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Monday musings on Australian literature: Screen adaptations, update

February 3, 2020

Back in 2012, I wrote three posts (here, here and here) sharing some of my favourite film and television adaptations of Australian novels and plays. With recent(ish) announcements about more adaptations in the offing, I thought it worth writing an updating post.

To get us going, here are some of the adaptations that have been announced over the last few years, which is not to say that they will actually make it to the screen:

  • Emily Bitto’s The strays (my review)
  • Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review)
  • Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish
  • Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (my review)
  • Hannah Kent’s The good people 
  • Alice Pung’s Laurinda

When these announcements are made it can be very early in the process. It may simply be that developmental funding has been allocated – and, as the saying goes, there can be many a slip betwixt cup and lip.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued while researching this update, to come across an announcement for a symposium on Adaptation and the Australian Novel being run by the Centre for Critical and Creative Writing at the University of Queensland in June this year. The announcement starts with this:

Landmark Australian novels are being adapted for the stage and screen at a rate we’ve not seen for many decades. In the 2015 to 2020 period alone, what was previously a steady trickle has become a flood as the nation’s various mediums of cultural transmission have offered reimagined versions of much-loved novels …

They name many titles we have seen on our screens over the last few years including, on TV, The slap (my review) and Barracuda (my review), and on the big screen, Jasper Jones (my review) and The ladies in black (my review).

The symposium will include keynote speeches by “international critical adaptation theorist Frances Babbage” and “internationally-acclaimed stage and screen writer, and adaptor of the landmark The Secret River text, Andrew Bovell”. There will also be an in-conversation session between Christos Tsiolkas and Andrew Bovell, discussing Bovell’s adaptation of Tsiolkas’s novel Loaded for the screen. The announcement also calls for proposals for 20-minute papers. They list the sorts of topics they’re looking for, such as Adaptations and gender, and Indigeneity, race and ethnicity, and landscape, and so on. You can see the complete list at the link above.

These topics draw from what I thought was the most interesting paragraph in the announcement, the paragraph that poses the questions they think need to be considered:

Questions that arise here include: Why the rush on Australian adaptation now? What’s fuelling the appetite for this locally themed work, and why is it being distributed internationally via digital platforms such as Amazon and Netflix? Is there a ‘house style’ emerging either at particular theatre companies or television production houses who are leading this push? Whose stories are being canonised in this tranche of largely Anglo-Celtic authored works, and whose voices are doing the adapting? What version of Australian national identity becomes enshrined in this process, and whose perspectives are elided or omitted?

While all these are valid questions, I have highlighted those that I think are of most interest to Whispering Gums readers. In my brief research of the internet, I found nothing much else discussing this issue of perspective and representation, so I hope these papers are podcast and/or published.

Unrelated to this issue, but interesting too, is that of why so few adaptations, comparatively speaking, in the Australian screen industry. This was raised in The Guardian back in 2014. Apparently, in Hollywood, more than half of its movies are adaptations, while in Australia it’s less than 20%. MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) apparently hosted an event which brought together Australian book publishers and film producers. The thinking was that “if a successful film can be crafted from a book, more sales will result, benefitting publishers and authors as well as the filmmakers.” Makes sense to me. Various reasons for the low rate of adaptations are put forward in the article, including cost and the fact that book culture is very different to film culture. Overall, the reasons seemed to me to be applicable to the adaptation industry in general, rather than explaining why the Australia-Hollywood discrepancy, although one panelist believed that in the USA “distributors and agents are constantly on the lookout for book properties that are capable of being turned into films”.

Finally, though this goes back even further to 2010, there’s an Occasional Paper published by Screen Australia, titled Mitigating Risk: The case for more adaptations in the Australian film industry. It was written by Matthew Hancock, as part of the Master of Arts program at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. He notes the declining proportion of adaptations in Australia to under 20% since 1999, which, he says, “is significant because adaptations, both in Australia and in foreign markets like the US, tend to perform well, attracting a higher proportion of box office than their proportion in release”.

So, my question is: Do you prefer adaptations over original screen stories? And, leading question, thinking particularly of that issue of perspective and representation, is there a literary work that you would love to see adapted? 

39 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2020 11:19 pm

    I think Burial Rites could make a great film.

  2. February 3, 2020 11:19 pm

    Whole post is loaded, ST ! [grin]
    My feeling is that adaptations of books to screenplays are BLOODY DIFFICULT to get right; and I wonder how any successful Aussie adaptations there have been so far ?!
    I would love to see the film by Weir of Carey’s own screenplay of “Jack Maggs” ..

    • February 4, 2020 2:14 am

      Thought you’d like it M-R.

