so Valentine’s using it reveals her desire to convey those grand but murky themes which closely mirror Edith’s colourful, passionate life.

I’m not going to review the play, as there are links to some excellent reviews on the Street Theatre’s site. I’m just going to comment on what I took away. The overriding theme was Edith’s indefatigable spirit, but another was its exploration of human rights – women’s rights, and freedom of expression, in particular. Edith refers regularly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Australia helped draft back in 1948, but hadn’t (and still hasn’t) fully enshrined into national law. For Edith, it represents ideals she wants (us all) to live by.

Cold light is set from 1950 to 1974, but the significant thing is that its concerns are still relevant: freedom of expression is being attacked right now; women’s rights are not safe; the nuclear threat is not over; and so on.

At the end of the play – and some of these specific words are in the novel too – Edith says

I have witnessed great events and participated in great events. I have met and talked with fascinating people who have made history. But it is only, here, now that I am in it, however briefly, making history, participating in it. One must give everything to participate. To be in it. So many, so many will want you to observe, to commentate, to support those who are in it. But you must open your palate to the right stuff. You must stare down the world and see it in a clear, cold light … It’s not what the world hands you, but what you try to wrest from it. That is all that is valuable. To act, to speak, to make. To live, to live, to live it. Your allegiance must be to the republic of the mind, not to any country or state… (from Cold light, adapted by Alana Valentine, Currency Press, 2017)

See? Relevant, right now – which made a thoroughly engaging and creatively produced play a meaningful one too.

Cold Light 
Based on the novel by Frank Moorhouse
At the Street Theatre, Canberra, 4-10 March 2017
Script: Alana Valentine
Director: Caroline Stacey
Cast: Sonia Todd, Craig Alexander, Nick Byrne, Gerard Carroll, Tobias Cole and Kiki Skountzos

Do you enjoy adaptations? And if so, do you have any favourites?

28 thoughts on “My literary week (7), adaptations

    • Thanks Guy. I’ve never seen or read Colonel Chabert – though I see it’s been adapted to film twice. Picnic is great, though it’s one of those cases where I saw the film before I read it.

      That’s interesting that you still remember the film of On the beach. I can imagine why though as the whole idea would be pretty shocking to a child?

      • No one really monitored what I watched so I tended to get an eyeful. If you have a chance watch the Gerard Depardieu version. It’s one of the rare instances of the film being better than the book

        • I’ll look out for it Guy… Though Mr Gums won’t join me. He’s not a Depardieu fan.

          As for monitoring viewing, I didn’t monitor my kids reading but did their viewing. I’ve never been forgiven for not letting my then 9-year old son see Jurassic Park. It was one of those rare occasions where I decided to see the film first and I found it terrifying!

        • Thanks, Guy – it’s so rare for an adaptation to be better than the original that you have whetted my appetite. Right now I’m not a member of streaming services – if I were I’d search for it and put it on a list! So, I’ll just have to keep an eye out for one of those retrospectives, in the short term anyhow.

  1. Feeling rather envious right now.

    I must make time to watch the 2 film adaptations of On the Beach and I must finish reading the Edith trilogy. I’ve read book 1 three times, number two once but *nonce for number three !
    (*Sorry in a silly mood)

    • I love the word nonce so go right ahead! Edith number 1 three times? Wow? Though, must say, I could read it again. I haven’t read number 2. I have it but several friends were so-so about it, so I put it on the back-burner where it has stayed! So, I’ve read one and three once, and two nonce!

  2. I loved Nevil Shute too, when I was younger, but find it rather wooden now too. The books haven’t changed, it must be us and our expectations about what good fiction should be, eh?
    I’d like to see that play! I loved Cold Light, the whole trilogy actually, so I hope it comes to Melbourne.
    I went to see Hannie Rayson’s adaptation of her own memoir last night. It was a case of selected highlights too. I quite enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over either.

    • Yes, Lisa I think our readerly expectations are more honed now, and probably they are only more honed because we read so much way back then?

      I expect you’d like Cold light – it’s a really interesting production and interpretation. I’d happily see it again to tease out some of the decisions they made. I have no idea whether it will travel, but it should because while it’s Canberra based, the novel was well-received and the themes are broader.

      Do you get to the theatre often? Just wondering about the Rayson and whether you subscribe or just wanted to see that one. I would like to go more, but somehow don’t!

      • I subscribe to things on and off. Most recently I’ve subscribed to my local theatre company and to the MTC, but not this year because I prefer to cherry pick what I’m interested in.

  3. What a coincidence – my book club is doing On The Beach this month! I agree about the stereotyped characters, but as I was preparing my class notes I found that there are lots of interesting and controversial issues to discuss in the novel. It was certainly a very prescient book for its time and was instrumental in inspiring the anti-nuclear movement. Incredibly sexist, though.

