“The Flare And Falter” – The Definitive History Of Australian Cinema. New FIB Book and Film Documentary series: A Sunburnt Country

Cinematic adaptations of literature pose many problems, yet have also led to the creation of some of the world’s greatest films. Australia’s own rich literary past struggled to find a place in film during the 1950’s and 60’s.

Photo Credit: Black Swan State Theatre Company

Australian stories and settings up to the introduction of film in Australia, its faltering, and through to today, have been best represented in literature. From the bush poetry of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson through to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock and the works of Peter Carey, Patrick White and David Malouf, the Australian spirit and the history of the country have been explored and dissected in numerous works of literature.

As long as film has existed it has borrow ideas or adapted works of literature on to the screen. Short clips of film exist as far back as 1897 presenting scenes from novels by Charles Dickens, while one of the best known films by George Méliès, A Trip To The Moon, was inspired by the works of Jules Verne and H.G Wells. While there are numerous issues surrounding literary adaptations such as faithfulness to the work, creative property and damage to legacy, it can not be disputed that some of the greatest films would not have been possible if it were not for brilliant literature.

Australia turned to its literature in terms of filmmaking during the 1950’s. This period saw films such as A Town Like Alice,The Shiralee and The Sundowners, all based on Australian novels. Australian fiction at this time was often about the outback or about life in rural Australia, which was mainly reflected in the films through the casting of rugged Australian actors. However, these films for the most part were made by British or American production companies both as a result of The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 and due to a lack of government arts funding in Australia.

Even though Australian audiences could relate to the themes and settings reflected in the films they saw, these works were distorted as to suit American and British audiences. Born from this period came the stereotypes of Australian society; hard-working, hard-drinking men, women in thin dresses trying to survive the heat, tin-houses in the middle of nowhere. The portrayal of Indigenous Australians was also hardly sympathetic and nowhere near accurate. In fact Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film Jedda was released in the UK under the title Jedda The Uncivilised, an ugly example of the uneducated and inconsiderate views the world had of Indigenous Australians at the time.

Australian literature, and thus many films set in Australia, took on realistic themes. This is best exemplified in Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll, originally a play by Ray Lawler that was produced as a film in 1959 by Leslie Norman. The work underwent major changes to make it more accessible to American audiences, undermining the whole point of the text as an ode to Australian life.

In the original work, the action takes place in Carlton, Melbourne. Two sugarcane cutters venture to Melbourne to enjoy a break with their two girlfriends as they have done for the past seventeen summers. The characters find themselves ageing and lost, the frivolity and fun of their holiday tradition broken by age and weariness and the need for a ‘proper’ and ‘decent’ life as one grows older. The work is a true ode to life in Australia, a realistic portrayal of what it was like for men and women living at that time struggling to find work and desperately holding on to love, torn between tradition and stereotype.

When Leslie Norman adapted the work for American audiences, it was re-titled Season Of Passion. Though the film featured some Australian actors, the main parts had American accents, and the action took place in the more recognisable setting of Sydney rather than Melbourne. Gone was the realism and the grittiness of the original work in favour of comedic segments and a happy ending more accessible to American audiences. The desire for money and the need for enjoyment by Americans saw the original work hacked to pieces by its adaptation. This, unfortunately, became a trend in American and British film due to many producers blinkered and misinformed understandings of Australia. We still see this today in the ridiculous perceptions of living in Australia, thoughts of kids riding kangaroos to school and men wandering the outback while their wives wait sweating and miserable at home. The true possibilities of Australian literature went unrealised in the early days of film, pushed aside in favour of money and ease of understanding.

Mercifully, as film expanded in Australia and government funding became available, we saw more faithful adaptations of literature and more interesting explorations of Australian life. The flare period to come in Australian film gave us such gems as Picnic At Hanging Rock and Wake In Fright, with Australian writers, producers and directors being given more work and more freedom to create stories mainly for Australian audiences. Indigenous filmmakers too have been given the chance to accurately portray and display their people and traditions with such classic Australian films as Samson And Delilah, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Bran Nue Dae, no longer forced to be represented by white Australians. This is an ongoing battle.

The problem of translating literature into film is a global one, but its execution in Australia exemplifies the flaws of the idea. Though there have been many great adaptations in some cases becoming more popular than the original work, the issue of staying faithful to ideas while transforming one medium into another is a continuing struggle for filmmakers and for writers concerned with their legacy. Often contrived and pray to stereotype, the Australian character was popular in Hollywood, but wasn’t true. Glorifying their own society while laughing at Australian characteristics, British and American production companies did the same damage to Australian literature as they did to its film industry, with only a few minor successes remembered today.

Despite these setbacks, many things were changing under the surface of a broken industry. 1958 saw the formation of The Australian Film Institute, and despite a lack of Australian films over the next decade, 1966 saw the release of They’re A Weird Mob. Starring Chips Rafferty and Clare Dunne, who was described by author Thomas Keneally as ‘a goddess’, this film, though a British production, featured a more accurate portrayal of Australia and its growing multiculturalism. The film stayed true to slang and modern Australian culture, and despite not being internationally successful, paved the way for the most exciting times in Australian film.

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