Monday musings on Australian literature: Screen adaptations, update

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? 

Bruce Beresford, The best film I never made (#BookReview)

Bruce Beresford, The best film I never madeBruce Beresford, author of The best film I never made, is of special interest to me for a couple of reasons, besides the fact that I’ve enjoyed many of his films over the years. One is that after a few years of taking (or, perhaps, “dragging” is more accurate) our then young son to various classic movie “experiences”, like, say, a silent movie accompanied by live theatre organ, we finally hit pay dirt with Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. He loved it, and I’d say his love of film was born then. The other is that I’ve known for some time that Beresford has wanted to film his old university friend Madeleine St John’s novel The women in black (my review). I want to see that film! According to the brief bio opposite the title page, it is being made now. At last!

All this is to explain why I was keen to read Bruce Beresford’s collection of stories when I saw it appear in Text Publishing’s New Releases list. But, what does “collection of stories” mean in the context of non-fiction? These are not essays or even newspaper columns that have been published before, and, disappointingly, there’s no Introduction, Author’s Note or Afterword providing context. There is, though, in that aforementioned brief bio, the address for his website, and there I found a tab called “Articles”. So this is where they are published? Yes, some anyhow, including some in an earlier form, but not all. However, from this, and from their personal, rather chatty style, I’d liken these articles to blog posts, which in his case comprise musings on things relating to his film and opera directing career and his related cultural interests.

The best film I never made, then, is a collection of these blogpost-cum-stories, organised for the book into four parts: I Family, Journeys, Memories; II Making and Not Making Movies; III Behind the Screen; IV Operas, Painters, Writers. The stories are all dated, ranging from 2004 to 2017. Some have brief updates at the end. The 2010 piece on Jeffrey Smart, “Smart lessons”, for example, has a final annotation noting that Smart died in 2013. The stories are not presented chronologically.

And now, because this is not a book with a narrative structure that can be spoiled – though there is some logic nonetheless to the order – I’m going straight to the end. You’ll guess why when I tell you that the title of the last article is “Australian literature and film”, but that literature connection is not the only reason. Other reasons are that it provides a good introduction to the style and tone of the whole, and also to the way he imparts his experience and understanding of filmmaking.

The main point of this last article is to discuss the idea, put forward he says by the press, that “Australian films would benefit if more adaptations were made from acclaimed literary works. Comparisons are inevitably made with foreign films, particularly English and American …” Commenting that he can understand why writer-directors might want to tell their own stories, he admits that probably a majority of English-language films are adaptations of novels but suggests that many of these would be from popular fiction rather than “literary successes”. He unpicks why:

Many novels are famous for their prose style, various colourful characters, their themes and so on: factors which can obscure the fact that other useful ingredients – a coherent plot for example – may be absent. In film, most of the characteristics that distinguish a literary work – such as a striking prose style – are stripped away and this can reveal the lack of a well-constructed story, or convincing dialogue, and be fatal to the effectiveness of the film.

He then provides examples of English and American adaptations, about which, of course, every reader-filmgoer will have different opinions – but I think his principle stands. He comments for example about the difficult of transferring “the satire and dry cynicism” of Waugh to film, and says Patrick White is notoriously difficult “because his novels like Conrad’s, are psychological studies, intense and profound, and not easy to transfer to a film script”. (Interestingly, though, he suggests that Happy Valley, which I’ve reviewed, could be a good candidate because of its “more conventional narrative”.) Filmmakers do better he argues “to adapt novels which rely on a few strong characters and a compelling narrative” like, for example, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in fright (albeit “won no literary prizes”).

So, this article demonstrates Beresford’s grasp of filmmaking, which, unsurprisingly, runs throughout the book, but it also exemplifies his tone and style, including his willingness to share his own prejudices. He’s not a fan of Tim Winton, for example, describing his books “as bargain-basement Patrick White: stylistically derivative, they are far more savage, full of unpleasant characters, and weakly plotted”. And Christina Stead, he says, is “a turgid writer, in my worthless opinion”. This possibly false but not pompous self-deprecation is another feature of his tone. In the same paragraph as the Stead comment, he writes that he’d filmed Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, but that “critics did not share my admiration for the result”! (Other films of his, he agrees, aren’t the best.)

