a film treatment of the novel Breath
Waiting for the last gasp
a film adaptation of the novel by Tim Winton
A teenage boy obsessed with dangerous and extreme surfing becomes involved with an older woman who is even more dangerous and extreme...
This story is a psychological drama about Bruce Pike (Pikelet), an ordinary boy from an ordinary town in Western Australia looking to be anything but ordinary. His thrill seeking starts simply through holding his breath for increasing lengths of time in the local river but progresses to surfing dangerous and extreme conditions and locations. He develops dangerous relationships with (1) a boy, Loonie, who has no fear (2) an ex pro-surfer, Sando, attempting to hold onto his thrill-seeking youth and (3) the surfer’s wife, Eva, a bitter crippled ex-aerial skier. It is his relationship with Eva that develops into the most extreme behaviour, culminating into auto-erotic asphyxia behaviour (restricting breathing through strangulation for sexual pleasure) and pregnancy. Pikelet’s relationships with all three fail and establish a life of risk-taking and loneliness.
A naked teenage boy is hanging from his bedroom doorframe with a belt around his neck. There is a computer screen showing instructions for auto-erotic asphyxia. His breath becomes louder and shorter. He panics as he gasps for air. He dies.
Middle class parents hear frantic kicking at their son’s bedroom door. They try to enter the room but the door is locked. The father puts full force into the door with his shoulder, dislocating it in the process, and the door slaps into the body of their son. The mother screams. Someone dials 000 and soon sirens are heard.
Bruce (aged 40+), an ambulance officer, arrives with his younger female partner, June. June attends to the father’s dislocated shoulder. Bruce looks grimly but knowingly at the victim. The noise and action dims around Bruce, and the boy fades to the background until all that can be heard is Bruce’s heartbeat. He continues to look at the dead boy’s face until the face becomes blurry.
Blurry blue/green images float before the eyes until it is recognisably under water and the heart beat is still beating strong, increasingly hard, until it sounds like it is about to burst. The boy Bruce (aged 14) bursts from the river water. His mate, Loonie, shouts gleefully that he almost lasted two minutes under the water, and that it is his turn to be timed. They extend their time under the murky water by clinging to tree roots. This game continues for a few more rounds each until they are exhausted and they lay in the sweltering summer sun.
A lady with fancy swimmers and airs and graces arrives with a couple of prissy girls. The boys watch as they gingerly approach the water. Loonie shows-off on the Tarzan rope and eventually swings into the water and stays under. The lady starts screaming at Bruce to help the drowning boy. Just as Bruce looks like he actually might do something, Loonie bobs up in front of the lady laughing at her. She berates him and in her stomp out of the river slips in the mud, as does her two girls as she drags them with her. They drive off still ranting about the absurdity of Loonie’s prank. The boys laugh and then plan their next adventure – the beach. They head home separately, on their bikes, through the old weather beaten town of Sawyer.
The next day at picturesque dawn the boys ride their bikes out of town in the direction of the beach. Loonie grabs the tail gate of a flat-bed truck containing older teenagers (surfies) and their surfboards. They disappear over the horizon and a crash is heard, followed by a squeal of brakes. Bruce anxiously rides his bike up the hill and sees on the other side Loonie scraped and hurt but cheerful, being hurled up onto the truck as well as his bike. The surfies do the same for Bruce and they all head to the beach, laughing.
On the headland is a large house with an amazing expanse of glass offering panoramic views of the ocean and beach. Down the hill the suburban Angelus spreads for miles. Bruce and Loonie watch the surfers in distinct admiration from the headland. While they are there an older man (aged 40+) comes out of the glass house, grabs a surfboard from underneath the house and jogs down to the beach and into the water. They watch him glide the waves with skill and grace, showing up the teenagers as amateurs. The boys hitch a lift back to the town of Sawyer with the surfies. Loonie is boisterous in his talk with the teenagers and they humour him.
The boys ride their bikes each day to the beach and beg boards from the teenagers and gradually learn to surf. Their parents disapprove of the activity. Each night Bruce’s Dad lectures him about the dangers of the surf. The Dad has stereotypical English white skin and a thick Yorkshire accent. He also barracks for the English cricket team when it is on TV. Bruce’s Mum tends to his sunburn by rubbing a vinegar mixture on his back each evening, tut-tutting as she does so.
