Puberty Blues and the temptations and traps of adaptation


Asking a novelist if they like the film adaptation of their novel is a little like asking a turkey if it likes Christmas. There have been so many bad adaptations of good books, readers often wish producers shot less footage and more directors.

The worst experiences are in Hollywood. Producers keep their address books in pencil. People don’t have friends in this city, they have contacts. No one has a lover, they have “enlightened, non-hierarchical, non-sexist co-partners”. They have tanning salons, even though it’s sunny all year around. There is no law of gravity – skin sags upwards. L.A. must be the only place in the world where you have to go inside to get a breath of fresh air – except inside it’s all hot air.

Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer tells me that adapting a novel for the screen is “like trying to bottle a rainbow, or harpoon a snark. At best, to change the metaphor, the result will be a fragment of the big picture, at worst a blurry Xerox copy of a colourful original.”

Most authors seem to share his opinion. Roald Dahl thought the film adaption of ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ was so “crummy” he refused to sell rights to the sequel, “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.” Australian author P.L. Travers wept through the premiere of ‘Mary Poppins’ and denied Disney the rest of the series. The reason we’ve never seen an adaptation of “Catcher in the Rye” is because J.D. Salinger was so horrified by the film of his short story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” that he forbade any further adaptations. Stephen King was deeply disappointed in ‘The Shining’. He said that “Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel.” Anne Rice so loathed the film version of “Queen of the Damned” that she warned her Facebook fans  to avoid the film that “mutilated” her Vampire story. Unhappy with the way Hollywood sanitized his novel, “Forrest Gump” author Winston Groom sued the producers. Brett Easton Ellis regretted the movie adaption of “American Psycho”. Ken Kesey loathed the film adaption of his book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And Anthony Burgess moaned that the film version of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ “glorified sex and violence.”

My friend Ian McEwan warned me that ‘screenwriting for Hollywood is an opportunity to be paid large sums, flown first class to LA… and betrayed while you sit by the pool at the Bel Air.’

Even so, how we authors still thrill at the call from a Hollywood producer asking us to sell our soul.

I had my first adventure in the screen trade aged 18,  when Bruce Beresford turned “ Puberty Blues” into a feature film. The book, a little slice of 70’s sexism, is about growing up as a surfie girl with males who thought “sex drive” meant doing it in the car. (Most probably because of that little sign on the rear vision mirror that reads “objects in this mirror may appear larger than they are”.)

At a writers workshop, the unpublished manuscript was snapped up by a screen writer. I was too excited to notice that she was giving us the cold, hungry stare of a raptor about to seize a rabbit.

Adult recognition made me feel so elated, I was frightened I’d exceed the prescribed altitude and get shot down by a fighter jet as a UFO. Aware of our naivety in business matters, we got an agent at Curtis Brown. Either he didn’t believe that the novel had any commercial potential, or he’d been bungee jumping without a rope because he sold the film rights for $1,ooo with no escalation clause. I was a struggling writer. Five hundred dollars seemed a fortune. I could finally buy a few luxury items – like food, clothing, rent…

The book became a best seller. When the film, excellently directed by Bruce, went on to become one of the biggest box office grossing film in Australian history, my reality cheque bounced. When I realised the amount of money we’d lost, I went as limp as a perm in a sauna. Perhaps I was dreaming… But if so, then where was Brad Pitt and why was I still clothed? Even now, when I think of the way we were ripped off, it’s as though a slavering wolverine is trying to claw its way out of my abdomen via my esophagus.

I vowed never to trust an agent or producer ever again. I also made my agent vow to leave his brain to medical  science as it had obviously never been used.

On the strength of my next novel, “Girls Night Out”, I was invited by Columbia Pictures to move to Los Angeles to be a writer on a popular sit com called “The Facts of Life”. My weekly salary looked like a telephone number. And we’re talking international call.  All those situation comedies we admire, like Seinfeld, Fraser and Friends etc, are all actually written by about ten people. They lock you in a windowless room I nick-named the Gag Gulag, where you make jokes 24 hours a day. It’s like being a stand up comedian, except, um, sitting down. The hilarious writing staff with whom I shared this tiny creative cubicle were all Jewish. I became so Jewish when I worked there – big hair, high shoes, talking with my hands… I became so Jewish, I felt guilty that I wasn’t.