And finally, this chapter also reveals his ability to “tell-all” without being gossipy. He suggests that another reason why classic novels aren’t adapted in Australia (as they are in England) is that they are just not well-known, “certainly the word of their excellence has not reached all of those in charge of making financial decisions.” (The challenge of financing films is a theme running through the book, in fact.) Beresford wrote, he tells us, an adaptation of Henry Handel Richardson’s epic, The fortunes of Richard Mahony. He says he hadn’t expected potential investors to have read it, but he “did at least expect them to have heard of it – and her. But this was not the case.” Oh dear! He backs up this example of philistinism with another:

when I was planning a film about Mahler, a Hollywood executive said, ‘What I can’t understand is why you would want to make a film about a nonentity.’ I said  nothing, but perhaps should have told him that one of the most gifted composers of all time could not accurately be described as a ‘nonentity’ – except by someone of overwhelming stupidity.

To his credit, Beresford does not name this person of “overwhelming stupidity”.

If you’ve enjoyed my discussion of this article, then you are likely to enjoy the book. I loved his discussion of the filmic qualities of the artist Caravaggio, and of his friendship with luminaries like Barry Humphries, Clive James, and the late Jeffrey Smart. His Behind the Scenes section provides fascinating insight into the role of cinematographers, composers and designers in the filmmaking process. And so on.

However, because this is a book of collected articles written over a decade or more, there is the occasional repetition, particularly in the first section about his personal life. And, he does come across somewhat as an unreconstructed male. There are several references to his chasing, or his friends’ marrying, beautiful women, which focus I find out-of-date (but that’s just my worthless opinion!)

The best film I never made is an enjoyable book. It’s more chatty and informative than reflective, but if you have followed Bruce Beresford’s films over the years – including Breaker MorantDriving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Black Robe, Mao’s Last Dancer – and you are interested in the practice of filmmaking and in the arts more generally, this book has a lot to offer. And makes, methinks, a good summer read.

Bruce Beresford
The best film I never made, and other stories about a life in the arts
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925603101

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Goddess (Movie review)

Will I, won’t I, will I, won’t I, has been running around my head over the last week since I saw the recent Australian movie Goddess. In the end I’ve decided, obviously, that I will – will, that is, write a post on it because I do like to raise a little awareness about Australia’s film industry.

Cradle Mountain

Beautiful Tasmania

Whether you like Goddess depends a bit, I think, on your expectations. If you expect a fun romcom you are likely to enjoy it. If, however, you expect a sociological analysis of celebrity culture in the 21st century, as I half-expected based on the line or two advance summary that I’d read, you may not like it. Fortunately for me, my expectations changed to the “right” ones in the opening scene. The film opens with an homage to the film version of The Sound of Music with our heroine standing, arms spread wide, on a high green hill surrounded by mountains in gorgeous Tasmania and ready, we think, to burst into song. She appears to think so too, except she suddenly spies her toddler twins, halfway down the hill, about to chomp into a cowpat  … all thoughts of singing immediately fly out of her head and the film’s tone is established!

Goddess is both romcom and musical comedy. It was adapted from a stage play titled Sinksongs which was written and performed by Joanna Weinberg. The plot concerns a young couple – Elspeth and James – who have moved to Tasmania with their twin toddler sons so that James can follow his dream of protecting and researching whales. The couple have a deal. James will follow his dream until the boys start school, and then he will take over prime childcare while Elspeth has a go at her career which is singing. The trouble is that Elspeth finds life in rural Tasmania with demanding (albeit cute) toddlers and a mostly absent husband a harder “deal” than she’d expected. She receives no support from the local mums (played by comedian Corinne Grant, Pia Miranda, and two others) who do not welcome her into their group. To assuage Elspeth’s loneliness, James buys her a webcam suggesting they can stay in contact that way. Unfortunately, probably due to poor reception out there in the southern Pacific (!), Elspeth can’t raise James but, she suddenly realises, she can put the webcam to another use. She can sing her life to a cybercrowd – and so begin her “sinksongs” performed, yep, from the kitchen sink. The inevitable happens of course. She becomes famous around the world. We see people everywhere tuning in to watch her sing, including, eventually, the local mums. I won’t detail the plot further as you can probably guess its course … one requiring her, in the end, to work out her fame-family priorities.

What makes this movie delightful is not the predictable plot (it is, after all, what it is) but the performances and the music, which ranges from pop to jazz to blues to country to tango. It’s all there as Elspeth is one talented young singing mum. Elspeth is played by someone unknown to me, the English actress Laura Michelle Kelly. She is, not surprisingly, more active in theatre than film. It’s a cliched thing to say, I know, but she lit up the screen with her expressive face, her warmth and her singing-dancing ability. She managed to hit just the right note between vamp and mum, between confidence and uncertainty. James is played sympathetically by Irish pop idol Ronan Keating. Australian comedian Magda Szubanski was entertaining as the “Corporate bitch” Cassandra, while relative newcomer Hugo Johnstone-Burt, from the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series, convinced as her nervously keen but ultimately sensitive right-hand man.

