Cloudstreet and the art of adaptation

A new stage version of Tim Winton’s much loved novel Cloudstreet is starting at the Malthouse on May 6. Why would director Matthew Lutton decide to revive Nick Enright’s five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Winton’s 400-page family saga?

Well, Cloudstreet is that rarest kind of book, a magnificent literary achievement which is also an absolute winner with the reading public. And you need only read 10 pages of this strange, haunted glory of a book about the Pickles family of ne’er-do-wells who inherit the house in Cloud Street and the upright Lambs who come to share it with them, to realise that you are not only reading a master novelist at the height of his powers but that you are spellbound by an example of what sometimes gets called the God-given book.

Remember the terrible accident that befalls that hopeless gambler Sam Pickles? Remember the way Fish, the wild boy, the bright boy, the blessed one, comes back from the dead, but does he? Winton has the magician’s gift of giving these fundamental incidents a stabbing poignancy that takes the breath away.

Natasha Herbert with Bert LaBonté in Matthew Lutton’s Malthouse production of Cloudstreet.Credit:Simon Schluter

We feel we are in the presence of epic drama simply because the writing has a sweeping dramatic authority so that it seems the most natural thing to put this story on stage or screen because the mind is in overdrive at the power of the literary realisation.

Think of old Oriel Lamb, tough as the day is long, sitting in her tent. Think of the effortless authority with which Rose Pickles rises from her background.

Cloudstreet is the weirdest kind of Australian folk opera and it already has that highest quality of recognition that we bow to in literary art – the quality you get in War and Peace or The Leopard.

Some books are so big in their achievement and their appeal that they seem bigger than literature. Dickens' work is like this and so is Cloudstreet.

There’s a lot of Winton that could be filmed and we’ve recently seen a film version of that taut novella Breath and of his stories The Turning. But Cloudstreet is the one we’ll go on performing forever.

The sad thing, of course, is that the way Cloudstreet combines poetic sweep with sheer populist appeal is not only unrivalled but we have been so neglectful of many of our contemporary classics that might have taken off on stage or screen.

It makes you think about all the Australian novels we have adapted for stage and film and television and all the ones we’ve neglected. Then there are masterpieces which no one has got onto screen and stage.

The world – and Winton – were lucky with Cloudstreet. Neil Armfield's highly effective adaptation in 1999 captured for a stack of people the epic feeling of a book so widely read and loved that even prime ministers such as Julia Gillard were happy to claim acquaintance with it.

On the other hand, no one has ever succeeded in getting some of the most highly regarded novels of Patrick White on stage or screen. The great Joseph Losey wanted to film Voss, that great novel of actual exploration as well as telepathy and inner soul searching but despite the script by David Mercer and the fact that both Max von Sydow and Maximillian Schell looked, at various points, like playing the German explorer lost in the desert and communing with Laura Trevelyan in Adelaide, the closest Voss got to a stage or screen version was Richard Meales’ 1982 opera which despite Jim Sharman’s direction and David Malouf’s libretto is more a translation than a straightforward dramatisation.

There is a very viable stage version of White’s The Aunt’s Story, his difficult first masterpiece which engages madness and dislocated language – and which Helen Morse has done with great success – but the modernist touches of the book (which White adapted himself) make it a far cry from movie or TV drama, even potentially.

That’s not true of The Tree of Man which is sometimes thought of as his Genesis story. It presents Stan and Amy Parker, a couple coming to grips with the land, and it would work as an all-day marathon stage show as long as you solved the problem of the characters ageing over decades. And it is full of humour and swooping variety which would also (as Cloudstreet did) transfer to long-form television. Neil Armfield wanted to do it as a TV series many years ago and you wonder why the penny doesn’t drop with someone else now.

Still, Helen Madden’s recent attempt to get a Stork Theatre reading of Tree of Man under way – following in the wake of her highly successful one-day reading of Homer’s Odyssey in the Botanical Gardens – has met with a shamefully cool response.

