Jasper Jones is in cinemas around Australia now.
It’s the days after Christmas in 1969 in a small town in Western Australia. There’s a feeling in the air that anyone who’s experienced the dying days of the year in Australia, particularly as a child, knows well – that delicate week before the old is shed for the new, where the world goes into a post-Christmas slumber and everything feels for the taking. The world is silenced by the scorching heat, completely oblivious to the outside world.
Such is the reality for 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), a bookish kid who’s neither on the ins or outs of his town, just a quiet observer to what’s going on around him. Mark Twain and Truman Capote novels sit above his bed, tales of lives, and of people, observing things much darker, more adventurous, bigger than he could ever think. It all seems like a fantasy, until on one of those in-between days, just after he’s put his novel down and turned off the light, there’s a knock at the window. And then, the world comes rushing in.
“It’s just the way the world is turning,” Jasper Jones director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Redfern Now) said of the events the young adults experience in the film, sitting with the book’s author Craig Silvey (who also penned the screenplay) two days before the film’s release. Charlie, in addition to being pulled into the mysterious disappearance of a local girl, is also currently experiencing the breakdown of his family, his mother (Toni Collette) feeling stifled in the insular town of Corrigan at the dawn of second-wave feminism. Charlie’s friends are outcasts due to the colours of their skin – Jasper (Aaron McGrath) due to his Indigenous heritage, the blame for the disappearance quickly falling on him; and Jeffrey (Kevin Long) is the gregarious, cricket-fanatic child of Vietnamese immigrants. A common shorthand descriptor for Jasper Jones is To Kill a Mockingbird, another tale of lost innocence through the eyes of a child witnessing racial injustice secondhand.
And then there’s Charlie’s love-interest Eliza (Angourie Rice) who’s the sister of the missing girl, dealing with the aftermath of what’s happened. Eliza is a fellow Truman Capote devotee who awaits a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s after being enamoured by the film (although, it should be noted that the differences between the two might be a rude awakening), a fellow escapee into words from the everyday. There may be nearly fifty years between the world that Charlie inhabits and the one that Jasper Jones exists in, but there’s little difference between the struggles of the characters through racism, sexism, and experiencing the ugly truth of the world around them for the first time and the present. Not to mention that the film has wandered into a surprisingly pertinent political conversation too. “People also like being massaged into those conversations. If people feel as though a piece is too didactic or too insistent, they often get defensive,” Silvey said. “I think that given it’s in the 60s it gives you a bit of separation from it, sort of a nostalgic look so you can talk about it not within the current tense, so you don’t have to…declare where you stand on anything,” Perkins said. “The great thing is that someone wrote back and said ‘my teenagers and I drove home after the screening and they were talking about race, abuse, suicide, and all those issues in the car’, rather than just…Instagram, or whatever. And she said it was great to have that conversation. But it’s still a great night out at the cinema.”
Silvey may have based the novel on his experience as a child in a small town in Western Australia, but was surprised to find it had taken root all over the country. Perkins describes the love for the story as “euphoric in a way”, Silvey as “astounding”. “The appetite for this story in different mediums is…overwhelming in a way,” Silvey said. “He gets mobbed,” Perkins said. “Polite mobbed,” Silvey corrects. “A book lover’s version of mobbing,” Perkins says.
The novel has also been adapted for the stage, premiering at Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company in 2014 before being staged by Belvoir St Theatre Company in Sydney and by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2016. “It’s incredibly rewarding. The preview screenings have been about the same. We do a show of hands of who’s read the book, and it’s around 90%. They all come out to see it again, are all excited to see it in a different way. It’s really moving, really quite genuinely moving.”
