We’ve captured the perfect pairings of books and movies, taken straight from Australia’s favourite film critics themselves: Margaret and David.
Recommended in our recent podcast episode, Great Adaptations: Margaret & David Return, these are the film adaptations that the famously sparring duo think did justice to the original text, bested the books or lost their lustre when transposed from page to screen.
Enjoy reading and watching your way through this list, and see whose side you’re on.
Film directed by Neil Armfield | Book written by Luke Davies
Out of all the films they review in this session, Margaret believes Candy is “the best adaptation of a book.” Adapted from the novel (that was more memoir) by Luke Davies, the film follows two young lovers addicted to heroin, played by Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger. “I think it’s one of [Ledger’s] really outstanding performances,” said Margaret. “He brings a vulnerability to that character that is really heart-wrenching.”
Luke co-wrote the film with Neil Armfield, resulting in a film “so beautifully done...it actually has a power all of its own,” said Margaret. The book would become a bestseller, and Luke would go on to write the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Lion and win the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry for his collection Interferon Psalms.
Margaret’s verdict: “If I can enthuse you to go and seek it out, I will because even though it’s such a tough film, it’s just wonderful.”
David’s verdict: (Less enthused) “There’s no doubt that it’s a skilful adaptation...I just wanted to go out and watch Singin' In The Rain afterwards.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Film directed by Peter Weir | Book written by Joan Lindsay
An Australian classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a beguiling mystery about a group of students and their teacher who vanish during a summer picnic. It was “such an important film for the Australian film industry,” said David. And an interesting example of “changing the ending of a book to make the film sort of more acceptable. What works on the printed page doesn’t always work on the screen.”
The story has enchanted and haunted Australian audiences since the book’s first publication in 1967, with a television adaptation released in just 2018. David believes one of the reasons it’s been so successful is that people thought it was a true story, “people were going back to see it again and again to pick up the clues that they thought would explain the mystery.” Meanwhile what stands out for Margaret in the film is its much stronger sexual subtext and that it had “the worst wig in the history of the Australian film industry.”
Margaret’s verdict: “I never really understood the film.”
David’s verdict: “Such an important film for the Australian film industry.”
The Great Gatsby
Film directed by Baz Luhrmann | Book written by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the American classic The Great Gatsby was one of the more divisive films between the two critics. For David, Baz succeeded where many throughout cinematic history had not and finally made a compelling adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. With party scenes “choreographed like musicals”, he feels the film brilliantly captured the dizzying opulence and hedonism of the Jazz Age. “A lot of people tended to dismiss it but I think Baz Luhrmann did a fantastic job,” said David. Interestingly, the film was shot and premiered in 3D. “He’s the only filmmaker who used 3D really creatively”.
Sometimes, no matter how marvellous, a film adaptation can simply not measure up to the book. “All the subtleties of the book are lost in that film,” said Margaret. Who described the fast edits and special effects as “frantic and gaudy”.
Margaret’s verdict: “It was excruciating...” (Referring to watching the film at the premiere with broken 3D glasses. This opinion wasn’t improved upon re-watching: “I don’t like Baz’s treatment of it.”)
David’s verdict: “When Baz Luhrmann decided to give it another go and maybe make the version of The Great Gatsby, I think there were probably a lot of people that thought he was a bit crazy. But I think he did make the version of The Great Gatsby.”
Film directed by Simon Baker | Book written by Tim Winton
Based on the Miles Franklin Award–winning novel of the same name by Tim Winton, Simon Baker’s Breath was agreed by both critics to be a remarkable film, though estranged in some ways from the book. Breath follows two young boys growing up in 1970s Western Australia who become enmeshed with a surfing legend and his reclusive wife. “An exemplary adaptation,” said David, with surfing sequences Margaret described as some of the best she’s ever seen.
Margaret’s verdict: “A very interesting twist on an adaptation.”
David’s verdict: “A really beautiful adaptation like Breath is like a – if I might say – a breath of fresh air.”
Ladies in Black
Film by Bruce Beresford | Book by Madeleine St John (titled The Women in Black)
A defining film of Australia, Ladies in Black takes place in Sydney, 1959 and revolves around a schoolgirl who takes a summer job at a prestigious department store and learns about the lives and aspirations of the women who work there – the ‘ladies in black’. “The film certainly perfectly captures that period when Australia was beginning to change because of the influx of migrants,” said David. And “changing for women too”, adds Margaret. “It was about that cusp of change in Australia where women were going to university.”
David’s verdict: “It was really beautifully done.”
Margaret’s verdict: “It’s a story that really strikes an Australian chord.”
Film by Robert Connolly | Book by Jane Harper
From the hit book of the same name by Jane Harper, The Dry follows federal investigator Aaron Falk, played by Eric Bana (who the pair have quite diverging views on), as he returns to his small home town for a funeral and is confronted by secrets long buried in the past. The book became an international bestseller while the film became one of the highest grossing Australian films of all time, overtaking Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding.
“I’m a bit ho-hum about The Dry as a book…I felt there was a hole at the end of it,” said Margaret. “While the film is really well-made, for me it’s still got that hole at the end.” But, Margaret concedes, it did “mean a lot to Australian audiences and a lot to the Australian film industry.”
Margaret’s verdict: “It goes to show how important it is for Australians to pick up the right to remake their successful novels.”
David’s verdict: “A very fine adaptation of the novel...a faithful adaptation.”