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? 

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.

Christos Tsiolkas, The slap (Review)

You could easily give yourself away when reviewing Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, The slap. For example, do you align yourself with the uncompromising, emotional earth mother Rosie or the rational, cool and collected but somewhat more willing to compromise Aisha? Do you rail against the liberal use of expletives, the relaxed attitude to recreational drug use, and the focus on carnal appetites more often in their ugly or elemental than their loving guise? Do you engage in the private versus public school argument? These are the sorts of things that confront Tsiolkas’ readers.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

In simple terms, The slap explores the fallout that occurs after a young child is slapped by an unrelated adult at a family-and-friends barbecue. This slap occurs in the first “chapter”, reminding me of Ian McEwan’s books which also tend to start with an event that triggers a set of actions and reactions. However, unlike McEwan, Tsiolkas does not build up a strong sense of suspense about “what will happen next”. In fact, the actual slap storyline is resolved about two-thirds of the way through the novel.

Rather, the book is about its characters and their relationships as spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend. At face level, most are not particularly appealing. They are often intolerant, narrow-minded and/or confrontational – just as you begin to like, or at least understand, them they do something that changes your mind.  And yet, in all their imperfections, they do engage.

The book has an interesting though not unique structure. Like Elliot Perlman’s Seven types of ambiguity, the story is progressed through a sequence of different, third person, points of view covering three generations. This shifting of perspectives and stories has the effect of moving our focus from the plot to the content.  And the content ranges broadly across the things that confront families and marriages – love and hate, family versus friends, anger, loyalty, compassion and forgiveness. It has moments of real venom, but also of real tenderness.

Not surprisingly, violence features heavily in the book. Tsiolkas shows how pervasive violence is in western middle class society. Through the various characters’ stories we see a wide range of violent behaviour from domestic violence through consensual but aggressive sex to those seemingly casual expressions of violence such as “I wanted to kill her” about a person who annoys. We also see how deeply ingrained prejudice against “other” is, whether that other be racial, religious, cultural, sexual orientation or socioeconomic. In Tsiolkas’ world it feels as though only a thin veneer of civility covers our more primitive selves and the reader is never quite sure when or whether these selves will break through and wreak havoc. It is to the credit of the characters, and by extension us, that they rarely do, but we are left in no illusion that they could.

A critical aspect of the structure is whose perspective starts and ends the novel. Interestingly, again perhaps emphasising the minimal importance of plot, these are neither the slapper nor the “slappee”. In fact, the final voice is given to someone who starts out on the edge of the main action but is gradually drawn in. As an involved outsider, with issues of his own, he is able to resolve (as much as they can be resolved) the secondary plot lines and, as a person on the brink of adulthood, he can offer a sense of hope to what has been a pretty gritty story.

Wallace Stegner, the great American writer, wrote in his book, Angle of repose, that “Civilizations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations”.  This, taken at a more personal level, seems to be the point of the novel for as Aisha says in the second last chapter, “This finally was love … Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together. In this way, in love, she could secure a familiar happiness”.

POSTSCRIPT: In 2011 The slap was adapted for television, for the ABC, and closely followed the novel’s narrative style with each episode being viewed through the eyes of a different character. The scriptwriters are, I think, a quality bunch:  Emily Ballou, Alice Bell, Brendan Cowell, Kris Mrksa, Cate Shortland. Interestingly, Tsiolkas is not among them.