    • That’s exactly what I meant by stereotyped characters, actually, Teresa. The behaviours of the main characters are so gendered aren’t they? I was surprised how little I’d noticed that in my teens!! That was part of the times of course, but some other writers around then were more “nuanced” (to use a reviewer cliché). However, I agree that there’s a lot to discuss in it, and the book and the film were clearly significant. I understand that Kramer wanted it to be shown in the context of discussion. I forgot to mention in my post that some people handed out “Ban Nuclear Weapons 2017” leaflets after the screening I attended – which is probably what happened at many of the screenings at the time of its release.

  4. I’ve read On the Beach in the last few years (and seen the movie, some time). I don’t quite agree about ‘wooden’ for the characters. It seems to me to have be written within a tradition of middle class English writing, John Wyndham is an example that springs to mind, which developed into ‘university’ lit after WWII, and which now appears a bit formal and dated.

    • How interesting that a few of us have read it in the last few years, Bill. You didn’t feel the characters were stereotyped, or you just accepted that as being par for the times? I certainly agree that it was typical of the times, but I found the writing style – the dialogue, in particular, if I remember correctly – didn’t offer enough to make me feel it warranted my maintaining my love. I’ve decided I won’t read his other novels and will remember him as a past love!

      I think Wyndham was probably a step above Shute in terms of writing? I certainly enjoyed him too. He’s about the only sci-fi writer I’ve ever read several books by. I’ve often thought I’d like to read one again to see how I feel now.

  5. I read all of Shute’s novels when I was younger, too – we probably read the same copies from the library. Interestingly enough, I had a grade 12 English all boys class in Abu Dhabi that chose to read On the Beach about 14 years ago. Although I agree with you re the writing and characters, as you say, it’s a gripping story. Have you seen the 2000 made for TV version with Armand Assante, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown? I thought it also, was very gripping, if a little sentimental.

  6. I read On the Beach when I was a teen but have never seen the movie. Sounds chilling. Amazing writing who can adapt a 700 page book into a play like that.

    • Yes, chilling is a good word Stefanie.

      And yes, too, I was very impressed by how she distilled it and got the essence of it. It may have been a bit hard for those who didn’t know the story, like Mr Gums who hasn’t read ir, but I can’t really gauge that.

  7. i, too, was catapulted into instant like re Nevil Shute; the vehicle in my case being “Trustee of the Toolroom”; i can’t explain why it had such a powerful effect; just the right book at the right time, i guess…

    • So many of us mudpuddle it seems. I read that – his memoir wasn’t it? – but I don’t remember it as well. As you say, so much of our reading passions is about timing.

  8. I too remember enjoying the Nevil Shute novels, in fact I think it was my parents who introduced me to them. I vaguely remember seeing the Kramer film and thinking it was okay. I too did like the film adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I love the book more, and have read it several times. I was very disappointed in the film adaptation of Atonement. Most of the time I don’t bother to see film adaptations of books. I disliked the opera adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. However, I do like the films of Jane Austen books.

    • Love this Meg. I rather liked the adaptation of Atonement. I particularly liked the sound of the typewriter running through it which, if you knew the story, told you what was really going on. I thought that was clever and cheeky.

      I like many of the Jane Austen adaptations, though there are a few I haven’t liked. I haven’t really seen a good adaptation of Northanger Abbey, and I didn’t really like the BBC’s 2007 adaptations of Persuasion and Mansfield Park.

      • The BBC do a lot of adaptations of classics both on radio and TV and they tend to be a bit of a standby for the national broadcaster. TV versions of classics I enjoyed included an excellent version of The Mayor Of Casterbridge adapted by Dennis Potter and starring Alan Bates and some very good versions of classic ghost stories by the likes of Dickens and MR James that were shown over Christmas.

        • Thanks Ian – and of course we get a lot of the BBC adaptations here. They used to be our de rigueur Sunday evening screening but that stopped a few years ago when the special deal between the ABC and the BBC ended. I think the BBC needed more money!

          I remember the Alan Bates’ Mayor of Casterbridge. But I don’t think we’ve seen those ghost stories you mention. Maybe we will one day.

  9. There was a story that Ava Gardner, one of the stars of the On The Beach film, made a disparaging comment as regards Melbourne, saying that she thought it was the perfect place to make a movie about the end of world.

    Melbourne, admittedly was rather dull back in the 1950s and you could shoot a cannon down Collins Street without hitting anyone.

    As for adaptions of books to films, one of my favourite adaptions was Catch 22 by joseph Heller. It captured the craziness of the book, especially in the opening scene, where Milo Minderbinder is travelling in truck with another officer, talking about the price of eggs, whilst in the background, a plane comes into land and bursts into flames. A wonderful visual pun.

    Other adaptions that didn’t disappoint, were the BBC versions of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) and Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel).

    • Good ones Anne. I saw some of Wolf Hall, but somehow didn’t record it for some reason, and therefore didn’t see it all. What I saw very good. But grim times they were.

      Yes, I knew the story about Ava Gardner’s statement but I believe it’s an urban myth. Still, it could have been true as you imply and in would have been hard to disagree with!

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