Why Australia is having its 'Scandi moment'

Still from WAKE IN FRIGHT, 1971.A digital re-release is planned for June 2009.

Gary Bond (John Grant) 2.

Pic supplied by madman.com.au
Still from WAKE IN FRIGHT, 1971.A digital re-release is planned for June 2009. Gary Bond (John Grant) 2. Pic supplied by madman.com.au

It's official: Australia is having its "Scandi moment".

Just as the world was once entranced with all things Scandinavian - think Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, The Bridge and The Killing - so too has the entertainment industry suddenly developed an appetite for remaking and reimagining classic and contemporary Australian works.

Highlights of the renaissance of Australian stories being brought to stage, TV and film include the TV series, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will screen on Foxtel locally and Amazon internationally this year; a hit stage production of Picnic by Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre now heading to London's Barbican Centre next month; and the recent Channel 10 TV mini-series Wake in Fright, which is attracting lively interest from international buyers. Add in the new Storm Boy movie, starring Geoffrey Rush, stage productions of Peter Carey's Bliss and Ruth Park's The Harp in the South and streaming service Stan's Romper Stomper TV series, and it is easy to conclude that now is a very good time for Australian stories - although nothing tops the tremendous success of the TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty's 2014 novel Big Little Lies which has won eight Emmys and four Golden Globes to date.

Yet the question remains: why remake our classics now? And why do producers, directors, filmmakers, literary agents and commissioning editors uniformly believe that now is a good time to take a risk adapting Australian works for modern audiences?

Curtis Brown literary agent Pippa Masson, whose agency represents the estates of authors Kenneth Cook, Thea Astley and Dorothea Mackellar, says there's a firm belief in publishing that Australia is experiencing a "Scandi moment", where there is suddenly a global fascination with the landscape and nature of a region and its people.

She says the outback thriller-rural crime novels are particularly striking a chord here and overseas - notably Jane Harper's incredibly successful debut The Dry - and its follow-up Force of Nature. The novels - both featuring laconic policeman Aaron Falk and rural Victoria - were quickly snapped up by actor Reese Witherspoon's film production company.

"It's almost as if the veil has been lifted on this part of the world, particularly with the outback," Masson says. "We're in that cycle where it's the new big crime thing."

Book adaptation in film and TV is stronger than ever internationally with huge successes like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace. "People are not just looking at the frontlist but what has gone before," she says.

"The success of [authors such as] Liane Moriarty has really paved the way for people to take more notice of Australia and what people are doing here."

Masson's quest to track down the lost paperwork for the 50-year-old rights to bring Wake in Fright to TV is a story in itself. Producer Helen Bowden says: "She was really great ... she just kept on digging until she found them."

Bowden, who calls herself "the queen of adaptation" after the international success of a TV series based on Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap, believes that one of the key reasons why it's time to take another look at our classic books and films is that we're in a time of "peak TV".

"There's a lot of high-end drama being made around the world," says Bowden, who is involved in talks with international buyers for Wake in Fright. "It's giving us the opportunity to do things that we would not be able to do a while ago.

"I think there's also a certain cultural confidence as well that we're starting to look at our own classics. Why not adapt our own classics the way the Brits and the Americans are doing theirs and bringing those things back into the cultural mainstream?"

Michael Heyward, publisher at Text Publishing, whose Text Classics imprint publishes hundreds of Australian classics - many previously out of print - agrees that we are entering a golden age of TV, one particularly friendly to book adaptations.

"What you'd really like ... is for the kind of thing that happened with The Slap or with Peter Temple's Broken Shore and Jack Irish to happen more than it does."

Heyward points to the "colossal" success of Jocelyn Moorhouse's movie of Rosalie Ham's novel The Dressmaker, published in 2000 and set in a fictitious country town. "It was a book that was sold extremely well when first published and, once there was a movie, went on and sold more and more copies."

Meanwhile, director Bruce Beresford is filming a big-screen adaptation of another Text Classic, Madeleine St John's The Women in Black, set in a Sydney department store in the 1950s.

Penny Win, head of drama at Foxtel, agrees there is a great demand for quality drama with an Australian voice.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on a 1967 book by Joan Lindsay, became an iconic movie directed by Peter Weir in 1975, has now become a six-part television mini-series which will have its world premiere on Foxtel before screening internationally on Amazon Prime: another growing sign of confidence in Australian-centred stories.

"Whenever we look at things from a certain period, you always ask 'why?' and 'why now?'," Win says. "Yet Shakespeare's been relooked at, revisited and reimagined for 500 years."

