Grunge Lit to Flick – Adaptations of Praise and Candy from novel to film (another essay for uni)
Grunge is a literature of anger and protest that comes from younger writers alienated by mainstream publishing tendencies...
If it shares any characteristics they are
- spare realism
- in your face
(Syson 2008, pp.3-4)
Praise (McGahan 1992) is generally accepted as the start of the Australian grunge literature period while Candy (Davies 1997) was written towards the end of that time. Both these novels candidly depict addiction using a first person narrative. The transference of the confronting nature of addiction from page to screen is problematic due to firstly, the interference of filmic veneer making realism too perfect to be realistic and secondly, the overarching institutional power of social and censorship influences that dictate the limits of pushing the boundaries of cultural norms. There is also the awareness of the need to attract an audience, movie making being a much more expensive exercise than printing a book, that reduces the broader social issues raised in books to a narrower focus on relationships. All of these issues come under a capitalist ideology.
The 1990s Grunge period in Australian literature was during a time of political and social transformation. In 1991 Paul Keating took over from Bob Hawke as Prime Minister and then in 1996, the Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties, led by John Howard, ousted the Labour Government. This had followed the stock market crash of 1987 which disenfranchised the youth of the time as job prospects fell and confidence waned, and the greedy capitalists of the 1980s, such as Skase and Bond, had been brought down with minimal repercussions.
By the early 1990s Australia was slowly emerging from a recession but many young Australians were jaded by capitalist ideology. Andrew McGahan wrote about this world weariness and thus with Praise Australian grunge literature was born. The young people previously marginalised by not accepting the capitalist code of greed and success were given a voice. Suburban people were recognised instead of merely lying in the murky shadows of the Central Business District. “The term ‘suburban’ itself implies a lesser status, one that is dependent upon the original ‘urban’ centre for its meaning and existence” (Brooks 1998, p.88). Like the cars and bodies depicted in Praise and Candy the suburban fringe were subject to disease and decay. Grunge was asserting that health and beauty and financial success were not the only constructs of life and meaning. Generation X thus thumbed their noses in opposition to the capitalist ideals of the Baby-Boomers (Dawson 1997, p.123) where career success is the ultimate. Without capitalist goals the characters of Praise and Candy were drifting.
“I’m so fucked up.”
“We all are.”
(McGahan 1992, p.167)
By 1997 when Candy by Luke Davies was published there had been a change in government. Sentiment and capitalism marched on again and grunge was left behind. Some cynics at the time (Syson 1996, Dawson 1997) saw grunge as little more than a marketing ploy, noting that these books were generally written by middle class for middle class depicting characters “as vulgar and violent but poetic and stylish descriptions of excessive human behaviour upon which the middle class reader can gaze voyeuristically” (Syson 1996, p.24). Through their publication the anti-capitalist voice had become part of the system through niche marketing (Syson 1996, p.23). Dawson also makes the wry point that “if grunge is cathartic for first-time writers, it also marks their move away from the world of grunge” (1997, p.121).
As novels, Candy and Praise are similar in numerous ways. Both authors are men, their novels are semi-autobiographical, they write about sex and drugs in an extremely frank manner, the central characters are heterosexual lovers, they are mostly unemployed and amoral about it, both include terminated pregnancies (one through abortion, the other by miscarriage), both main female characters throw objects that hit the head of the main male characters, the language is often extreme, and both use cars as metaphors.
I knew nothing about my car. I neglected it. I drove it badly. I let drunken fools do what they wanted with it. And yet it kept on going for me, mile after mile. Year after year. (McGahan 1992, p.175)
It would be almost a decade before the car finally came to a silent stop on an empty stretch of road a long way down from where we’d started. (Davies 1997, p.20)
New life was given to these novels in film but they couldn't really be called grunge with their perfectly orchestrated music, carefully contrived lighting and actors playing roles. “Grunge cinema, like its fashion counterpart, is a triumph of appearance and style over meaning and content...using controversy as a selling point” (Flynn 1996, p.64). The films sucked the real out of realism yet the voyeuristic gaze remained.
Many of the similarities of the two novels were stripped away through their different adaptations, although both were mostly faithful to the original text. The primary addiction in Praise was sex and in Candy it was drugs, particularly heroin. The drug scene was barely present in the movie version of Praise despite numerous sessions in the novel and the sex and prostitution of the movie version of Candy was hardly in your face and certainly not shown on screen as much as it was written in the book. By simplifying the storylines in both movies much of the grunge was removed and class friction smoothed over.
