Quelle surprise. The truth is that in most of my books, nothing happens. The characters may refer to past events, often just by way of oblique reference, but there are no car chases, pie fights or hot sex scenes. No SWAT teams, swing-bridges or erupting volcanoes.
It is the interior landscape that interests me – the thoughts and feelings of characters who are struggling to make sense of their lives, who are trying, sometimes almost reflexively, to move forward.
However, the series of 10 books that begins with Tomorrow, When the War Began and ends with Circle of Flight is an exception. It most resembles an old-fashioned adventure story.
My adolescence was spent reading thrillers: writers such as Ian Fleming, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, John Buchan. Those guys really knew how to get you in. Curled on my bed, caught up in the race between finishing the chapter and obeying mum's yells from the kitchen (“I mean RIGHT NOW!”), I learnt from the masters. Plot, tension, timing and pacing, stunning surprises and ingenious solutions . . .
I had the feeling Des and his peers were doing it with a whisky in one hand and their spare arm curled around a luscious Latvian blonde as they pecked at the typewriter with a spare finger. (This, incidentally, was another fantasy I carried into my early writing career.)
When I wrote Tomorrow, When the War Began in 1992, it was partly from a conscious desire to revive adventure stories for young people. Increasing urbanisation had seen the gradual disappearance of ripping yarns and bush tales. I wanted to marry them with the new teenage genres, where feelings, relationships and character development were all-important.
I wasn't thinking “cinematic potential”, partly because I'm not a visual person. I see words, not pictures. I don't notice faces, clothing, hairstyles. There are few descriptions of such things in my books. After I'd been teaching at Geelong Grammar for two years, my parents asked me what the school uniform was. I had no idea. I can have an hour's conversation with someone I've just met, run into them an hour later and not recognise them – which disconcerts them and embarrasses me.
But when film companies started to approach me, I could understand why. For example, the Australian landscape plays a major part in Tomorrow, When the War Began, and the Australian landscape is more filmable even than Jennifer Aniston. Plus these books do have car chases, bombs, bushfires and a bit of steamy sex.
I'm not a visual person. I see words, not pictures. I don't notice faces, clothing, hairstyles.
The first approaches were quite exciting. People flew from Sydney to Melbourne to have lunch with me, or I flew from Melbourne to Sydney to have lunch with them. The food and wine were good and I didn't have to pay. But after five or six of these it dawned on me that I could waste a lot of my life having lunches with film producers.
I signed up with the Sydney lawyer-agent Rick Raftos and left it to him to have the lunches. It was the smartest thing I could have done. I just hoped we wouldn't end up with Smiley meets Mad Max.
But, no. Instead, we got Michael Boughen and Andrew Mason producing the film and Stuart Beattie directing. I didn't know them, but they came all the way to Victoria to talk to the kids at my school and were a huge hit. They were funny and intelligent and passionate about filmmaking.
The next time I saw them was when they invited us – my partner Kris, the six boys and me – to a day's filming at Fox Studios. We met the cast, the crew, the special-effects guys. We had our photos taken by rock'n'roll photographer Tony Mott, which meant 15-year-old Fletcher could get the goss on Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones.
Stuart was filming a scene where the teenage characters, sitting at a table, suddenly hear a menacing sound in the distance. I watched about 15 takes and got goosepimples every time. It was compelling: my book brought to life and acted out with focus, conviction and credibility.
But the magic moment came at lunchtime. The food was excellent. Looking around, I saw quite a crowd hoeing into their tucker – 125 people? 150? I asked someone: "Are these all the people who work at Fox Studios?"
"No, no," she replied. "These are just the people working on your film."
I choked on my truffles and tomato sauce. Good grief! I wrote that book on my own, sitting at the kitchen table in an old mud-brick cottage in the bush. I didn't have a printer, and I realised one day that if I ran over the computer with the lawnmower I'd have a problem. So I copied the file onto a floppy disk and sent it to my publisher, James Fraser, in Sydney, with a note asking him to chuck it in the bottom drawer of his desk.
A month later I switched on the computer and saw an insolent announcement that a virus called Barcelona had destroyed the hard drive. And, perhaps surprisingly for a virus, it was telling the truth. As the hours passed and computer technicians came and went, I realised that Tomorrow, When the War Began's only hope for survival was in James's desk.
I had no idea whether the floppy disk idea had worked. I knew more about 10th-century Bulgarian folk songs than I knew about computers. I rang James and said, "You either have or you don't have a year of my life in the bottom drawer of your desk."
I waited, agonised, while he searched for it. It gave me time to contemplate which suicide method would be most effective and least painful. James found the disc and put it in his computer. Long, long pause. "Yes," he said, "Looks OK."
Sitting in the food marquee at Fox, I reflected that hundreds of people were earning their livelihood from my solitary work at the kitchen table – and from one frail floppy disc. The parmigiano ice-cream with balsamic glazed strawberries went down pretty easily after that.
My only other experience with Tomorrow, When the War Began as a movie was when I got to see it a couple of weeks ago. Unlike the experiences of pretty much every other author I've met or read about, I loved it.
Tomorrow, When the War Began opens on September 2. John Marsden will speak at a screening for a Herald/Dymocks event on September 6. Bookings 9449 4366.
Australian novels have provided rich material for some of our most memorable and successful films. Here are some of the best.
They're a Weird Mob (1966) The film adaptation of John O'Grady's bestselling 1957 novel was one of the final collaborations between the famed British director Michael Powell and the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. A hit comedy, it pre-empted The Wog Boy for mining the humour inherent in migration.