The "why" and "why now" for Picnic - apart from its well-justified reputation as a mystery thriller - is the opportunity to look at the work through fresh eyes: in this case, Win says, with a modern "female gaze", as opposed to how it looked in the 1972 film.

Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie share the directing credit for the mini-series, which centres on the mysterious disappearance of a group of schoolgirls at Victoria's Hanging Rock.

"The story seemed very timely with the new wave of feminism attracting younger women - it just seemed to fit the zeitgeist," Win says.

"Female drama has done well for a while. But what has happened in the last little while is [creators] being unafraid to push the female characters even further ??? being brave about the actions and the decisions that the female characters make and not hiding behind the traditional roles."

In a happy coincidence, Win saw director Matthew Lutton's acclaimed theatrical production of Picnic at Hanging Rock at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre last year.

"It was a great, great production which reinforced the decision to do Picnic for television" she says.

Lutton will be presenting another Australian classic, Carey's scathing satire Bliss, to the Malthouse in May. As a director, he believes that theatre works in cycles.

"Eight or nine years ago, the Greeks were a big thing; just about everything in the ancient Greek repertoire was being put on [to Australian stages]," Lutton says.

"I don't think an Australian classic is immediately a bestseller [play]. But I think there's a growing interest in what those stories mean to the country.

"It's interesting to see a generational artistic shift in a lot of theatre companies. I sometimes wonder if they cause a desire to look with fresh eyes at classic literature and film."

Asked how he thinks London audiences will respond to his production of Picnic next month, Lutton

" says he thinks it's an exorcism of guilt for English audiences. "A lot of the Brits [when they see Picnic] see themselves as the colonisers, they see themselves as Appleyard College, they see themselves as the teachers."

Our unrivalled landscape is also an important factor in this new surge of international interest. From the "gothic noir" of Foxtel's The Kettering Incident and the hypnotising colour palette of Wake in Fright's Broken Hill to the eerie volcanic formations of Hanging Rock, Australia's scenery is a pivotal part of our dramas.

Bowden says the "amazing isolation" of Broken Hill was one of the things that made the international sales agent really excited, to see something set in the desert.

Win says the rocks at Hanging Rock are "right up there as a character just as [the Tasmanian forest] was in Kettering. "The bush, the rock, the history, the age of Australia ??? that's all thematically very important."

One thing's for sure: our top film and television makers will continue to capitalise on both our Scandi moment and the worldwide hunger for good storytelling.

"It's not an easy business and the risk factor is very high, but there is a real interest in all drama and that definitely extends to Australian drama," Bowden says. "We're growing a reputation that people are enjoying our stories and the landscape and the freshness and the acting.

"It's an exciting time."

Revisiting Ruth Park

If Sydney has a Dickens equivalent, then it would surely be Ruth Park.

The late Australian author captured the hard-scrabble lives of the Depression-era denizens of Surry Hills much as Dickens immortalised life in Victorian-era London.

Indeed, the Sydney Theatre Company has so much faith in the enduring appeal of her classic trilogy (Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man's Orange) that its two-part production, encompassing all three works, is the centrepiece of its 2018 season.

STC artistic director Kip Williams, who will also direct this world premiere, describes the production as a "huge undertaking", featuring an 18-strong cast and rehearsals over two months as opposed to the average five to six weeks.

"The two parts go for 5?? hours over two nights or one evening."

More than five hours over one evening ??? it sounds like the STC is trying to rival its other legendary longplayer,Tim Winton's Cloudstreet.

"You could draw that parallel," Williams says, laughing.

He believes that Australia has finally shed its "cultural cringe" and is ready to see and hear our narratives and cultural mythologies; to enjoy pieces that "speak to the heart of Australian cultural identity".

"I think Park's trilogy, in particular, looks at the forging of the community that has grown into today's diverse and multicultural world. She captures the genesis of the society we live in today."

Tim Curnow, literary agent and longtime friend of Park who died in 2010, says the STC approached him when its Patrick White Playwrights' Award and Fellowship recipient Kate Mulvany expressed interest in adapting the trilogy, which she had read with her mother.

Curnow believes the trilogy's "universal themes and much-loved characters" are as relevant today as in the past.

"Ruth's characters display the finest of human traits: tolerance, resilience, charity, humour and laughter throughout the up and downs of the Darcy family.

"The novels have never been out of print and continue to sell extremely well in three different Penguin editions.

"I feel sure that Ruth would have embraced this bold venture to bring her narratives to a new generation via the intimate medium of theatre."

This story Why Australia is having its 'Scandi moment' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.