Way back in the 1970s the Australian film industry was reborn with a surge of feature film adaptations – Wake In Fright (1971), written by Evan Jones from the novel by Kenneth Cook, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), adapted by Barry Humphries from his cartoon strip of the same name, Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) written by Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay, and My Brilliant Career (1979) written by Eleanor Witcombe from the novel by Miles Franklin. Then the industry shifted gear beginning with Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground (1976) and sought out original screenplays rather than adaptations, often by first time writer-directors.
Now in 2009 the wheel has turned full circle and we are witnessing a shift back towards adaptations once more. While in recent years the industry has had so few adapted feature films that the category has been omitted from the AFI Awards and the AWGIEs, this year we see an embarrassment of riches in adaptations – Mao’s Last Dancer, Disgrace, Last Ride, Balibo, Beautiful Kate and Blessed to name but six.
The move towards adaptations can be regarded as a sign of a maturing film industry, since Hollywood has always sourced the majority of its films from novels, plays or news stories. It’s the same in the UK.
However adapting a work from another medium into a film is a notoriously difficult and complex business. It’s easy to be too reverent to the original text, not recognizing that film is a different medium, especially from the novel where the tone is set by the rhythm of the words and the descriptions of the setting and the characters, none of which can be relied upon in the celluloid version.
But if the revamped Australian feature film industry is destined to look increasingly towards adaptation as the way to go, how do writers choose the right work to adapt, how faithful should they be to the original text, how do approaches differ and what is the kernel of a succesful adaptation?
We look at three significant adaptations from this year’s crop – Mao’s Last Danger, Disgrace, and Last Ride – to glean some insights into the process.
MAO’S LAST DANCER
A landmark film by any criterion, Mao’s Last Dancer is the $25 million film that comes from the creative pen of one of our top screenwriters, Jan Sardi. Produced by Jane Scott and directed by Bruce Beresford, the film is based on the best-selling autobiography by Li Cunxin,
After Shine, The Notebook and Love’s Brother, Jan was casting around for another film project to do with producer Jane Scott, and was told about the book Mao’s Last Dancer about ballet dancer Li Cunxin’s journey to freedom from Communist China.
“It sounded really interesting so I got home that night and googled Mao’s Last Dancer straight away, saw some reviews of it and thought it does sound good,” Jan said. “I instantly called Jane Scott, the producer of Shine and Love’s Brother, and told her about it.”
Jan and Jane both bought copies of the book and raced to finish it the next morning. By the afternoon, Jan was on the phone to Li Cunxin, asking about the rights. “We knew probably 100 pages in that this could make a really good film,” added Jan. “It had all the ingredients of what you want from a story, it had a really interesting character thrown up against adversity, who has to go on an amazing journey.”
Jan and Li had a meeting that afternoon. It turned out Jan’s film Shine was one of his favourite films. The next day Jane Scott flew down from Sydney to meet with Li and his agent who also happened to be in Melbourne, and the deal was struck. “Li wanted to know that his story would be told with integrity, with honesty and with the same sort of feeling that David Helfgott’s story was told in Shine,” Jan explained.
The book had far more elements within it than could be fitted into a film, and so Jan embarked on the process of finding the ‘inner truth’ of the novel that could sustain the film. “I was aware that in order to condense a story like this you have to take a lot of liberties to get to the truth,” says Jan. “You can’t just lay it out like a documentary, and even a documentary is not really the truth.”
“When you look at a book you’re looking for those great scenes that you’re going to hang the movie on,” Jan says. “Then it becomes how long should the scene be, and that relates to the rhythm of the movie. Like the story itself, you come into a scene at the latest possible moment, as William Goldman has often said, and then you get out at the earliest point.”
Finding the rhythm of the story is vital for Sardi, and once he’d found a strong emotional spine by writing the screenplay in chronological order, once it came to finalizing the shooting script with director Bruce Beresford they had the confidence to play with different time frames. They elected to tell the story by moving from China to Houston, Texas and then back in time as the dramatic imperative required. It’s a technique Sardi used to great effect in Shine, another biopic about pianist genius David Helfgott, which earnt Jan an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
“When you adapt a book it’s always what do you leave in and what do you take out? It’s often the case of finding the story within the story or the story within the book,” Jan said. With Mao’s Last Dancer, Sardi read the book a number of times and wrote key scenes and any thoughts on them on a stack of cards. In a way the cards allowed him to detach himself from the text and structure the spine of the story.
Jan met regularly with Li to let him know how the script was progressing. Li was able to provide some additional details over these fortnightly meetings, but also Jan wanted him to be familiar with the process so that he wouldn’t be shocked when he got to read the first draft. “It was very odd because I’d be referring to Li as a character, because I had to do that in order to keep my sanity in a way, and some objectivity and to keep it as a story.”
By the time you read this, Mao’s Last Dancer will be showing on more than 220 screens across Australia.
Disgrace is another landmark Australian film, an international picture with a sizeable budget set entirely in South Africa. It is a mature work by director Steve Jacobs and writer Anna-Maria Monticelli, whose first feature La Spangola (2001) marked them out as a talented creative team. The screenplay is adapted from the Booker Prize winning novel of the same name by J.M Coetzee, originally from South Africa but now relocated to South Australia. The novel is set in South Africa and screenwriter Anna-Maria Monticelli, who spent her childhood years in Morocco, was attracted by the idea of making a film there. There were other production companies interested in the rights to the book, but Anna-Maria prevailed by convincing the author that his work was best placed in her creative hands.