Wake in Fright (1971)
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff's adaptation of Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel was a lost classic of Australian film until a chance discovery in a Pittsburgh vault. While Kotcheff says it could have easily been remote Canada, he skewers the masculine culture of outback Australia in a psychological drama that was too violent for many viewers when first released.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) Set in 1900, this adaptation of Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel tells of private school girls who disappear in the Victorian countryside. So evocative and well-constructed are the book and its faithful adaptation that fans thought the story was real. One of Peter Weir's early masterpieces, it has been described as Australia's first international hit.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) Thomas Keneally's Booker-nominated 1972 novel drew its plot from the life of the Aboriginal bushranger Jimmy Governor. Director Fred Schepisi's brutally uncompromising adaptation was not well received by Australian audiences, prompting him to leave for Hollywood.
My Brilliant Career (1979) Miles Franklin's classic 1901 novel about a hot-headed girl torn between marrying a handsome rich bloke and forging a career as a writer became a crisp period piece in the hands of director Gillian Armstrong and stars Judy Davis and Sam Neill. Unlike the book, the film ends on an upbeat note.
Puberty Blues (1981) Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey's salty 1979 coming-of-age novel about two 13-year-old girls caused a stir with its casual depictions of sex and drug use. Bruce Beresford's adaptation caused a similar stir, even though the age of the girls was raised to 16. By lightening the darkness a little, the film proved a big hit. Monkey Grip (1982) Helen Garner's debut novel featured middle-class bohemians slumming it in inner-city Melbourne. Five years later it was faithfully adapted by director Ken Cameron, launching the careers of Noni Hazlehurst and Colin Friels.
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) Christopher Koch wrote the screenplay for Peter Weir's adaptation of his 1978 novel about an Australian journalist in Indonesia during the fall of President Sukarno. The first local film to be co-produced by a Hollywood studio, it helped launch Mel Gibson's international career.
Bliss (1985) Peter Carey's darkly comic 1981 novel about a disillusioned advertising executive was adapted for film by Carey and director Ray Lawrence in 1985. Starring Barry Otto, it struggled to find an audience after a lacklustre launch at Cannes, though went on to win best film and director at the AFIs. It has since been adapted into an opera, directed by Neil Armfield.
Head On (1998) Ana Kokkinos turned Christos Tsiolkas's controversial debut novel (1995) about a young gay Greek Australian into an equally controversial film starring Alex Dimitriades. Tsiolkas's most recent novel, The Slap, is being made into a television series.
Looking for Alibrandi (2000) Based on Melina Marchetta's popular 1992 young adult novel, this impressive debut from director Kate Woods took $8.3 million at the Australian box office. Updating the themes of They're a Weird Mob, it starred Pia Miranda and Anthony LaPaglia.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) Based on Doris Pilkington Garimara's 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce's film about the stolen generation was a hit in Australia and overseas.
Dirt Music (expected in 2011) Plans to adapt Tim Winton's award-winning 2001 novel have been slow to sprout, although director Phillip Noyce has confirmed he has secured Russell Crowe for the lead role. Meanwhile, a mini-series of Winton's celebrated 1991 novel Cloudstreet has been filmed and a movie of 2008's Breath is in development.
- Sacha Molitorisz and Garry Maddox
Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey)
At first glance the film adaptation of author John Marsden’s hugely popular Australian teen fiction novel Tomorrow, When The War Began resembles a cross between Red Dawn and The Breakfast Club. A group of teenagers – including a princess, a bad boy, a jock and a studious kid – go camping and when they return to their country-town homes they discover Australia has been invaded by an unidentified Asian army. However, this film is more than the sum of its parts and scriptwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral, Pirates of the Caribbean, Australia) in his directorial début has delivered a thrilling character-driven action/adventure film.
Beattie handles the action magnificently throughout the film with Ben Nott’s (Daybreakers, Accidents Happen) expert cinematography and the incredibly effective sound design facilitating several thrilling moments. The sheer exhilaration of several key scenes considerably compensates for some of the less plausible elements of the film concerning the remarkable speed in which some of the characters adapt to the situation. The Australian teenage characters display an incredible degree of resourcefulness, clarity and perceptiveness; not to mention aptitude for driving heavy vehicles and handling automatic weapons – even for kids who’ve grown up on a farm.
Kevin Holmes (Lincoln Lewis), Homer Yannos (Deniz Akdeniz) and Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey)
The emotional journey that the characters go on is completely genuine and engaging, and that level of ‘reality’ is far more interesting. The group dynamics are convincing and the young cast do an excellent job fleshing out their characters. In particular, the main character Ellie Linton is a fantastic action hero, acted with charismatic conviction by former Neighbours regular Caitlin Stasey. It’s just a pity that these naturally attractive actors have unnecessarily good hair and model-like make-up throughout the entire film so that when they start getting dishevelled and roughed-up, they look more like they’ve adopted Derek Zoolander’s ‘Derelicte’ look.
The major issue with Tomorrow, When the War Began is the representation of the Asian invaders. There is a scene where one character states that it doesn’t matter who the invaders are or what country they have come from – the point is that they have invaded Australia and that’s all the characters and the audience need to know. (There is even an acknowledgement that Australia has been invaded once before.) But if the invaders are merely plot devices without political implications then why represent them as being so specifically one particular race? Why not make them completely nondescript? In the extremely unlikely scenario that Australia is ever invaded then those invaders would probably be from a nearby country (most of which are Asian) but this is not a realistic film so maintaining that ‘authenticity’ is not necessary. Evoking Australian cultural anxieties over the fear of a specifically Asian invasion without addressing the issues that it raises is problematic and a little bit careless.
Nagging concerns about the questionable subtext aside, Tomorrow, When the War Began is an intelligent blockbuster that holds its own with most of Hollywood’s recent output. Hopefully it will be popular enough to generate a franchise based on the rest of the books in Marsden’s series but with the future films showing perhaps a little more grittiness and definitely a little less naivety in how it represents the invaders.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
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