Even though the hot-house experience of working in a comedy sweat shop was invaluable training, after a year I gave up sit com writing. Mainly because I had a feeling there might be a whole other popular place outside the writers room, known as The World. But my time in Hollywood had helped me develop a more finely tuned showbiz antenna. I was sure I would be more savvy next time a producer came knocking on my door. (I was so savvy I turned down a date with a struggling actor on the show by the name of George Clooney.)

That producer who knocked was Harvey Weinstein, who optioned “Girls Night Out”. Harvey Weinstein has a face that looks as though it caught fire and someone tried to put it out with a shovel. But he’s one of the most powerful men in the movies. Inhabitants of the lower slopes of showbiz genuflect before him.

Wiser and more experienced, I was determined to write my own script. What followed were twelve tortuous drafts in which I had to incorporate the inane script notes from faceless advisers. The whole process seemed to be about making good work, worse. By draft seven I felt as though I was dragging my limbs against a tide. By draft eight even my imaginary friend got bored and went off to play with someone more interesting. By draft ten, I was actually thinking about staggering off into the wilderness to die. Perhaps it might be time for my friends to remove my belt and shoelaces? My brain was numb from rewrite notes from Weinstein’s underlings. Finally, in exasperation, I handed in the very first draft I’d written, which the script editor in LA wrote back to say she “adored”. It was then I realized that I wasn’t cut out for the film world. I just don’t have a big enough capacity for alcohol. The film was never made.

After the frustration of dealing with a big Hollywood operation, for my next film adaptation, “Mad Cows”, I decided to turn down the many lucrative offers I received and opt for a small , independent film company who would actually get the film made. I met the producer, who hemorrhaged charisma. With practiced affability, he smoothed down my worries about his lack of experience as though I were a crumpled bedspread. “The book is the heartbeat of the film”, he assured me in a voice so treacle-like it wouldn’t have been out of place on a pikelet. If I’d been on a plane, an oxygen mask would have been dropping from the overhead luggage locker to warn me of turbulence ahead. Looking back, I now realize the smile he gave me was the kind of smile a piranha would give if a piranha could smile.

You see, the trouble with the film industry is that anyone can call him or herself a producer. Most producers couldn’t produce a urine sample. And the novel writer is little more than something on the bottom of a director’s shoe.

When the producer began to ignore my notes on the script, I felt as though my novel, my baby, had turned into a teenager and was now staying out late smoking, taking drugs and only coming home for clean laundry. When the director stopped returning my calls, my smile became unhinged – the sort of smile that goes with braiding your hair and sitting in a corner humming. It wasn’t until I visited the set that my toes curled up like dead leaves in my shoes. The actors, Anna Friel and Joanna Lumley, were approaching the set like draftees crossing a minefield. “How is it going?” I asked Anna Friel, as we played with my kids in her trailer. “Oh…fine,” she said, valiantly, giving a very good impression of a duck’s back. When I asked Joanna Lumley the same question, she also smiled bravely – well, it wasn’t really a smile. It was more like open face surgery. Even the extras seemed unhappy – they were stopping in the middle of smoking a cigarette, for another a cigarette break. I got the feeling they all wanted tracheotomies, so that they could smoke two cigarettes simultaneously. Why were they so nervous?

I soon found out. The finished product had little to do with my novel. Seeing your book made into a bad film is like seeing your children raped by marauding Cossacks. At the Leicester Square premiere all I could do was go for gold in the Fixed Smile Event. Oh where was a pair of ejector knickers when I need them? Needless to say, the film went over like Pavarotti over a pole vault. It now has a cult following as one of the worst movies ever made.