The plot was a little forced in places and there was the odd slapstick moment that made me cringe. There were also picture-perfect shots of Sydney  – the Bridge and the Opera House – that worked, I suppose, for immigrant Elspeth’s visit to the big smoke but that also seemed rather carefully placed to attract foreign audiences. These, though, were minor aberrations in a movie that saw us leaving the cinema smiling.

I seem to have been writing about romance more than usual lately, which is a bit weird as it’s not really my zone of interest, but I’m not sorry. A little break from the usual never does you any harm does it? If you’d like a change from your usual fare and Goddess comes to a theatre near you, give it a go. It may not be the best movie you see this year, but its joie de vivre is infectious.

Dir. Mark Lamprell
Prod. The Film Company and Wildheart Films, 2013

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.

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.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (1)

In support of Australia’s National Year of Reading the National Film and Sound Archive is, later this year, holding an exhibition on film adaptations. And that made me think about my favourite film adaptations, which in turn made me think it might be a good Monday Musings topic. So, here I am. This post will focus on films adapted from novels and short stories. I will write other posts in future on adaptations from plays and adaptations for TV.

The Australian film industry, like most, has drawn from novels, plays and stories since its early days. Some of Australia’s best known silent films are adaptations, including The sentimental bloke (1919) (CJ Dennis), On our selection (1920) (Steele Rudd), and For the term of his natural life (1927) (Marcus Clarke). For this post, however, I’ll be focusing on my favourites from the last few decades.

Are you one of those people who refuses to see a film until you’ve read the book? I’m not really, though if it’s a book I’m keen to read I do prefer to read it first. I take a pretty free and easy (wishy-washy, did I hear you say?) approach to film adaptations. That is, I don’t expect them to replicate the work they are based on and am very happy for artistic licence to be taken. Film and Literature are different media and it’s impossible, in my view, for one to replicate the other. This might sound a bit ingenuous, but I’m just not too fussed about getting my knickers in a knot over the issue. I care more about whether I enjoyed the film (and, of course, whether I enjoyed the book).

I have to admit that some (though my no means all) of my favourite Aussie film adaptations are of books or stories I haven’t read or that I read after seeing the film. However, they are still adaptations and they are films I like, so I’m going to list them here (with the work they are based on). Like all lists it’s going to be hard to limit it, but limit it I must, so here goes, in film date order …

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is credited with kickstarting the renaissance of Australian film in the 1970s. It was based on a novel of the same name, by Joan Lindsay. It was quite controversial at the time – not the film itself – but the question of whether it was based on fact or not. It wasn’t! It’s a great story, beautifully filmed by Peter Weir – and has become pretty much an iconic Aussie film.
  • My Brilliant Career (1979) was based on Miles Franklin‘s novel of the same name. It was made during a period when the Australian film industry was dominated by nostalgia (or period drama). When you’re on a good thing, stick to it, and all that … but this film had something special. It spoke to the second wave of feminism in its story of Sybylla who gives up a man to stay true to her dream of being a writer, and it launched the career of pioneering woman film director, Gillian Armstrong.
  • Three dollars (2005) was based on a novel of the same name by Elliot Perlman whose latest novel, The street sweeper, I’ll be reading and reviewing  later this year. I love this film (and book, which is one of those I did read first) because it’s about a man who sticks by his principles, who won’t let corporate greed or urban apathy get in the way of his humanity despite significant cost to himself. And it starred David Wenham (aka the luscious Diver Dan from a favourite television series).
  • Jindabyne (2006) is a bit of a ring-in here because it was based not on an Australian work but on a short story by the American writer, Raymond Carver. The story is titled “So much water so close to home” and has been transplanted to Australia and overlaid with an indigenous theme, but the essential story about men who, on a fishing trip discover a dead (murdered) girl and, rather than hike out to report the death immediately, continue their trip, remains the same. It’s a taut, tight, visually beautiful film about moral responsibility.
  • The eye of the storm (2011) is based on Patrick White’s novel of the same name. White is often described as “unadaptable” – and later this year I plan to write on the saga behind an attempt to make a film of Voss. We are still waiting – though it was adapted for opera, with David Malouf the librettist. Meanwhile, I reckon The eye of the storm effectively shows that White can indeed be adapted to film. The film had an amazingly long run (in my city anyhow) for not-the-best-known book by an author generally regarded as “hard”.

