‘The Mount Everest of film adaptations’: taking Dirt Music from novel to film

‘The Mount Everest of film adaptations’: taking Dirt Music from novel to film

Director Phillip Noyce has learnt a lot about literary adaptations in his long career making Australian and Hollywood movies.

He thought the Doris Pilkington Garimara book that was the source for the hit film Rabbit-Proof Fence, about three Aboriginal girls being chased 2000 kilometres across the desert as they try to get back home, was perfect for a film because "it's a locomotive that's powered by a fairly conventional chase architecture". It was also "full of beauty".

“Like reading an extraordinary poem, the reader is entranced by ‘Winton reality'”: Garrett Hedlund and Kelly Macdonald in Dirt Music. Credit:Universal

The Tom Clancy novels that Noyce turned into the action thrillers Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger have "fantastic plots" that "take place in a world where everyone has their feet firmly on the ground". Ideal for Hollywood movies starring Harrison Ford.

But Tim Winton's much-loved novel Dirt Music, which he tried unsuccessfully for years to turn into a film, is a different story altogether.

"He writes so beautifully about his characters and plot," Noyce said. "Like reading an extraordinary poem, the reader is entranced by 'Winton reality'. One Winton word can have the power of one Clancy page."

Adapting something so poetic is "the Mount Everest of film adaptations".

While Noyce was never able to get past base camp – unable to find a script that did the book justice – fellow Australian director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands, Ned Kelly) has headed for the summit with a film that opened in cinemas this week.

Like the much-loved book, it centres on former nurse Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald), the unhappy partner of wealthy fisherman Jim Buckridge (David Wenham), who falls hard for troubled poacher Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund) in a Western Australian coastal town.

It joins a (mixed) bag full of Winton adaptations that include the films That Eye, the Sky (1994), In the Winter Dark (1998), The Turning (2013) and Breath (2017) as well as the television series Lockie Leonard (2007-2010) and miniseries Cloudstreet (2011).

With a novel as widely acclaimed as Dirt Music, winning the Miles Franklin Award and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002, there are high expectations for any film.

“I read the book to try to work out how to make it and I didn’t have an answer”: Gregor Jordon on the set of Dirt Music.Credit:Universal

The critical consensus seems to be that Jordan captures the physical sense of what Noyce called "Winton reality" with stunning landscapes but struggles when it comes to the rich inner life of Georgie and Lu that connects them as lost souls.

That reflects how beautifully Winton writes in Dirt Music: every page a sensory experience, full of pungent impressions – smells, tastes, the feel of things – unspoken thoughts, haunted memories and spare dialogue, flowing like a tide.

But the film is a bold expedition considering Jordan had no idea how to make it work when he first read the book before it was published in 2001.

"Tim Winton's agent sent a manuscript copy around to a bunch of filmmakers – myself included – to see whether anyone was interested in adapting it," he said. "I read the book to try to work out how to make it and I didn't have an answer. I couldn't work out how to do it well because it just seemed too sprawling and too abstract.

"Maybe at the time I didn't have the life experience, either. A lot of the concepts in the book, maybe I didn't understand well enough."

Garrett Hedlund in Dirt Music.Credit:Universal

What changed his mind was a script by English writer Jack Thorne (The Secret Garden, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). He brought an outsider's perspective that Jordan thought captured the essence of the characters and Winton's sense of landscape.

"The thing that was most impressive about the script was he managed to put in some of his own inventions to create a beautiful economy in the storytelling to tie all the various story threads together," Jordan said.

"He diverted in certain key ways from the book – in a way, improved on the book – and in how he tied Jim's story in with Georgie and Lu's. And he also made a few tweaks to the ending … to tie it all together."

Even so, the challenge included having to shoot the film over vast distances, heading into remote locations.

"The story starts in a crayfishing town then moves to Perth then Broome then the islands off the Kimberley coast," Jordan said. "We realised the distance between locations was roughly the distance from London to Moscow."

Lyn McCredden, professor of Australian literature studies at Deakin University and author of The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred, thinks Winton's voice and internal monologues make his novels challenging to adapt. "There's a lot that is about existential voice and feelings and dread and anxiety," she said.

But she thinks there are at least two Winton books still ripe for film versions: The Shepherd's Hut and Eyrie.

Jordan, meanwhile, is moving on to two other adaptations, both for television: Kate McClymont's Dead Man Walking, about the execution of Michael McGurk, and his own hit film, Two Hands.

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