Putting a Finger on the Problem

At Spike: The Meanjin Blog, Jessica Au has some harsh words for the recent film adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began. Nostalgia for Marsden’s original series of books was what prompted her to see the film, she says, “despite my qualms about the trailer, which seemed stuck somewhere between Summer Bay and a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza.” After noting some of the key differences between the books and the film, she goes on to take issue with the differing degrees of violence displayed by the obscure forces that invade Australia on the page and the pan-Asian army that invades Australia on the screen:

In the books, Ellie and her friends discover that the invading forces are trying to treat people relatively well as part of their ‘clean war’ strategy. Their reasons may be dubious, but still it’s a vital point. In contrast, the movie posits a greater degree of cruelty from the invading Other — early on, Ellie witnesses the townspeople being kept in caged fences at the Showgrounds, where a man is shot in cold blood for protesting. The lines of good and evil are drawn with a slightly more definite hand.

For Au, then, the problem that weakens the film is primarily moral in nature: it’s wrong for the film to suggest that complex issues of right and wrong and “good” and “evil” are as simplistic as it makes them appear. Maybe so. But while I would locate the problem with the film in exactly the same spot that Au locates it, I think it is aesthetic rather than moral in nature. In the books, as Au notes, Australia was invaded by forces that tried to take over the country in a “clean war.” In other words, the actions of the villains in the books were governed by a delicate internal tension: the villains had no way to achieve their objectives without resorting to violence and yet they had vested interests in keeping violence to an absolute minimum. This tension in turn invested great importance in the actions of the heroes: when they destroy the bridge at the end of the story, they aren’t just disrupting the ability of their enemy to transport supplies from the ports to the mainland; they are also taking advantage of their enemy’s self-imposed Achilles heel in a way that baits that enemy into doing exactly what it did not want to do. The enemy’s desire to run a “clean war,” which runs like an undercurrent through the entire novel, transforms the destruction of the bridge — on the surface of it, a purely tactical course of action — into the heroes’ way of assuming and expressing a political position, a re-envisioned distribution of power under occupation. So, by denying the enemy that desire, the filmmakers undercut the dramatic importance and thus the impact of the narrative climax. The heroes destroy the bridge, and that’s it: bridge goes boom. The enemy will hunt them down, but hunt can really only obtain dramatic vitality if the enemy has an interest in avoiding it.

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