      And yes, I think they are too. I’m surprised in a way, though I suppose I shouldn’t be, that they do so well at the box office. I remember being surprised years ago by how many of Somerset Maugham’s short stories have been adapted to film. Short stories are probably the best – and they have the advantage, often, of not having to live up to people’s expectations because they are not so well known.

      And, oh yes, good one re Jack Maggs. I’d see that too.

      • February 4, 2020 5:27 am

        When you think about it, the very concept of cramming a whole book into a couple of hours (remember when movies were around 90′ ?) .. it;s mind-bending: Emma did it SO WELL with “Sense and Sensibility”, eh ? It’s the struggle of trying to get across the underlying stuff, of course, as well as the action – the interplay of characters, not just what they do ..

        • February 4, 2020 8:17 am

          Mind-bending is a good word for it M-R. Yes, I think Emma did a good job with S&S. She directed as well as wrote it, didn’t she? I never really liked her AS Eleanor, though. She was too old and it just didn’t work for me.

          One of the most powerful Aussie films, for me, is Jindabyne, but that was based, loosely, on an American short story.

        • February 4, 2020 8:42 am

          I’ve seen it – and liked it ! But being based on is a lot easier to do. Who did Ham’s “The Dressmaker” ? – which I have yet to see, but long to.

        • February 4, 2020 4:07 pm

          Oh yes, that was a good one… Jocelyn Morehouse. Do try, very stylish, but has heart too.

  3. February 4, 2020 12:13 am

    Great post. Literary adaptations are interesting in that sometimes they work so well but sometimes people are so disappointed in them. I would be curious to know what statistics would show that compared screenplays with adaptations.

    Though pieces of it have been adapted, I would like to see high quality adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire in its entirety.

    • February 4, 2020 2:16 am

      Thanks Brian. And yes re Barchester series.

      It’s curious I think that they are so popular at the box office, and yet more often than not, people are disappointed. Perhaps people love that they know the story and can be critical?!

  4. February 4, 2020 12:49 am

    I’d love to see Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.

  5. February 4, 2020 2:29 am

    It all depends. Some screen adaptations suck and others, even if they are not strictly true to the book, add something to the work.
    I am constantly on the prowl for Australian TV/film.

    • February 4, 2020 3:36 am

      Couldn’t have said it better myself Guy. I don’t mind if an adaptation isn’t true to the book provided it adds something as you say, because the mediums are different. I liked Ang Lee’s Mansfield Park while my purist Mum hated it.

      Have you seen any good Australian TV/film lately? (I don’t know what you are able to get over there.)

  6. February 4, 2020 3:03 am

    Interesting post WG, and interesting questions. I am always wanting to see Australian voices in film and TV and, whilst I’m rarely disappointed in the television works, I often find Australian movies a little flat. Not that we need the big Hollywood boom, but just a bit more ‘oomph’ (as my mum would say). I prefer original screen stories over adaptations but, then again, if I haven’t read the book, an adaptation is probably fine. Somehow a superb novel never quite translates to the screen for me because my own imagination weaves in and out of the words on the page to make pictures far more satisfying to me.

    • February 4, 2020 3:40 am

      Haha, Karenlee, I nearly made that point on one of the comments above ie that if I haven’t read the original the adaptation is probably fine! I’m not one of those who feels I MUST read the original before I see the adaptation, though if it’s an original I plan to read, I like to if I can. But there are many adaptations of works I hadn’t planned to read, and there are films I go to that I had no idea were adaptations.

      I’m inclined to agree with your about a superb novel never quite translating, though if the adaptation is good viewing I decide to assess it as a work in its own right rather than by comparison with the original. If that makes sense! Works for wishy-washy me!

      • February 4, 2020 4:24 am

        Actually, yes, I get your point there. I remember Markus Zusak chatting about how he wasn’t happy with ‘The Book Thief’ movie but, as I saw the before I read the book, I really enjoyed it. So I guess it is important to assess one without reference to the other.

        • February 4, 2020 4:42 am

          Truly, I think that’s the only way to do it. I can imagine authors feeling differently, because it’s their baby and they have their own vision about their work, but for me, the forms are so different that I think it’s a valid approach to take.

          I remember liking The book thief film too, but I saw it so long after I’d read it, that I didn’t remember the book’s details. I felt it contained the humour and warmth I loved about the book. A tricky book to adapt, given its narrator.