The experiences in the film have hit so hard with readers since the novel’s release in 2009 that it has gathered hundreds of thousands of ardent fans after becoming a staple for high school English classes and book clubs around the country, an excitement that has transferred to the film’s release. A bidding war for the film rights ensued, with Perkins even attempting to get them (“everyone wanted those rights” she’s said in a previous interview) before being bought by Vincent Sheehan and David Jowsey of Porchlight Films (Animal Kingdom, Little Fish) and the project came back around to her. Another writer had written a draft of a screenplay, and Perkins asked the producers if Silvey could come write a shooting draft, a screenplay that eventually became the film. “Both felt we drifted a little far from the soul of the source material,” Silvey said when asked about the process of starting from scratch with the novel, paring back some events from the novel and fleshing out others (Collette’s character, for example, is much more developed in the film). “In many respects I was the person most qualified to bring some of those idiosyncrasies back. Some of the richness of the dialogue, some of the characterisation, and…ways to present the visual, I suppose.”
Perkins agrees. “In a way you were more ready to give up stuff,” she said. “I was holding onto stuff and being precious about it because it was in the novel, but because he wrote the novel, he felt liberated to discard stuff, whereas I wasn’t. There’s a lot of other twists in film that aren’t in the book that Craig came up with.”
One of the hardest elements proved to be the tonal shifts the novel is known for, which combines dark secrets, heart pounding mystery, sweet first love, and a coming of age story. “You’ve got a much more limited time. You’ve got to do it in a very concise way, having those things back to back. But I love that challenge,” Perkins said. Silvey, of course, agrees. “It’s an important part of the novel. I think emotional dynamics is a very important part of a piece, and I think it exhibits authenticity. We laugh or cry, we go through a series of emotions throughout the course of a story. It made sense to embody that in the film.
Perkins and Silvey collaborated closely on the project, creating a friendship that’s evident through witnessing them jokingly argue back and forth. He was on set daily, a presence that is out of the ordinary, even directing, choreographing, acting in, and coaching for a scene that involves a cricket match. “Really did throw you off for those few days,” he says, laughing to Perkins. When asked whether his presence on set was an imperative or happy accident, Silvey answers with “a bit of both”, saying that Perkins had invited him on. “Unexpectedly, she found me quite a valuable resource, I believe,” he said, laughing. “Argumentative, as you can probably…glean.” “My personality,” she said, interjecting.
But the partnership called back to those thousands of fans too, who had been voicing their approval for the film as Perkins and Silvey did a tour of Q&A screenings around Australia. “She saw me as somewhat of an insurance policy to guard herself against the potential hordes of angry readers, in case she ruined the film so she could just point it in my direction, and say ‘it’s his fault’,” Silvey said. Luckily, the result has been the opposite. “No one’s said they didn’t like the changes, and they thought it stayed faithful to the book,” Perkins said. “Which is good, because otherwise you get this horrible backlash and they hate you for the rest of your life.”
Towards the end of the conversation, it turns back to influence, of other properties that have childhood memories of summers where everything changes attached to them, a wistful but realistic quality that is now seen as ‘vintage’ that Jasper Jones embodies. Not only To Kill a Mockingbird but Stand by Me come to mind. In this age of reboots and throwbacks, Silvey even says the film has been described as being in the ilk of Steven Spielberg and David Lynch and the Netflix hit Stranger Things (it should be noted, however, that Jasper Jones came before the latter). “The story was defined in a classic tale, so I thought it needed that construction around it,” Perkins says. “I think in terms of the filmmaking style it was very deliberate to get it to speak to a wide audience, and to tell it in that classic storytelling way.”
I say that perhaps children are more protected these days, despite what they might see on the internet. Perkins is surprised, she thought the internet meant the opposite. “I’ve never had the notion of an audience in place, a reader as a barometer,” Silvey agrees. “A lot of disparate, different reading groups have come to the book. But it’s principally a story about coming of age, and it’s quite universal, or is confronted by it. They see it, they don’t necessarily feel nostalgia, but they identify with it and feel transported. And there are younger people now who are connecting to what they’re feeling at the moment embodied with these young, talented actors. That’s a beautiful thing too. They can use this film to assist them in their journey.”