The Slap: articles

Stellar cast … Anthony Hayes, Jonathan LaPaglia and Alex Dimitriades will spark heated discussions in The Slap. Photo: Jason South

Small screen, great adaptations

The Slap polarised readers but will it do the same for viewers.

ONE of the hottest tickets of this year's Melbourne International Film Festival is a sneak peek of the mini-series The Slap, an eight-part adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas's bestselling novel, which is rumoured to screen on the ABC in late September.

Works for TV are increasingly part of the festival's program. No surprises there but what's unprecedented is the groundswell of expectation that the TV adaptation has generated, making the session an early sell-out.

The Slap mini-series arrives with a sizeable fan base — the book has sold 200,000 copies in Australia alone, along with 600,000 internationally, and it has a solid reputation as a cage-rattling, conversation starter.

According to Jane Palfreyman, executive publisher at Allen and Unwin, which published The Slap, 80 to 90 novels are published annually in Australia but only 28 of the company's titles have been optioned over the past 10 years. Of these, a handful at most have ended up on screen.

Curiously, popular books tend to be adapted for TV rather than cinema in Australia. Production company Screentime has been busily making hay with the non-fiction Underbelly titles, while this year Tim Winton's beloved novel Cloudstreet finally made it on screen as a mini-series on Showtime. Filming is also under way on Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher books.

At the opening session of the film festival's industry sidebar "37 South Market" last Thursday, Robert Connolly, one of The Slap's four directors, was asked which books make good TV.

His answer was revealing. For him, great literary works often struggle to find their form in cinema with its "well-worn conventions of narrative", whereas TV provides an opportunity to experiment with storytelling.

Which is why, for him, The Slap "is a great gift for a director".

The book is an account of the fallout from a family gathering at which a small boy is slapped by the surly Harry (Alex Dimitriades), who is not the child's father. When the boy's parents decide to press charges, those who witnessed the event are forced to question their loyalties and most deeply-held values.

At a deeper level, it's a probing and often highly discomforting look at contemporary life, one that holds a mirror to an ethnically diverse, middle-class Australia that is rarely reflected on local screens.

It touches on some contentious issues, from racism and multiculturalism to fidelity and domestic bonds, and makes no apologies for the often questionable views of its characters, who readers seem to find attractive and repellent in equal measure.

Like the novel, the mini-series tracks the story from eight separate perspectives, making it notably different from other TV series where characters are given more-or-less equal airtime each episode.

Four directors were hired to oversee two episodes each. Connolly, Tony Ayres, Jessica Hobbs and Matthew Saville were encouraged to give their episodes distinctive stylistic treatments rather than adhere to a predetermined bible.

It is also cast with actors who are not immediately familiar to local audiences, arriving without the baggage that might hasten our interpretations of the characters they play.

Hector and Aisha, who link the myriad storylines and at whose house the slap takes place, are played by Adelaide-born, US-based Jonathan LaPaglia, in his first role in an Australian production (as one might have guessed, he is the brother of actor Anthony LaPaglia), and British-Nigerian Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda, Dirty Pretty Things).

It is also the first major role in a local production for Melissa George since relocating to the US more than a decade ago.

She plays Rosie, the mother of the slapped child and the character that most polarises reactions to the book.

Tsiolkas was consulted when rights to the book were awarded to Matchbox Pictures and was closely involved in the adaptation.

He says he didn't want to write the scripts and, for it to work, "it had to have other imaginations, another consciousness, transforming it". He took part in a three-week workshop with the show's writers and directors where the characters and the broad themes of the book — how second- and third-generation migrants had become Melbourne's new middle class, supplanting resentful "battlers" such as Rosie and her deadbeat partner Gary (Anthony Hayes) and the so-called culture wars of the Howard era — were discussed.

Scriptwriter Kris Mrksa told last week's session he was "emboldened" by the author's involvement and admits to being "more cautious about departing from the book than Christos was".

For Hobbs, who directs the first two episodes focusing on Hector and Anouk (Essie Davis), it is rare to get direct access to a writer as the team had on this production.

For her, a highlight of the job was being taken on "a Greek tour of Melbourne", to the specific locations where Tsiolkas's book is set and even into the homes of his family.

"I understood very specifically where the suburbs were … how the food tasted," Hobbs says. "From a director's point of view it's rare to get point-of-view stories, to stand in a person's shoes for a whole episode. Most TV has a universal point of view."

For Ayres, the AFI-winning writer-director of The Home Song Stories and a partner in Matchbox Pictures, the book speaks to something that hasn't been spoken to before. "It's a story about middle-class issues and values that's unafraid of pushing buttons," he says.

One suspects that those heated discussions are about to be restarted.

The Melbourne International Film Festival's session on The Slap is sold out. The series is expected to air on ABC1 in late September.

By Paul Kalina
July 28, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald