The Book is Better: Not True Crime, But Real Crime

Words by Ryan Sim

Published on March 10, 2014

Thoughts and memories of film adaptations and the novels that inspired them.

Broken -shore

Australian film-makers have produced two of the darkest, deepest, and most affecting films in my recent memory — Animal Kingdom  and Snowtown. Two years ago I read Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore for a genre class, and the powerful imagery invoked, in my mind, the overwhelming ambience of these films. Temple managed to bridge a gap between crime writing and literary fiction through a mixture of unique prose, recognizable ‘hard-boiled’ and noir-esque tropes, as well as the very real subject matter. When I found out it had been turned into a film, I wasn’t really surprised, but I was thrilled.

Australia has a faculty for producing really great films that are also incredibly dark. For me, it started with Wolf Creek, and aside from the two aforementioned films, I’d cite Samson & Delilah in there too. I was a little concerned that The Broken Shore, being a television movie, wouldn’t address properly some of the heaviest, and thus most important aspects of the novel. This seems to be the concern with any adaptation — I hope they don’t fuck it up! To my delight, The Broken Shore  was painstakingly loyal to the source text. In fact, they packed the whole novel down into this two hour tidal wave of emotion and information. The film moves so quickly and is unsentimental about introducing (and losing) characters. In this way, it refused to talk down to its audience just as the novel did.

Though the heightened pace of the film did result in some truncation. They managed to hit on nearly every plot point from the novel, but even at two hours, they just didn’t have the same time that Temple had on the page. The movie’s other major loss was its atmosphere. In the novel, every description — simple things like Cashin’s house, his dogs, the difference between his town and neighbouring Cromarty, and then the stark contrast of Melbourne city – build to this abstract creepiness, which is how I remember the book as a whole. There’s this supernatural aspect contrasted against things that are very real, and the truth therein only adds to the creepiness.Temple wrote, “… the dogs, black as liquorice, came out of the trees, stopped, heads up, looked around as if seeing the land for the first time. Explorers. They turned their gaze on him for a while, then started down the slope.”  In the film, the soundtrack does some work towards this atmosphere, variably lilting and jarring throughout. There are also visual techniques, like PTSD-stricken Cashin hallucinating his dead former-partner, bloodied and broken, lying next to him, staring through him, when he wakes in his cold bed. These things acknowledge the novel’s goals: the film is aware, but it never quite achieves the same overall feel that Temple did the first time round.

In some cases, including this one, the cliché that The book is better!  may be true, but the conversation shouldn’t end here. What makes the novel so significant is the fact that it is presented extremely stylishly, and effortlessly, in a recognisable genre. Even with its literary leanings it’s easy to read. Moreover, it delivers an extremely strong moral, ethical, and political message, without itself being moralistic or political. The Broken Shore  is 100% story — brutal and ugly, and oddly beautiful at times, which is part of what makes its lasting effect that much stronger.

The Broken Shore, novel and film, does something remarkably different to those other movies it’s so easily compared to. It addresses two major issues that have plagued Australia’s cultural consciousness (at least inmy lifetime). It takes two gnarled, looming, and seemingly immovable shadows that hang over society and justice: child abuse within the church, and the place of Australia’s indigenous people in modern society. In the book, these issues are addressed, not as a political agenda on the part of the author, but as actual story,and in doing so, the complex factors surrounding these issues hit harder. In the book the two ideas became intertwined in Cashin’s murder investigation, and it was thrilling to read how he unravelled them, showing the ways his life and the lives of those around him were effected by these issues. Upon finishing the book, I had taken equally from both aspects of the story. Interestingly, at the end of the movie, it was the race issue that hung more heavily on my mind, even despite its spectacularly violent climax. Wolf Creek, Animal Kingdom and Snowtown are all based on real events in Australia’s history. It’s a big part of what makes them so scary. They’re based around a specific group of people who we can relate to as characters, and at the same time we remember seeing these things play out on the news. We are separate. The Broken Shore has manufactured a group of people to carry its events. In one sense, these people aren’t real. The events however, and their cause and effect, are very real, and we, or at least I am made aware of how I’m complicit in these issues as a member of the society that creates them. In this way, these fictional characters can become surrogates for ourselves, or people we know, or even just people we might see on the street. This is what makes The Broken Shore more important than these other films — its crimes are real, but they’re cultural, more insidious, and more difficult to solve. Through fiction, it cuts to the centre of these crimes and what they can, and should mean to us.

Even though its translation to film let a few aspects fall through the cracks, it’s important that it happened at all. Mass media (no, the news doesn’t count) hasn’t properly addressed the issue of race in Australia, and the sidelining of indigenous people here. In this way, popular culture can contribute to the invisibility of Aboriginal people. Neither have I seen anything that broaches the concept of the institutionalisation of child sexual abuse the way The Broken Shore has. These causes have their champions, I know, but more often than not, figures like John Pilger, John Safran, and Warwick Thornton are addressing an audience that doesn’t need convincing. However, this film hasn’t been delivered by fringe-dwellers, either. Director Rowan Woods also made The Boys, and Little Fish, and screenwriter Andrew Knight is a veteran of Australian television. Even Peter Temple has become a much-lauded Australian figure, having moved here in 1980 after working as a journalist in South Africa for the first part of his life. It’s easy to believe this may be how he honed his incisive views on race, as displayed in The Broken Shore. To me, a TV movie on ABC is one of the most ‘normal’ forms of media — most people have easy access to it, and it’s another aspect of why The Broken Shore is important. Seeing the issues therein make it to a common platform like that, with the weight of these names behind it, is a big step in truly addressing them in our lifetime.