  7. February 4, 2020 7:13 am

    As you are aware *chuckle* I know nothing about film but surely genre is relevant to the discussion?
    Put it this way… suppose an Australian (like Matthew Reilly? I’ve never read him) wrote a really beaut action novel with heaps of violence. Filming it would involve lots of special effects and therefore a lot of money. It would presumably sell well and so Hollywood would be interested and Australia couldn’t afford it.
    Limited budgets, I reckon, is what #generalisation confine Australian film to relationship (including crime) and grim social issues movies. (The latter possibly being why Karenlee sometimes finds them ‘flat’). Offhand, I cannot think of any recent Australian books that would translate well into film. Possibly The Weekend, but too much dialogue not enough scene changes, and probably not appealing to a wide enough audience to merit the investment. Maybe Paris Savages? I would like that, but would enough other people? Most people like watching stuff like The Cry…
    And yet I re-watched The Sapphires the other day (it’s on SBS OnDemand), and that was a wonderful film. It has drama and humour and great music, and offers something to think about without laying it on with a trowel. But I don’t think that emerged from a book.

    • February 4, 2020 8:01 am

      Love your pondering on the subject Lisa. And yes genre is very relevant I think! The sapphires was based on a play, which we could probably expect to adapt a bit more easily to film?

      Sounds like I need to read Paris Savages. The weekend is a good idea actually. House party novels – my review us scheduled for tomorrow – translate quite well to film, and think of all the scene changes for the flashbacks filling in the characters’ lives (to Daniel, Clare, Liz.) I think there’s quite a lot of business these days in older women protagonist films, so I think this is a good suggestion. Too much Iip could be good too?

  8. February 4, 2020 9:03 am

    The first movie I ever saw was an adaptation- The Ten Commandments, the second movie too, also The Ten Commandments. I moved while the prints were making their two year trip around Victoria. And remember Chips Rafferty in Robbery Under Arms. Some stories stand retelling, or need retelling/wider distribution like Rabbit Proof Fence, and some are just opportunities to make money. I used to hate movies that weren’t 100% faithful to the book (or which substituted in Americans) but now I look forward to what a new retelling can say. I forgive My Brilliant Career, and speaking of J Davis, love (the Wm Burroughs film). My favourite today is Bride and Prejudice.

    • February 4, 2020 4:11 pm

      You’ve grown up, Bill, says she condescendingly! Must say I love Bride and prejudice too. Adore that No life without wife song-and-dance routine. It was cleverly adapted.

      Love your first two movies. That’s a hoot.

    • February 4, 2020 4:12 pm

      PS Currently driving the Hume between Tarcutta and Holbrook and the smoke is intense.

      • February 4, 2020 4:59 pm

        I could tell by your (lack of) response you were out and about. I unloaded yesterday at Wangaratta and thought the air was quite clear. Better than 3 weeks ago!

        • February 5, 2020 7:42 am

          Our restaurant server said the air was good on Monday but came back in yesterday, Tuesday, so you got the good day!

  9. February 4, 2020 9:53 am

    I prefer adaptations from a good book to be a series. But whatever the format I’d enjoy anything that isn’t overreacted or sensationalized. I don’t often go to films adapted from books I really loved because my inner critic talks all through the film and I get annoyed!

    • February 4, 2020 4:18 pm

      Haha Pam.im much more laissez-faire. Also, I think I like to see what they do and wonder why.

  10. Meg permalink
    February 4, 2020 5:09 pm

    Hi Sue, I always prefer the book to the film adaptation. The film adaptation never portrays the big picture! I do like series adaptations of books, obviously because they offer more details. There are several books I can think of adaptation for our screens, they are Dirt Music by Tim Winton, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson, and Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko. I could add more!

    • February 4, 2020 5:12 pm

      Thanks Meg. I think most readers would prefer books, but are also interested if a loved book is adapted. I love your suggestions, though I haven’t read Mullumbimby so am.going more on what I think than know for that one.

  11. February 4, 2020 6:47 pm

    I love adaptations! It’s a guaranteed way to get me to the cinema. Some of those titles you listed have me hopeful they make it to the screen.

    • February 5, 2020 7:46 am

      Haha Theresa, you’re a good example of those box office figures then! A Jane Austen one will always get me in, of course, otherwise adaptations can be tempting but I go to the movies fairly regularly so my criteria tends to be broader. I am off to see the new Emma next week!

  12. February 4, 2020 9:05 pm

    I do always prefer the book to the TV show and yet I will go and see a movie just because it is an adaptation!

  13. ian darling permalink
    February 5, 2020 9:09 pm

    I have a love/hate thing about George Steven’s adaptation of Theodor Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, A Place In the Sun. It isn’t as good as the book (perhaps one of the most underrated and misunderstood of American novels). I can see why its been panned as the worst sort of overblown film version of a classic…but I was gripped by it when I saw it again recently and in Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters one of the best cast of all Hollywood movies.

    • February 5, 2020 9:12 pm

      How interesting Ian. I love that you can see why it’s been panned and yet we’re gripped. What a cast. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve neither read the book or sen the film, though I’ve heard of both.

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