Praise, the film, was particularly pared back to place an even bigger emphasis on sex. It earned its R classification through explicit sex scenes but even all the nakedness and raw confronting issues over sex, such as Gordon ejaculating before Cynthia was ready, was not as explicit as the book. The movie was unable to show Gordon’s explorations of vaginas (McGahan 1992, p.46 & pp.239-240) or his use of masking tape (pp.195-196). The film also cut many scenes out beyond the intimate surrounds of Gordon and Cynthia having sex. They visit many pubs in the novel but they are condensed into one in the movie. There are many parties but they condensed into one. There is a lot of drug usage but this becomes condensed to a couple of incidents. Other events are merged so that even an abortion and genital warts are dealt with in a single hospital visit. Gordon sleeps with Sophie and Rachel in the book (on separate occasions) but Sophie doesn’t feature in the movie and Rachel’s role is significantly reduced. Other characters are combined so the focus is as much as possible on the one issue – the sexual relationship between Gordon and Cynthia. Yet even that isn’t always depicted as it is in the gritty realism of the book. The first time Gordon and Cynthia have sex in the movie it is to Spanish music and dark lighting and played as if it is a bull fight. Most of the action is constrained to houses, particularly Gordon’s, but despite all the dirt and scum of the place the beautiful lighting reduces the grunge. The dialogue and voiceover, however, is virtually verbatim throughout the film, but then McGahan wrote the book and the screenplay.
The political background of Praise the book is virtually non-existent in Praise the movie. All the concerns with unemployment and the institutions that administer social security payments are scarcely addressed in the film version at all. Early in the movie Gordon when quits his job, there’s talk of him going on the dole but then the only further reference to institutional power in the form of social services is the three forms of ID Gordon requires to obtain benefits. Speaking of identity, the name Gordon also makes a neat juxtaposition with the movie Wall Street from a decade earlier where the famous quote “Greed is good” came from the mouth of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) (2008 IMDb).
The book version of Praise often refers to Gordon’s family and their various occupations as a contrast to Gordon’s own disillusioned outlook in life. All older siblings are married or engaged (McGahan 1992, p.104) and seem to be in respectable jobs – Joseph and Louise are doctors (p.15 & p.211). His parents live on a farm of “six hundred and sixty acres of black soil cultivation” (p.120). This class distinction with Gordon’s family is diminished to a wedding scene and a brief visit to the farm in the movie. The diminishing role of class reduced the realism of the film that existed in the book.
The actors in Praise were film novices. Peter Fenton who played Gordon was a musician who hadn’t acted before and Sacha Horler had only performed in theatre since she had graduated from NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts) (DVD extras 1998). They were as the book described them, Gordon “pale and round and unshaven” (McGahan 1992, p.48) and Cynthia, “short dyed blond hair, a round creased face, big solid hips” (p.8) and the asthma and eczma remained as prevalent in the film as it was in the book. This demonstrates some of the movie’s resistance to adding gloss in the transformation of book to film. It didn’t bow to society’s powerful image of the norm. The film did not apply a shiny veneer it just omitted a lot of substance and meaning by leaving out much of the class and social context.
Candy, on the other hand, was sweetened by having a star, Heath Ledger, in the lead as Dan. Abbie Cornish, a “Botticelli-esque blonde” (Harvey 2006), played Candy which was quite apt since the book’s narrator describes her as “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, naked or clothed. Not a blemish” (Davies 1996, pp.3-4). However, particularly now both of them are even more famous through their subsequent movie performances, but also through Heath Ledger’s death and Abbie Cornish’s reported romance with another famous actor, the movie appears unrealistic in its depiction of the marginalised. “Beautiful people in horrible, self-destructive trouble – hey, that’s entertainment” (Harvey 2006).
In Candy Dan is also stereotypically the “tragic hero”:
This depicts the [drug] user as a likeable, readily identifiable character who epitomizes ‘humanities [sic] inherent flaws’. The hero may be seen as tragic due to the struggle against the compulsion to use alcohol or drugs as well as struggling against the neat conformist norms of society within which he or she does not readily fit. There is usually a theme of redemption (or death) as the plot unravels. (Cape 2003, p.168)
The book through its internal dialogue is able to show much more of the struggle the ‘hero’ experienced when Candy prostituted herself, when he found himself desiring heroin more than he desired Candy, when Candy had to go through the throes of labour knowing she would be giving birth to a baby that would die within minutes and when he finally made the break from her at the end. As Candy went through the miscarriage ordeal,
I remember feeling guilty – an unusual emotion – because I wanted so badly for Candy’s pain to end, not just because of the pain itself, but more because of the way the clock ticked away on the wall, tick tick tick, the hands moving away from my last blast, or towards my next. That’s an essential truth of the night. Even then I knew the guilt would be the kind of guilt that would bury itself for years. Still, when you need a hit you need a hit (Davies 1996, p.125).