These are just five of many that I’ve seen and enjoyed over the years – I might also have mentioned Bliss, CandyLooking for Alibrandi and Romulus my father, for example – but for all those I’ve seen, I wonder about the ones that haven’t been made. Over the years, we hear books are optioned – like Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, Thea Astley‘s Drylands, Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music – and we wait, and wait, and wait to see them, but they never appear. Given that adaptations can often guarantee an audience (though perhaps less so of literary fiction), it’s surprising to me that so many of our wonderful novels have not yet been adapted. I can only wait and hope…

Meanwhile, do you enjoy film adaptations, and what are your favourites?

Monday musings on Australian literature: the AWGIES (for film)

Last week I finally saw the (excellent) film adaptation of Patrick White‘s The eye of the storm (which I may – or may not – separately blog about). I was intrigued to notice that the scriptwriter was one-time actor, Judy Morris, and this reminded me of the AWGIE awards.

The AWGIES are annual awards organised by the Australian Writers’ Guild. They recognise excellence in screen, television, stage and radio writing. I want to post about them because so often the scriptwriter is forgotten when films are spoken of – we talk most of the directors and the stars, and sometimes of the producers and cinematographers, but far less frequently of the scriptwriter. And yet filmmaking is truly a team activity and the script is a critical component. Scriptwriters are recognised, I know, in other awards – the Oscars, BAFTA, AFI etc – but the AWGIES are devoted to them.

The AWGIES have multiple categories, grouped under Film, Television, Stage, to name some – and they now have one for Interactive Media too. For Feature Film there are two main categories, though they aren’t always both awarded: Original and Adaptation. The awards have been going since 1967 – too long for me to list all the winners – so, yes, as usual, I will pick out some that particularly interest me!

Currency Press

In the 2011 awards, Currency Press won the Dorothy Crawford Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Profession. Established in 1971, Currency Press is a specialist performing arts publisher and, apparently, Australia’s oldest still active independent publisher. They are the first place you look (in Australia) if you want a published screenplay, but they also publish more widely in the performing arts arena. And they are, of course, a member of SPUNC, about which I wrote some months ago. Go small publishers!

Christos Tsiolkas

Like many writers, Tsiolkas (of The slap fame) doesn’t only write novels, though they are his main claim to fame. He has, in fact, won two AWGIES. The first was in 1999, for being co-writer of a stage play, Who’s afraid of the middle class? His second was in 2009, again as a co-writer, for the multi-story feature film, Blessed. It’s not hard to see Tsiolkas’ hand in this film which confronts us with the challenges of mothering from multiple angles. It’s gritty, but sympathetic rather than judgemental.

Luke Davies

Davies is another contemporary Australian novelist who tends to confront the seamier side of life. He’s also an award-winning poet and a screenwriter, and he won an AWGIE in 2006 for his feature film adaptation of his own (somewhat autobiographical) novel, Candy. Candy was one of Heath Ledger‘s last films and explores the world of a couple caught up in heroin addiction. I have seen the film, but have yet to read any of Davies’ work, something I must do.

David Williamson

It would be impossible to write about the AWGIEs without mentioning the prolific David Williamson. Primarily a playwright, he has also adapted many of his plays for film, and has won multiple AWGIEs for both his plays and his screen adaptations. His film AWGIEs include adaptations of his own plays, The removalists (1972), Travelling north (1988) and Emerald City (1989). He also won an AWGIE for an original screenplay, for the (now classic Australian) film Gallipoli (1981) on which he collaborated with the director Peter Weir. Williamson’s work tends to be satirical, and he has targeted most things that make up contemporary Australia, including football, party politics, the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry, university ethics and the police force.

Helen Garner

And now, just because I can, I’m going to include Helen Garner, who not only writes novels, short stories, literary non-fiction, and essays/articles, but also screenplays. She hasn’t won an AWGIE but she’s sure to have been considered because the films based on her scripts have all been well-reviewed (and won or been nominated for other awards). She adapted her own novel, Monkey Grip, for film, and she has written two original screenplays, Two Friends and The Last Days of Chez Nous (for which she was nominated for an AFI award). Two Friends is particularly interesting. It’s a teleplay directed by Jane Campion, and was shown in the Un certain regard section at Cannes in 1986. I like its narrative structure, which starts in the present, when the two friends had drifted apart, and moves backwards to the beginning of their friendship. If you know Campion and Garner, you have an idea of what a perceptive little treasure this feature film is.