It also seems conceivable that someone could do stage and television versions of Riders in the Chariot, White’s towering novel of a Jew called Himmelfarb, an old mystical woman and an Aboriginal man. It is an immensely ambitious novel involving a kind of re-enacted crucifixion and a lot of treatment of religious and far out experience but that would not necessarily be an impediment because White had a huge dramatic talent which showed itself much more clearly in his novels than his plays.

After all, Fred Schepisi’s version of The Eye of the Storm with Charlotte Rampling as the old matriarch and Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush as her children is one of the more successful adaptations of the Australian novel even though it’s not from White’s epic period.

And Schepisi has an impressive track record with film versions of Australian books. His version of Tom Keneally’s Aboriginal bushranger novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith has an unforgettable sweep (and a dazzling performance from Tom E Lewis in the title role) and he also ensured with Evil Angels – with its portrait of a family tragedy that led to massive injustice – that the story of Lindy Chamberlain will live forever. (And all of this pivoted on John Bryson’s non-fiction book, as powerful as a novel, that turned the key in the lock and allowed Meryl Streep to give one of the most famous performances in an Australian film.)

Schepisi's auteur-like film The Devil’s Playground about a boy at a Catholic boarding school was almost a novel in filmic form and it led to a brilliant TV continuation with a grown-up Simon Burke (the one time child hero) as a psychiatrist investigating the shadow of child sexual abuse.

But it’s difficult to judge the question of where a great book will make a great stage show or film or TV series.

One of the very greatest Australian novels, probably the single best known modern classic by an Australian – Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children – has never been adapted even though it cries out to be (and it would be so easy to translate it back from its nominal setting in America’s Annapolis to harbourside Sydney where the experiences it charts occurred) but no one has ever got it up.(Robyn Nevin would have been marvellous as Henny the rough-tongued mother substitute.)

There is a film of Stead’s lesser but still powerful autobiographical novel For Love Alone with Helen Budday as the Stead figure and Hugo Weaving as the misogynist bloke but it’s ordinary rather than exciting.

And it’s a fact of life that sometimes ordinary books that are highly readable succeed where art gets problematic.

Back in the early '70s, Cliff Green (who went on to write the script of Picnic at Hanging Rock) did an ABC TV version of Frank Hardy’s Power without Glory which depicts the dodgy rise of John West and is patently based on the businessman John Wren – and landed Hardy in the midst of a libel suit when the book was published in 1950.

It’s possible to find the style of Power without Glory a bit stodgy and still thrill at the scale and variety of the story Hardy tells. My memory of the TV version which included a portrait of a formidable prelate called Archbishop Malone (patently based on Daniel Mannix) by the veteran Australian (and Hollywood) actor Michael Pate is that something like the Green adaptation could hold the stage for eight hours and could also captivate a long-form TV audience that wanted to see the long-ago drama and look of Melbourne in the earlier 20th century.

The book is a fascination without being great literature and the story of the man who bought Raheen (with money from God knows where) and gave it to a prince of the church is one of the great Australian legends.

And sometimes it’s the books we wolf down that make the best drama, whether live or on screens. The Brits understand this when they put Wolf Hall first on stage and then on television or Robert Harris’s Cicero detective stories or indeed with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which is a long-form piece of fiction as drama which is captivating hordes of people in Melbourne at the moment – not least the millennials who learnt to read with J K Rowling.

In 2016 Sam Strong directed a superb version of Kate Mulvaney’s adaptation of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, that To Kill A Mockingbird-influenced Western Australian extravaganza, and there was also a movie version with Toni Colette and Aaron L McGrath in the title role.

And it’s simply the case that a film version of a book can sometimes outshine its original. Picnic at Hanging Rock exists for us primarily as Peter Weir’s 1975 film, an evocation of the eerie beauty of a world of schoolgirls about to disappear. With its superbly atmospheric sense of impending disappearance and the performances from Rachel Roberts and Helen Morse, the whole thing is a transfiguration of Joan Lindsay’s book, even though it would not exist without it.

Was Christopher Koch’s 1978 The Year of Living Dangerously as exciting a piece of entertainment as the Mel Gibson/Peter Weir film of 1982?