No matter the skill of the actors at showing emotions, it is not the same as knowing what they are thinking, the logic and thought processes they are undertaking. Some of this is compensated by the use of voiceover and, like the book’s narrator, is poetic about the romance between them but as Richardson (2006) noted, the narrative of the book was “constantly undercut and ironised by the close-up squalor of what is being represented” whereas the film rarely went to murky depths except through expressed emotions.
In the film the romance is often glamorised through artistic cinematography (by Garry Phillips) including the Rotor ride pictured at the beginning and the end, Dan and Candy swimming underwater and the carwash scene which “portrays the pull of addiction with glamour and romance” (Carruthers 2006). These images are juxtaposed in the film with scenes of decline that attempt to be bleakly horrible. For example, when Dan and Candy try to go cold turkey off heroin there is vomit and sweat and a shower scene where Heath Ledger performed so much self-loathing in just one take he gave himself a black eye (DVD audio commentary) but much of it is shot as montage and from a camera angle placed high above, removing the realism of the situation. “The drug experience is almost always intensely internal, so cinema usually finds it difficult to evoke such an experience adequately” (Bates 2008).
When Dan and Candy inject heroin at Caspar’s old but beautiful house, a metaphor for Caspar’s own decay, Mozart plays, beautifully and elegantly as the three of them blissfully give themselves over to the high. It makes a classic example of how film adds a layer that through its perfection in the moment reduces the reality. McGill observes that the “dreamy cinematography and a thoughtfully selected soundtrack help create a seductively melancholy atmosphere” (2006, p.48). Herein lies the problem, it is merely atmosphere, not the substance built through events and narrative. Music, lighting and camera angles all subdue the grittiness of the novel.
Other movies about heroin, like Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy, have shown the filth of addiction in all its ugliness with an overlay of humour. Candy possibly missed an opportunity to do similarly with scenes from the book such as when the ‘hero’ wallowed in garbage seeking an errant syringe head and when blood spurted violently from the neck of a user over walls and carpet due to a detachable syringe head left in the skin (Richardson 2006).
The current ideology of the evil of drugs has not always been present. Until the mid 1800s drug use was a private matter, not considered a problem to be handled in the public domain by any form of bureaucracy but over time the various interest groups and the media determined the rise and strength of an anti-drug ideology (Boyd 2007, pp.11 & 16). Foucault wrote about “the reign of the normative” and how the dominant institutional powers can cause individuals to change accordingly (1977, p.304). For instance, as doctors became institutionalised and organised in the 1800s they asserted their power so that addiction became a dirty word and behaviours changed accordingly (Boyd 2007, pp.13-14). Now the anti-drug ideology pervades all aspects of western society, including film, with a stronghold of political correctness.
In Australia, the Guidelines (Attorney-General’s Department 2008) for the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, states that films will be refused classification (banned) if there is “detailed instruction in the use of proscribed drugs [or] material promoting or encouraging proscribed drug use.”
The British Board of Film Classification (2008) states:
No work taken as a whole may promote or encourage the use of illegal drugs. Any detailed portrayal of drug use likely to promote or glamorise the activity may be cut. Works which promote or glamorise smoking, alcohol abuse or substance misuse may also be a concern, particularly at the junior categories.
In the USA there are not only restrictive laws but also rewards:
The Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. (EIC) annually presents, in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), FX Network, and News Corporation, the PRISM Awards™, a nationally-televised awards show recognizing the accurate depiction of drug, alcohol and tobacco use and addiction in film, television, interactive, music, DVD, and comic book entertainment. Established in 1997, the PRISM Awards honor productions that are not only powerfully entertaining, but realistically show substance abuse and addiction, as well as mental health issues.
These laws, government guidelines and community interest groups institutionalise the expected behaviours and attitudes of a society by “setting boundaries as to what is the norm and what is deviant” (Cape p.164). It appears books have more success at questioning this power ideology than film.
Australian grunge fiction examined the role of young individuals in a world dominated by capitalism and bureaucracy on the margins of Australian cities and their dominant culture in the 1990s. Social concerns about sex and drugs moderate the adaptation from novel to screen so that the grunge slips away. Whether it is a fear of criticism for glamorising addiction, or a fear that making a film too dark and dirty will keep the audience away, or simply the fear of heavy handed censorship, adaptations will usually be restrained when it concerns addictions. Movies are also a more costly part of the capitalist machine than books and generally must have the potential to make money to exist in the first place. While capitalist ideology reigns it will be extremely difficult to make movies with true authenticity about the detrimental impact capitalism has on individuals and the society they live in.
Attorney-General’s Department 2008, ‘Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games (as amended)’ made under section 12 of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing, Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra
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