The case study presented first up at Books at MIFF 2011 on how the 8 part ABC television series The Slap came into being was a prime example of how personal relationships and mutual understandings of disparate roles are so essential in the construction of a quality product.

Early on, Matchbox producer Helen Bowden commented that her colleague Tony Ayres was a longtime friend of author Christos Tsiolkas, who had written The Slap, so in a way the company had an inside track into accessing the screen rights. But despite that, due to the book’s success and perhaps the success of Christos’ previous work Loaded, which was adapted onto the screen as the feature film Head On, the negotiations to secure the rights took many months.

The other panellists – publisher Jane Palfreyman from Allen & Unwin, screenwriter Kris Mrksa, director Jessica Hobbs and director Robert Connolly were asked questions by well-known industry journalist Sandy George, and the key elements of translating a work such as The Slap from a novel to the screen were gradually unpeeled.

Jane set the stage by explaining that the book has sold exceptionally well, totalling upwards of 600,000 copies around the world. She mentioned that most writers want to retain the film rights, and so publishers don’t focus on selling the rights to their books, letting agents take on that role. Which suggested that the role of agents should perhaps be looked at in future Books at MIFF.

One of the writers on the series, the accomplished Kris Mrksa, talked about how he had heard about the book even before it was published, via his partner who works in the publishing industry. He read it and was excited about working on it. However he was confronted by Tony Ayres’s question about which character did he most identify with, as all the characters in the book have their negative qualities.

In general the writers got to work on their favourite characters from the book, with some swapping around for logistical reasons. It was a similar story with the directors, according to Jessica Hobbs, who has again been awarded numerous awards for her television directing. She didn’t want to do the first episode since she knew from experience that it’s tough, but in the end that was one of the ones she did end up directing, and she found the process hard work but exhilarating as well.

Helen Bowden and Kris Mrksa both talked about the richness inherent in the novel and the depth of material to be drawn upon. But apparently Christos Tsiolkas, who was intimately involved with the production, challenged them to change things rather than stick doggedly to the novel. Christos’s previous work Loaded was adapted as a feature film Head On, as mentioned earlier, and so he has some familiarity with the process. As well, he worked as a co-writer on the Ana Kokkinos directed film Blessed (Kokkinos also directed Head On, and was one of the writers, along with Andrew Bovell and Mira Robertson.)

Hobbs mentioned how a highlight for her was Tsiolkas giving her a ‘Greek tour of Melbourne’ including the restaurants and shops, and even a visit to his parents’ place for a meal. Meanwhile Christos would point out the Greekness of the clothes, the tastes, and the milieau. That was invaluable for Jessica in directing the work.

Robert Connolly was asked about his transition from film to television, and he pointed out that he felt The Slap was ideal for television, as many projects are, despite being initially thought of as a film. For him, television is where the more adventurous, innovative work is currently being done. He suggested that there is something conventional about movies at the moment, where you know all the conventions to such an extent that ten minutes into the film you’re totally aware how it will end. Television on the other hand can provide the space and time to be more open and discursive, allowing series like Mad Men the luxury of exploring peripheral subjects and characters in immense detail.

Producer Helen Bowden talked about how the rights were acquired to make the series, which was a difficult process, mainly due to the fact that many players were interested in the rights. But Tony Ayres fleshed out a way of turning the novel into a series, and convinced the author.

Sandy interjected – so you’re telling me it was nothing to do with the money?

Helen laughed. Have you ever met Michael Lynch, she retored. Of course it was about the money – in part. Evidently Lynch is a consummate negotiator, and Helen indicated they had to make an offer at the top end of their range. They also offered Christos a favourable deal in terms of first returns along with the investors, and a share of the producer offset money.

Helen believed that one reason they got the rights was that others were trying to translate the novel into a feature film, but Tony Ayres was able to convince the novelist that it would work better as television. And with eight chapters around eight major characters, it seemed an ideal structure to hang an eight part series.

In many ways The Slap is a different beast from your typical Australian television series, and Kris mentioned what a pleasure it had been to write a series about ‘people like him’ – that is reasonably normal middle class folk in the inner suburbs, with an ethnic mix of protagonists. Previously, Mrksa has worked on shows in the ‘true crime’ genre such as Underbelly, where the characters are not like him at all – or so he maintains.

As well, Kris said that most TV series require you to keep the major characters in the story every episode, but with The Slap you see each episode through the eyes of one of the characters, even a character you may not have liked when you saw them in the episode before.

Helen also mentioned that at Matchbox all the principals are avid readers, and a common question is ‘what are you reading?’ So they read a lot of material themselves, although they also have people in charge of development in fiction and non-fiction, who look for stuff that could be adapted.

Robert Connolly was asked to draw upon his feature film adaptation experience as a producer as well as writer and director, and he reiterated that for him a short story is sometimes better material for a feature film than a Pulitzer prizewinning novel. “What makes great cinema is sometimes not the same as what makes a great novel,” he said. “Sometimes adapting a prizewinning novel is a challenge.” He also mentioned that in the present scenario, a television series has more chance of getting made than a feature film, and so that should be kept in mind.

Mark Poole

This article was first published on Screen Hub in 2011.

Leave a Reply