Loonie’s Dad owns the pub and now his wife has left him for another man in Angelus he would like Loonie to help out more. They come to an arrangement where the boys chop wood for money at the pub in preparation for winter. Soon they are chopping wood at a lot of different places and they quickly earn enough money to buy their own surfboards and awkwardly take them to the beach on their bikes.
Their determination is obvious by their carting the boards to and from the beach on the bikes and by their improving skills on the boards.
The older guy introduces himself as Sando and offers them space under his house to keep the boards. It is obvious he respects their prowess in the surf. They are in awe in his presence and accept his offer.
The summer holidays are over and Bruce’s parents tell him he will start at a private school in Angelus. As Bruce goes to bed that evening he mutters expletives about his parents trying to separate him from Loonie. The boys don’t see each other during the week and Bruce is given ‘the eye’ by a girl at school, Queenie. He looks back but doesn’t act, yet.
On the weekend when Bruce and Loonie go to retrieve their boards from under the house they encounter Eva, Sando’s wife. She is gorgeous in jeans and tee-shirt but fiery in temper at the boys being under the house. They show her their boards and she relaxes a little. It turns out Sando is away in Indonesia. The boys surf.
When they return their boards after the surf Eva invites them into the house for coffee. This is the first time they have been into the house and the view is magnificent. Eva tells her story of how she used to be an aerial skier until she ruined her knee in an accident.
At Bruce’s school there is a dance and Bruce has a grope and a snog with Queenie under the stairs. Meanwhile, at the agricultural high school Loonie attends he is constantly fighting the older kids.
Time passes and one day under Sando’s house they come across some old magazines with pictures of Sando as a professional surfer. Their awe of him grows. He finds them poring through the magazines and loses his temper. He marches into the house and rants and raves at Eva for deliberately leaving the magazines out for the boys to discover. They have a huge argument and the boys hear every word. The argument evolves into loud sex and ends with Sando snoring in uneven rhythms. The boys sneak away.
The next day Sando takes Bruce and Loonie surfing at Barney’s – a secret bay patrolled by a fourteen foot white pointer shark nicknamed Barney but with awesome waves. Loonie demonstrates a complete lack of fear and Bruce, now called Pikelet by Sando, follows meekly. They catch several waves on the day and just once see Barney lurking with his eye on them.
Bruce goes to a school camp and spends a night with Queenie. Everyone assumes they had sex but they didn’t. They are sent home in disgrace and to his parents’ shame and embarrassment but Bruce enjoys the notoriety and achievement.
Loonie breaks his arm in a fight at school and it needs to be in plaster for several weeks. He quits school.
Sando teaches the boys yoga techniques with particular emphasis on breathing control. He then takes them to surf at Old Smokey, a place much further out from the shore where there are huge waves, but Loonie is unable to participate because of his broken arm. The mildly antagonistic differences between Pikelet (Bruce) and Loonie becomes a major rift due to Pikelet’s surfing success at Old Smokey.
When Loonie’s plaster is removed he is determined to be the braver and better surfer so when Sando increases the risk further by taking them to a place called Nautilus, Loonie leaps in with no fear and Pikelet opts out. The next time they go to Nautilus, Pikelet isn’t invited. Loonie has regained the upper hand.
Pikelet stews on this for a few days and has an argument with Queenie at school due to his sullenness. They break up and in his anger at everyone Pikelet surfs Old Smokey alone in very dangerous conditions. He miraculously survives the first wave but when he tempts fate a second time it crashes over him and smashes him into rocks. He loses his board and takes hours to swim, climb cliffs and limp back to the headland where Eva nurses his wounds. Pikelet looks at Eva in a sexual way for the first time and once he realises what he is doing he runs out of there and heads home.
Pikelet and Loonie meet up after the school bus pulls into Sawyer on a miserable rainy afternoon. Both are sporting dreadful cuts and bruises. Pikelet’s are obviously from his reckless surf. As they walk along the street Loonie confesses his father had belted him but Pikelet shows no concern. Loonie lights a cigarette. The contrast between them is stark with Pikelet in a private school uniform and Loonie looking ragged and torn, almost like a gangster. Loonie smirks bitterly and announces he’s going away. Pikelet doesn’t respond. At the corner they veer into distinctly different directions without uttering another word.
