How to successfully adapt an Australian story the Jasper Jones way | Review

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By Claire.

Small town Western Australia, 1965. The bright and inquisitive Charlie Bucktin is woken in the middle of the night by the town’s mixed-race outcast, Jasper Jones. Begging for help, Jasper lures Charlie to a clearing in the bush on the outskirts of town to find a sinister end for local girl Laura Wishart. Charlie is thus whisked into a whirlwind of mystery and secrecy, as he tries to find out who killed this girl. Three kids swept up into a complicated adult world, Jasper Jones is the ultimate young Australian gothic, and one of the best Australian films I have ever seen.

Prior to university, when I thought of Australian film I thought of the low calibre, ocker and subversive. This perception was founded on too many viewings of Round the Twist, and little actual knowledge of Australian film. Here’s the thing, though: Australia can make great films, of high calibre - they just occur few and far between.

(left to right) Angourie Rice as Eliza Wishart, Aaron L. McGrath as Jasper Jones and Levi Miller as Charlie Bucktin

Directed by Rachel Perkins, Jasper Jones is an example of the standard that Australian films can demonstrate. What Perkins achieves, and sets the film apart, is a deep understanding and respect not only for the text, but for Australian stories. This level of respect is something last year’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation fell short of achieving. Both stories of crime, both adapted from books, but both with vastly different outcomes. In an article for The Guardian, James Robert Douglas argues the issue with Joe Cinque’s Consolation was that the author of the book, Helen Garner, wasn’t involved in the adaption. Based on a true story, instead of a straight adaption of Garner’s investigation, director and writer Sotiris Dounoukos chose to dramatise the events of Joe Cinque’s murder, in a way which had myself and others in the cinema cringing, not gasping. Harsh words, but the film had a distinct aura of not taking itself seriously. This could be due to it being Dounoukos’ first feature, or a lack of understanding as deep as only Garner’s investigative reporting and writing can provide. 

On the other hand, there is Jasper Jones. Adapted from the Australian modern classic by Craig Silvey, Silvey was primary writer on the screenplay and actively on set every day, keeping a close eye on the adaption and providing support as a person who knew the story. In addition, as revealed at the Cinema Nova Q&A, what eventually led producers Vincent Sheehan and David Jowsey to choose Perkins for the role of director was her deep understanding of the book. What results is a story taken seriously and filled with intricate details, and a film that hits the mark, spot on.

Charlie and Jasper confronting Mad Jack Lionel in Jasper Jones

This successful inclusion of the author is also the case for The Dressmaker. Directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse and based on the book by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker opened at #1 in the Australian box office - no small feat in a culture which often overlooks Australian film for the latest US blockbuster. Unlike Silvey, Ham did not write the screenplay for the adaption of her book, but early interviews indicate she was active in the production.

Like Jasper Jones, The Dressmaker is a mid-century Australian gothic set in a small town. In the hands of any other directors both films could have fallen into the all-too-familiar pit of the ocker and larrikin typical of many Australian male directors, as evident in the absurdly successful Crocodile Dundee in the 1980s and ever-present in Australian films ever since. The effect this has had on Australian films is the notion of cultural cringe, parodies of Australian life, as if the filmmakers are embarrassed of telling an Australian story. Perkins and Moorehouse avoid this, though, and tell Australian stories with heart. Perhaps this is due to them being women. The ocker and its ties to Crocodile Dundee is a masculine perspective, whereas women are not included in this identity. The ocker does not influence their style, and thus female directors offer a fresh perspective for Australian screens.

(left to right) Judy Davis, Sarah Snook and Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker

This is not to say Australian men can’t make beautiful films, such as Simon Stone’s The Daughter and Garth Davis’ Lion, but the perception of ockerness persists. The inclusion of female directors gives a fresh, more serious point of view to Australian cinema. Due to being outside of the traditional Australian identity, female directors know how to make a good film, as they aren’t bound to Australia’s history of the ocker and the subversive. Of course, this is improving, with Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative, and active conversations happening around the country and throughout the industry. Women need to be given more opportunities to tell stories, because time and time again these films have shown what should define the Australian film industry.

Jasper Jones is out in cinemas March 2nd.


Cause a Cine do not own any images used in this post.
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