It was then I decided to buy back all my film rights. I reclaimed “Foetal Attraction”, which I’d sold to a producer whose legs were as long as the limousine she used in lieu of them for transportation. As she tried to talk me out of it, I also reneged on a deal for “Dead Sexy”, even though the very dishy producer kept drowning me in kisses so wet the assistance of a lifejacket was required. I was by now so cynical and jaded that I presumed such euphoric bubbliness was impossible unless under the influence of A grade narcotics.

But it wasn’t long before the siren call of the silver screen seduced me once more. My next close encounter with movie moguls came with my novel “Altar Ego”. My agent rang to say that we had both Scott Rudin, who had just made “The First Wives Club”, and  Robert de Niro’s   film production companies on the phone vying for the rights. The bidding went up and up. Rudin eventually bought the rights for $1oo,ooo. An option he renewed for three years running. The film was never made. And perhaps, in the end, this is the best option. Because the chance of getting a good movie made from your novel, is as likely as likely as a UFO piloted by Elvis Presley landing on the Loch Ness Monster.

When Richard Gill optioned “How To Kill Your Husband – and Other Handy Household Hints” for the Victorian Opera, I was intrigued. How would they adapt my raunchy, colloquial dialogue into this highest of art forms? The novel was tailored to the stage by Timothy Daly with a witty, pithy libretto. Alan John’s score is stylish, lyrical and full of clever musical jokes. It is also the first opera in the history of the world, where the men die and the women live. I attended opening night with a tiara welded to my cranium. The opera was a critical and box office success.

And so it was with renewed optimism that I met up with Southern Star’s producers to talk about turning “Puberty Blues” into an 8 hour mini series. I had seen “Tangle” and “Paper Giants” and been impressed by their smart casting and subtle story telling. But what really gave me confidence was their passionate dedication to maintaining the authenticity of the novel. But could I trust them?

The reading material of most Hollywood film producers is limited to their bank balances and menus. They consider Doonesbury cartoon strips to be  right up there with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even though finding an honest producer is harder than finding a super model’s pantry, true to their word, Southern Star consulted me on every script, checking dialogue, characterization and story lines. It has been a truly inclusive, happy experience and the end product, a critical and ratings success. Talks are underway for a second series.

Buoyed up by this achievement, I am even venturing back into Hollywood with an adaptation of my last novel “The Boy Who Fell To Earth.” Emily Mortimer has secured the film rights and will play the lead role of the mother raising a child on the autistic spectrum. With the success of “Bridesmaids” and “Mama Mia”, producers are finally realising the potential of making movies staring funny, feisty females.

For too long Hollywood has been D.I.Y. Guide to Becoming a Bimbo. The only cinematic role models  we’ve had are a “Pretty Woman” prostitute , a “Fatally Attracted” psychopath or fallopian-tube flashing  Sharon Stone – the sort of female character who knew on what side her bed was buttered.  It wasn’t always thus. Once we had Mae West, Lauren Bacall,  Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis… Women expert at the art of quip lash. But after the war, when women were no longer required in the workplace, suddenly our heroines were dipped in household disinfectant. We were in for an entire decade of film scripts sanitised by the likes of Jane Wyman, Donna Reed, Nancy Reagan; sinking into his arms…before sinking her arms in his sink.

The confident, sexually assertive female characters in “Bridesmaids” and “Mama Mia” shoot from the lip with pithy one liners. What a novelty to see a movie where the women aren’t waiting around to be rescued by something Tall, Dark and Bankable, nor having endless academy award winning orgasms – with no foreplay.  And invariably being shot, raped or chain-sawed by the end. The excellent adaptation of “Puberty Blues” gives me hope that the industry will now make more life-affirming dramas in which women are not just the protagonists, but also each other’s human wonder bras – uplifting, supportive and making each other look bigger and better.

Meanwhile, though, here are my top tips to any novelists about to sell their film rights;

1)  Always remember that the film industry is fly paper for freaks.

2) Will you be financially and emotionally rewarded? Answer – Does Elton John have his own hair?

3) Think negative and you have nothing to lose.

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