At the bottom (currently anyhow) of the Australian Writers’ Guild website is a quote from Tom Stoppard. I like it and think you might too:

Words are sacred… If you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little. (Tom Stoppard)

How often do you think of the scriptwriters of the movies you like – or don’t like?

Red Dog (Movie and Book)

Pilbara landscape

Pilbara landscape

First, the disclaimer: I’m a dog person and am therefore a sucker for stories about dogs and their loyalty. I know, I know, it’s their nature, but that doesn’t stop me crying over doggie devotion stories. Red Dog is one of these! If dogs don’t move you, you may not want to see this film, but that would be a shame because while the dog – and it is based on a real dog – is the central idea, the film, and novel from which it draws, are about more than “just” a dog and his devotion to a master.

I first came across Red Dog – the (apparently famous) Pilbara Wanderer – several years ago through Louis de Bernières‘ novella (of sorts) which was first published in 2001. It’s a slim little tome and is based on stories de Bernières gathered about the dog, who lived from 1971 to 1979. De Bernières claims in his Author’s Note that the stories “are all based upon what really happened” to the dog but that he invented all of the characters, partly because he knew little about the people in Red Dog’s life and partly because he did not want to offend people by misrepresenting them. John though, he says, is “real”.

There is a simple plot in the book – it tells how Red Dog decides on John as his master and it then chronicles Red Dog’s various adventures in the mining communities of the Pilbara. The film follows de Bernières’ book pretty closely, though it takes a little artistic license, including adding a romance into the mix.

The story – and the film – is set in the Pilbara, the red earth country of Western Australia where mining is the main industry. It was – particularly back in the 1970s – a male dominated place and the workers at that time were mostly migrants:

It was lucky for him [Red Dog] that the town [Dampier] was so full of lonely men … They were either rootless or uprooted. They were from Poland, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, Greece,  England, Yugoslavia and from other parts of Australia too. … Some were rough and some gentle, some were honest and some not. There were those who got rowdy and drunk, and picked fights, there were those who were quiet and sad,  and there were those who told jokes and could be happy anywhere at all. With no women to keep an eye on them, they easily turned into eccentrics.

And it is this* that the film, directed by Kriv Stenders, does so well … capturing men’s lives in a male dominated environment, against the backdrop of the starkly beautiful Pilbara. The cinematography is gorgeous, setting the region’s natural beauty against the ugliness (or beauty, depending on your point of view) of a mining environment. The music is what you’d expect, mostly 70s rock including, of course, Daddy Cool, but is appropriate rather than clichéd. And the dog is played by 6-year old Koko with aplomb!

The central story concerns John (Josh Lucas), Red Dog and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but there are other smaller “stories” – the publican (Noah Taylor) and his wife, the Italian (Arthur Angel) who can’t stop talking about his beautiful home town, the brawny he-man (John Batchelor) who knits in secret, the miserly caravan park owners, to name just a few. Their stories are slightly exaggerated, and there is fairly frequent use of slightly low angle close-ups that give an almost, but not quite, cartoonish larger-than-life look to the scenes. These all work effectively to convey something rather authentic about character and place.

That said, occasionally the humour is too broad and the script a little clumsy – but these are minor. Overall, the film keeps moving at a pace that ensures it never gets bogged down in too much sentiment or romance or adventure or comedy. In other words, it’s not a perfect movie and yet it perfectly captures the resilient, egalitarian spirit of those people in that time. It’s a film I’d happily, if somewhat tearily, see again.

Louis de Bernières
Red dog
London: Vintage, 2002
ISBN: 9780099429043

*POSTSCRIPT: I quoted this passage from the book for a reason, and then got carried away on another point, but Kate’s comment below reminded me of what that reason was: it was of course to refer to Red Dog’s role in this male dominated environment. Not only does he symbolise the men’s independence and spirit of adventure that brought them to the Pilbara, but he also provides an outlet for their affection. Through this, he forges a community out of a bunch of individuals. As the publican says at the beginning of the film, it’s not so much what Red Dog did as who he was …

The boys are back

Fleurieu Peninsula

Southern end of the Fleurieu Peninsula, taken 2007

I would like to say that the real star of Scott Hicks’ latest movie, The Boys are Back, is the Fleurieu Peninsula because it is absolutely stunning. The rolling hills, the waving golden grasses, the glimpses of blue sea, not to mention wonderful stands of gums are enough to entertain even if the rest of the movie fails to. However, this is not the case. This is an enjoyable movie – not a perfect one, not a particularly innovative one – but an interesting story, well told.

