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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some novels about the second world war

As I am still immersed in things paternal – and as my father served in the second world war – I thought that this week I’d take the easy way out again and list some of my favourite Australian novels about that war. Although I call myself a pacifist, I don’t shy away from war novels. The main reason is because in war we see humanity under duress and, through that, we see the best and worst of human behaviour. I love how the best war novels throw up the “truths” that I love to find in literature.

I’m going to list just 5 – though I’ve read more than that – in the order that I’ve read them. I’ve chosen these 5 not necessarily because I think they are the best (though I have enjoyed them all) but for the different perspectives they offer on the experience of war. (Note: the dates after the titles are not the dates I read them but when they were first published! Just so you know!)

Nevil Shute‘s A town like Alice (1950)

Nevil Shute was one of my favourite authors when I was a teen though when I read him now I see that he’s not as good a writer as my other teen passion, Jane Austen! Nonetheless, he was a good storyteller and many of his novels were adapted for film, including A town like Alice. It’s primarily a post-war romance, but the two characters, English rose Jean and rough diamond Aussie Joe meet when they are prisoners of war in Malaya, a story which is told in flashback. It’s a pretty stereotypical romance but the war, the English-Australian cross cultural story, and the Australian outback setting captured my teen heart.

Arnold Zable‘s Cafe Scheherezade (2001)

Café Scheherazade is set in, and based on, the real cafe of the same name. It was, from its establishment in 1958 to its demise in 2008, a significant meeting place for Jewish refugees who came to Melbourne post war. The novel tells the stories of the Cafe’s patrons – their lives in Europe, and how and why they came to Australia. It taught me something I hadn’t known before – that many Jewish refugees came to Australia via Shanghai. Zable’s prose is beautiful, and though the stories, as you can imagine, contain much tragedy, the final message comprises those universals of courage, endurance, love and even laughter.

Markus Zusak’s The book thief (2005)

Zusak’s The book thief is one of those rare books that pulls off telling a terrible story with humour. Its subject is an ordinary German family which fosters a young girl, and then hides, to their great risk, a young Jewish man. It’s a deadly serious book about bravery and cowardice, about kindness and cruelty – and yet it has, much of the time anyhow, a rather whimsical tone.

Hans Bergner, Between sea and sky

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Hans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946)

Bergner tells the opposite story to that told by Zusak. His characters are Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Poland on a boat – but no-one will let them land, no-one will take them in, the way the Hubermanns took in Leisl and Max in The book thief. It explores the impact of this, as the reality becomes clear to the boat’s occupants. It’s a pretty devastating story.

Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman (2010)

I started with a romance and I’m ending with a romance, but that’s where the similarity between the two books ends. Shute’s book has a pretty traditional trajectory – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, more or less – against the backdrop of the war and early post war period. Gould’s story is far more complex – more realistic about life and character, with a touch of the mystical thrown in. Gould argues that his is not really a war novel because it’s not about the war. To a large degree that’s true, but in a sense it’s true of many books set in war. War is the setting, but the themes are often something bigger (universals about human behaviour) and smaller (about how particular people behave under stress). One of the issues Gould explores is how the promise of a person’s life can be thrown, not only by the things that happen to them but by the decisions they make as a result. And in war, a lot of things can happen to a person!

I’ve limited myself to 5 so am sure to have missed some favourites of yours. I’d love to hear whether you read war novels, Australian or otherwise and, if so, what your favourites are. If you don’t read them, you can tell us that too!