June 16th, 2015
I was excited when I saw trailers for this adaptation of Kate Grenville’s book on the ABC. I loved The Secret River, it changed the way I thought about Australia’s history. And her book Searching for the Secret River, which Grenville wrote about the process of researching and writing her novel, changed the way I thought about family histories and combining writing and research.
The Secret River tells the story of one of Grenville’s ancestors, William Thornhill, who is a convict from London transported to Sydney for stealing timber. His wife, Sal, follows with their two children, determined that she will keep the family together. After a few years in Sydney William Thornhill buys his freedom and claims for his family a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River, a place which is still wild and largely unsettled. Apart, that is, from the Aboriginal inhabitants, who Thornhill and his family are both ignorant of and terrified by. This is a book about settlement and how Europeans essentially stole land which was not theirs to take and slaughtered those who stood in their way.
Watching the first of the two-part production last night what struck me were the different mediums and what they can each bring – from the novel it was Thornhill’s voice – it is told in the first person and so we see everything through his eyes. The powerful thing about reading through Will Thornhill’s voice is that we have access to his thoughts – we see not just a villain but a nuanced character who makes these terrible and harmful decisions, who steals land and kills but we see how a person comes to that, why they think it is okay.
An adaptation to screen cannot give us this access, of course, but it can give us visual and aural stimuli which we only imagine while reading. I have been to the Hawkesbury a few times but with Grenville’s novel always imagined The Secret River landscape as more dense and terrifying, less lovely. The TV production is marked by these rich visuals, overhead panning shots above the river which they give a sort of grandeur to the place, a beauty that we come to associate with nature docos about exotic places. I enjoyed them, but they took away from the stark realism of the novel, they added a glamour which for the Thornhills would have been absent. None of them would have looked down from above the river, as birds might. They would have only seen bush, so dense as to be closing in on them: “The shadow slid up the golden cliffs opposite and turned them to lead. As darkness fell, the distorted trees went on holding the fraction of light in the air. The Thornhills squatting around the fire listening to the night, feeling its weight at their backs.” (The Secret River, p 138)
Other differences? In the TV adaptation it is clearly Sal who calls the shots in the marriage and we are meant to see Will’s decision to settle on the Hawkesbury as almost a reaction to her – a reaction against her. Whereas, within the novel, she does not come across as so demanding or hard. Their love is easier to understand in the novel, because we see the history of it (their childhood friendship, why it is she is so stubborn). It also seems more realistic, less romantic, for passion was rare in a marriage with so many young children (in the book there are five – but in the adaptation three). But passion works well on screen, particularly when you have actors as attractive as Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Sarah Snook.
So, what am I saying? Watch the series, it is an important version of Australia’s history which we can still learn a great deal from, and the adaptation does not stray too seriously from the plot. But don’t see it as an alternative to reading The Secret River, because it will not give you the nuance or depth of understanding of Grenville’s words. And there is something about being given too much that makes my brain lazy. I watch the adaptation with the dread of knowing where the story is going. But turn the television off and that dread is gone, only a moment later. It hasn’t a tenth of the novel’s substance or weight.