The basic plot, for those who haven’t heard, is that sports journalist, Joe Warr (Clive Owen) becomes a single parent when his wife dies rather suddenly of bowel cancer. Having been a fairly absent father, and now grief-stricken, he is not well-equipped to parent his 6-year old son who is coping with his own grief and inability to fully understand the situation. Throw into the mix the sudden arrival of his 14-year old son from a previous marriage and you have the makings of chaos. And chaos is what ensues. Joe decides that the way to manage the all-male household is to have no rules – or very few anyhow – but as the movie progresses this does not prove to be a winning formula.

The cast is strong, with Clive Owen and Julia Blake (playing his mother-in-law) being the best-known names. The boys, played by young newcomer Nicholas McAnulty and George MacKay, are engaging but realistic. The music, by Hal Lindes, once a member of Dire Straits, is understated with just a bit of an edge, and effectively underscores the emotions without over-sentimentalising them. The cinematography is traditional but lovely – with an obvious but nice contrast made between golden sunny Australia and blue damp England.

The story is adapted from a memoir titled The boys are back in town by British columnist Simon Carr. It is sad and funny and, at times – perhaps particularly for women (says she being sexist) – infuriating as Joe misses clues from his sons regarding what they need. Housekeeping is not my forte but even I wanted to get stuck into the kitchen to bring it back to some level of organisation and hygiene, and as for silly boy stunts involving cars and the non-use at times of proper restraints – well, let us just say that I’m a mum!

There are some cliched moments, but overall the script is good and Hicks holds it all together to create a warm and tender but not simple movie about grief, parental and sibling love, and, really, just getting on with life when things don’t go your way. I’d recommend it. After all, if you find the story not to your liking, there is always the scenery!

The gritty viewing gets grittier…

Miranda Otto, 2006 (Photo by Diane Krauss, via Wikipedia, using Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Miranda Otto, 2006 (Photo by Diane Krauss, via Wikipedia, using Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0)

A few months ago I wrote a post called A day of gritty viewing. Since then I’ve blogged about more gritty Australian films: Disgrace, Beautiful Kate, and Balibo. And these aren’t the only gritty films to have been produced in Australia this year. The latest to hit the cinemas, though, is Blessed (directed by Ana Kokkinos). This is one hard-hitting film.

It is an adaptation (by several writers including Christos Tsiolkas) of a quite differently titled play – Who’s afraid of the working class? – and is told in two parts. The first part follows the lives of 7 children, most of whom roam the streets under little or no parental control; and the second part explores their mothers, all of whom are battlers in one way or another. No back stories are provided for them but they’re not needed. Theirs are pretty archetypical stories so you get the picture:

  • the single mother addicted to gambling (Miranda Otto);
  • the serial monogamist mother who needs a man no matter how much damage he does to the children (Frances O’Connor);
  • the working mother with a weak husband who leaves it to her to keep it all together  (Deborra-Lee Furness);
  • the single piece-worker (and also religious) mother struggling to make a good life for her children (Victoria Haralabidou); and
  • the now-elderly mother who adopted an Aboriginal child and kept him apart from his mother (Monica Maughan).

It’s a wonderful ensemble cast – and there are more, including Sophie Lowe who also starred in Beautiful Kate. Through interweaving stories that never feel forced, the film explores the love between mothers and children and how too often this is strained by those external circumstances (most often poverty and the struggle to survive) that can get in the way of the ability to express “true” feeling. Some of the children have been damaged by experiences they shouldn’t have experienced (and I’m talking about abuse here of course) … which brings me back to the title and the double whammy contained in its combination of truth and irony.

It’s nicely shot by Geoff Burton. The night scenes, the strong contrasts, the minimal use of colour evoke well the challenges confronted by the characters in the mostly less-than-pretty parts of their city. Kokkinos direction is also sure, starting with the moving opening scenes of sleeping children which somehow manage to convey their innocence while also suggesting something darker lying beneath. If there’s a criticism to be made it could be that the film is just a little too politically correct. Not having seen the play I don’t know how closely it follows the original but there is a sense here of trying to get in all of society’s contemporary ills. That said, with strong stories and a cast that never goes near stepping over the bounds into melodrama, it works and you accept it.

I don’t always feel the need to avoid spoilers in a review – but I will here. I will simply say that it is gritty – but there is hope too, not in the sense of long-term answers but in a recognition that by reconnecting with the love that binds, you can keep going.