With no notice to Pikelet and little to Eva, Sando and Loonie go to Indonesia. In their bitterness at being left behind Eva and Pikelet hook up. It is a relationship where Eva sometimes gently, sometimes cruelly, trains Pikelet in the ways of sex. He is only sixteen. For Eva, it becomes increasingly about assertion of power and she has Pikelet strangle her to the point of unconsciousness. This occurs on several occasions over a couple of months.
Meanwhile, Sando and Loonie are surfing in Bali, drinking in dodgy bars and partaking in drugs.
After a while Pikelet notices a new roundness to Eva’s body and suspects she’s pregnant but she denies it. After this exchange they participate in their last occasion of auto-erotic asphyxia activity. Pikelet watches Eva’s face turn still with unconsciousness and as he peers at her face it morphs into the face of the dead teenager back at the beginning of the film and then to the older Bruce with his grim look and self loathing.
Bruce drives home after his Ambo shift and pulls out a scrapbook of memories.
First there’s a photo of Bruce and his parents at the hospital. The picture comes to life. Bruce’s Dad is in bed with half his face mutilated from a sawmill accident. Pikelet takes a break and visits the nursery and gazes in the window at a baby in a crib labelled Joseph Sanderson (Eva).
Bruce returns to his father’s room in time to hear the last gasp.
Bruce buries himself in his schoolwork and improves his grades immensely. At the graduation Queenie kisses a very handsome young man and Bruce simply turns away.
At the graduation a photograph is taken of Bruce and his Mum and as it freezes the moment in time it appears in the scrapbook.
The next photo is of Bruce’s marriage to Grace, a fellow university student. This picture also comes to life. It is evident that Grace is very pregnant. At the Wedding Reception she goes into labour and is rushed to hospital. Bruce takes a particular interest in the baby’s first breath.
A photograph is taken of Grace, Bruce’s Mum, Bruce and the baby, and again as it freezes time it’s back in the scrapbook.
The scrapbook then has death notices of Eva (asphyxiation), Loonie (shot in a bar in Mexico) and Bruce’s Mum (cancer).
Bruce closes the book and looks around his room. It is obviously a bachelor’s pad. He then plays the didgeridoo, becoming absorbed in the breathing and thinking back to the diving in the river, the churning under the surf and the asphyxiations. He stops playing and slowly regains his breath.
The movie ends to the sound of breathing.
1. Much of the dialogue in the novel is ideal for the movie.
2. Despite the novel being written in the first person the film should not have a voice over.
3. The movie deliberately emphasises the (class) differences in Pikelet’s and Loonie’s lives, mainly through the use of contrasting scenes, one after the other.
4. The focus of the movie needs to be on the danger and extreme behaviour and avoid being just another surf movie.
5. However, the dangerous and extreme behaviour will need to be carefully covered by the movie to stay within R and even MA rating, preferably. This means the erotica asphyxia will need to be shot separately from a sexual act and the sex itself would need to be suggested or implied instead of observed in graphic detail.
6. Many characters and events contained in the novel have been cut or merged for the sake of brevity, but there are three main areas to be noted:
- In the novel, Bruce plays with electricity in his adult life, spends some time in a mental institution and then has a journey to find himself. This is actually scope for a sequel.
- Loonie’s Dad and the pub have a bigger role in the novel. For instance there’s a scene where the boys spy on a hotel guest having sex with Loonie’s Dad.
- The character of Queenie has been changed, although keeping the main scenes, the timing and the ending have been altered.
Faithfull, Denise and Hannant, Brian 2007, Adaptations: A Guide to Adapting Literature to Film, Currency Press, Sydney.
Kluz, Carol 2006, How to Write a Film Treatment, AuthorsDen.com, retrieved 18 October 2008, <http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewArticle.asp?id=5327>.
Winton, Tim 2008, Breath, Penguin Group. Australia.
 The book has Pikelet at the age of 15 but to avoid extra difficulty with classification Pikelet will be 16 by the time this relationship becomes sexual.
 This will need to be implied, not graphically displayed, again to avoid extra difficulty with the classification process (see production notes).