Tom Keneally likes to say that we learn history from our soaps and no doubt people did from The Sullivans and from that one time Australian literary classic, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) which became a much-watched ABC TV serial with Leonard Teale – the man who had done Homicide and recorded the ballads of Lawson and Paterson as a very authoritarian dad by contemporary standards.

But Keneally must have been amazed when no less a figure than Stephen Spielberg directed his fictional account of that great people smuggler, Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List (as the film was re-named from its original book title Schindler’s Ark). It was Spielberg at the height of his powers and frame by frame, sequence by sequence it’s arguably superior to Keneally’s admirable straightforward account in his Booker Prize-winning work of faction.

There’s nothing like the same likelihood that the film version of Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes – his convict novel which asks for comparison with Camus or the Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – could be improved by a stage or film or TV version (though it arguably cries out for each of these).

But the late Susan Sontag used to argue – and she was wrong but interestingly wrong – that Visconti’s Ossessione, his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, was superior to his very faithful version of a literary masterpiece like The Leopard.

You might well find the very excited quality of Liane Moriarty’s prose just a bit much for relaxed reading and nevertheless find the Nicole Kidman/Reese Witherspoon adaptation of Big Little Lies for TV rivetingly powerful.

And a manifestly good book such as Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip can make a pretty ordinary film, redeemed only by Alice Garner playing herself as a girl.

In the 1950s Australians weren’t even allowed to play themselves, as if we were some form of British outpost. Some of the most famous films set in Australia – based on books by Australians – had British or American actors, unless Peter Finch was available, as he was for the film of D’Arcy Niland's The Shiralee in 1957 and Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice (1956). But Shute’s other bestseller On the Beach (1959) – the one which provoked Ava Gardner to say that Melbourne was an ideal place to make a film about the end of the world – was filmed with exclusively American leads and in the case of John Cleary’s The Sundowners (1960) Robert Mitchum gets more than half way to mastering a particular kind of laid back Aussie drawl.

But the whole matter of adapting books is such a mad bag. In recent years there have been some remarkable successes on the small screen.

Some people liked Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap and some didn’t but the TV version by Tony Ayres had a staggering distinction (not least with all those Greek actors). And that was true of the best of Barracuda: think of Helen Morse as the matriarch of the well-off family or Matthew Nable as the Hungarian swimming coach.

It’s all a hit and miss business, the book adaptation caper. Were the John Clarke/Sam Neill adaptations of Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan novels Stiff and The Brush-Off as good as the books? The TV version of Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore (2013) with Don Hany and Robyn Nevin seemed to hit on exactly the right tone, the Guy Pearce Jack Irish is a world away from my own imaginings of that character, that milieu.

Two things are true. There are always adaptations of Australian books and often they follow no rhyme or reason. It was always an obvious idea to adapt Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and yet it took the Australian entertainment industry more than 20 years to do it.

There are delightful adaptations of Australian classics. Redheap by Norman Lindsay was done in the early '70s and then became the setting for Saturdee which charmed people in 1986.

And there are very formidable transcriptive films. Bruce Beresford’s film of The Getting of Wisdom delivers the book, it may not equal Henry Handel Richardson’s minor key masterpiece but it in no way violates it: it abides by it and cherishes it.

On the other hand, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, her long epical novel of tragedy and disintegration, using a very broad canvas, has never been adapted. It could hold the stage for a long breathtaking day. If it had been filmed in the '60s by David Lean, say, Richardson’s novel – which influenced Patrick White – might have been known as one of the great books of the Western world.

If you want a counter case of a film enhancing the reputation of a book think of Peter Carey’s luck to have Oscar and Lucinda not only directed by Gillian Armstrong but to have Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as the leads (both signed up before they became famous).

In a weird way it seems more of a game of chance than it is a game of skill in this country, perhaps because our literary worlds and our theatre and film/TV worlds aren’t talking to each other enough.

What’s clear is that Cloudstreet, like Harry Potter points one way ahead and the stage is the place where all these things come together.

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