“Coetzee viewed a copy of our previous film, La Spagnola,” she said, “and he decided that we had the integrity to be true to the material.”
Monticelli loved the book and read it over a number of times in order to become sufficiently familiar with it to begin the screenplay. Despite the stature of the writer and in spite of the fact that one of the conditions of acquiring the rights was for Coetzee to approve a draft, Anna-Maria maintains she didn’t feel under any pressure not to change anything in the book. “It’s an important book, a beautiful book. The idea of changing it’s essence or re interpreting the text in some way, by making the adaptation less confronting or challenging, did not enter my mind. On the other hand I had to make it a cinematic experience.”
According to Monticelli, the book has a formal language and a kind of biblical proportion that she wanted to capture in the screenplay. “I condensed thoughts and scenes, but I tried to keep as much of Coetzee’s dialogue as I could,” she said.
One thing she noticed immediately that the ending was too existential and despairing to work as the ending for a film. “It was an instinctive reaction,” she said.
Fortunately when Coetzee read a draft of the screenplay he gave it the green light.
The film’s main character, David Lurie, played by John Malkovich, is a tormented soul, a predator on the lives of his female students who is destined to becomes the prey himself of some tortured South Africans he comes across by chance. Monticelli resisted the temptation to make Lurie more palatable, preferring to display him as he is portrayed in the book. His character, and that of his daughter Lucy, another complex character what at times is difficult to like, represent the great strengths of the screenplay, which won an AWGIE award last year in the adaptation category. “I was very honoured to receive the award,” she said, “which was totally unexpected.”
The completed film is a work of maturity and power. “It was always my aim to make a mature film that had the intent of the novel behind it,” Monticelli adds. “I believe the audience is crying out for challenging and stimulating work.”
Last Ride (2009) is another major work which has come from acclaimed screenwriter Mac Gudgeon with a number of other feature films to his name, as well as a body of significant television drama. Produced by Nick Cole and Antonia Barnard and directed by Glendyn Ivin, the film includes a triumphant performances by Hugo Weaving as Kev and Tom Russell playing Chook, Kev’s son.
The film is based on the novel The Last Ride by Denise Young. “For me, the kernel of adaptation for the screen always comes down to the theme of the work you’re adapting,” he explained. “As you read the novel for the first time you ask yourself questions like – is this something that an audience will want to explore? Does the theme by its very nature contain the conflict that has a potential to sustain the drama? It doesn’t have to be a grand theme but in the end the characters have to want something, whether it be big or small.”
For Mac, the first steps in adapting a work to the screen is to take the story and characters and make them the writer’s own. “I have to feel that I can inhabit their skins, their universe and find a truth in them that rings bells in my own psyche.” Mac spends some time considering whether he wants to adapt the work, and once that decision is made he figures out a way of telling the story visually. “Screenwriting is about inventing a continuous set of images that tell a story,” he counsels. “We’re the most affected by the images we see in a movie. We may not remember all the twists and turns of the story, but years later we’ll remember the key images. Who can forget Lawrence of Arabia dancing in his white robes?”
Gudgeon pretends he’s writing in the silent era and concocts a set of images that will tell the story without dialogue, which can later be employed to convey any information needed that can’t be told in pictures. After that, he rereads the original material and jots down the big dramatic moments, the character arcs and perhaps some key lines of dialogue. “Then I put the book aside and treat the screenplay as a new work.”
“I think there’s a danger in the screenwriter trying to be the curator of the novel though,” Mac cautioned. “That’s why, after reading the novel enough times to identify the key scenes and dramatic moments, and maybe some key lines of dialogue, I put it down and never really refer to it again.”
“I try to remain true to the themes and characters in the novel,” he explained, “but I also insist on having the creative freedom to adapt it freely for the requirement of the screen.”
Mac says that the characters in Last Ride are mainly the creation of Denise Young, but he amplified their traits through action on the screen. “In a novel you can write the inner dialogue of a character, but in cinema we learn from what a character does, not what they think.”
Noting that the book didn’t have a third act, which is crucial to any film, Mac set about inventing one. “I just extended the journey so a dramatic denoument could happen,” he explained. “In a sense I made Chook older emotionally – I pushed him to a point where he had to make a decision to survive.”
“I think you have to keep in mind that novels can do things that films can’t and vice versa,” Mac summed up. “And not every book is suitable for adaptation to the screen. You have to ensure that the book has the sort of material that will work on screen – such as characters that want something, and a story that contains conflict. I knew from my initial reading of The Last Ride that it had both in spades.”
Whether adaptation overtakes original screenplays as the core of Australian filmmaking in the years to come remains to be seen. Certainly this year the impact of such major works as Mao’s Last Dancer, Disgrace, and Last Ride as well as Balibo and Blessed will set new benchmarks for the genre. Clearly Australia’s screenwriters and producers will be looking ever more carefully at the new texts being published both locally and overseas, in an attempt to pick the ones that will prove to contain the incisive characters, the dramatic conflict and the emotional journey that will be capable of delivering a satisfying ride for tomorrow’s cinema audiences.
First published in Storyline magazine.