Dirt Music and the ‘unfilmable’ novel

It’s been a decade since acclaimed Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce was first linked to a film adaptation of Tim Winton’s 2001 novel Dirt Music. Winner of the Miles Franklin Award and short-listed for the Booker Prize, the book was a prime candidate for the big screen, and the perceived cultural value of the project is reflected in the A-list names who became attached to it at different times during its long development history – including Rachel Weisz, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell and the late Heath Ledger.

Yet, in spite of Winton’s novel being translated into multiple languages, Noyce discovered that Dirt Music was less yielding to cross-media conversion. He eventually abandoned the project, which was then picked up by another Australian filmmaker, Gregor Jordan. Jordan’s completed version of Dirt Music had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September.

Watching the supposedly ‘unfilmable’ Dirt Music finally make its way to be big screen was far from a captivating experience. The prestige epic about a love triangle set in Winton’s signature Western Australian wilds turned out to be a highbrow, milquetoast potboiler with its hunger for award validation worn clunkily on its sleeve. Even for those of us not quite wholly on board with Winton’s formal beatification from school syllabi to the awards circuit, the thoroughly pedestrian nature of Jordan’s screen reimagining is almost a masterclass in aesthetic desaturation. This is a book that, when adapted to film, had the very life sucked out of it with what felt like almost clinical determination.

Perhaps it was the combined sacredness of the novel itself and consequent pressure to play it safe with the employment of a British screenwriter and the involvement of UK production company Film4 that revealed the film to be exactly what it was: tacky, g’day-drenched ‘Aussie’-porn gunning for those big non-Australian box office dollars. But if this was the strategy, international critics have hardly been won over either. Scoring a brutally low 13% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Dirt Music shows Noyce may have been right to bow out, dissatisfied that the novel could ever fully translate to a successful screenplay.

Yet Noyce’s sense that Dirt Music was effectively un-adaptable – and Jordan’s unambiguous failure in his clumsy attempt to do so – raises intriguing questions about broader assumptions about so-called unfilmable novels more generally. The subject of many a hastily churned-out listicle, this notion of unfilmability often speaks subconsciously of highbrow/lowbrow anxieties, frequently revealing orthodox biases that consider literature by default more superior, more serious, more worthy than its trashy cinematic cousin with its tawdry mass-market appeal.

There are, however, more practical issues of form at stake. The poetry that Noyce identified in Winton’s work and that he saw as untranslatable to the screen doesn’t mean that cinema lacks its own poetic language, attached less to literary aspects as to aesthetic modes more aligned with the art history traditions of visual culture. As Noyce’s own filmography more than fully demonstrates across movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence and Dead Calm, cinema has its own language – its own codes and conventions – that govern the creation of mood, tone and atmosphere. How to reconcile this language with the question of novel-to-film adaptation has long been, and clearly continues to be, a very real issue for filmmakers, resulting in some towering achievements and, as we see in Dirt Music, some flat-out disasters.

And yet, hovering above all of these concerns, is a broadly unspoken challenge inherent in the status of the supposedly unfilmable novel. For many filmmakers, the mere suggestion that a novel is impossible to translate to the screen is often a creative red flag to a bull. For example, it was the very reputation of Lawrence Stern’s 1759 novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as an unfilmable book that formed the central premise upon which Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 meta-adaptation Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story was so cleverly based. Other supposedly unfilmable novels – perhaps most famously Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 anti-western Blood Meridian and the seemingly-cursed book-to-screen adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces – have as yet failed to make the transition, and many doubt ever will

Tristram Shandy and Dirt Music may seem unlikely films for comparison, but what rises dramatically to the surface when they are contrasted is precisely why the former succeeded and the latter tanked: Tristram Shandy was defined by spirit of risk-taking and experimentation that rejected reverent lip-service to the original text and allowed film as a distinct, unique artform to speak through its own voice, through its own images, and in its own way, with enthralling results.

As Sally Potter revealed in a 2017 interview with the BBC about her celebrated Tilda Swinton-fronted 1992 screen reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, she had been sternly warned against ‘meddling’ with a classic, particularly one renowned for being so fundamentally metaphysical in nature. She replied, simply: ‘I just love the medium of cinema’. Like other directors who built their reputation on filming the unfilmable (Lynne Ramsay and Stanley Kubrick, for starters), Potter has demonstrated time and time again that moving image culture relies on its own poetic language, which through sheer imagination and a spirit of experimentation can result in extraordinarily successful films (both commercially and critically), even when adapting supposedly sacred, unfilmable novels such as Orlando.

What these examples reveal is that the success of adapting a novel to the screen relies fundamentally on how the filmmaker approaches the task of reading and interpretation in the first place. In her 2015 South Atlantic Review article titled ‘Unfilmable Books’, Kamilla Elliott quotes another master of the genre, David Cronenberg, whose filmography includes screen imaginings of challenging literary works including William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. His starting point is an important one. ‘I have to say that for me, all books are unfilmable’, says Cronenberg, who is also a novelist himself. ‘I have a very high regard for prose fiction and fine writing. As two distinct media, film and books are completely different.’

What Cronenberg reveals here – and what Elliott shrewdly homes in on – is the simple fact that questions of fidelity and loyalty destroy a film adaptation before it even begins: books and film are different beasts that use different aesthetic systems and different technologies to do different things in different ways. Unlike the colour-by-numbers rigidity of a book-to-film adaptation like Dirt Music, Cronenberg’s high level of literacy in both literature and cinema grants him the dual superpowers to bring to life his own creative vision, inspired by a given text through his defining experimental approach to filmmaking, simply because a film cannot (and should not seek to) perfectly replicate a book in the first place.

The emphasis here, therefore, is as much on reading as it is on filmmaking. Turning the tables, Elliott suggests that ‘in the final analysis, the question arises whether by ‘unfilmable’ we really mean ‘unreadable’; if so, perhaps the discourse of unfilmable books calls into question the value and abilities of literature more than it does the value and abilities of film.’

A successful adaptation of an unfilmable novel thus ideally requires the kind of deep reading by a prospective filmmaker that results in something fluid, elastic and exciting, if not (as in the case of Potter and Cronenberg especially) straight-up audacious.

What marks great cinema – and great novels, and great novel-to-film adaptations, and great art in general – is a fire in the belly. Adapting a so-called unfilmable novel requires much more than just carefully cherry-picking key plot and location points but demands an unhesitating willingness to roll around in the amorphous muck of abstraction that is so often a defining feature of books of this kind. Without that spirit, all we end up with is Dirt Music – less a cinematic reimagining of a contemporary literary classic than what ultimately feels like little more than a tired, forgettable television movie.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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