I’ve been super excited ever since I heard that Tomorrow When the War Began was being made into a film – and also a little apprehensive. What if they ruined it?! So I went on opening night. Here’s my (rather long) review. I’ve answered three questions: What did I like?; Was it a good book to screen adaptation?; Were the characters right?
If you’ve read the books, you won’t find many spoilers here (because the plot’s basically the same) but there is one and I’ve *****marked***** it in case you want to skip it until you’ve seen the film.
What did I like about the film?
My excitement wasn’t in vain. There was heaps to like about this film, such as:
- The scenery. From Wirrawee to Hell to the Showground, it looked and felt Australian, and I bought it. If this book is going to be believable, it has to be the Australia Australians know that is taken over. From the foliage to the street signs, it looked like Australia to me!
- The period. When Marsden first started writing, ‘Electronic Mail’ was just starting to enter the vernacular. But as the books went on, he didn’t feel the need to keep his characters in a static world and updated his language as they went along. For Gen Y-ers who grew up with these books, the characters moved with our world. So it’s appropriate that the film sets the characters in the modern day, complete with pop culture references and updated technology. These teenagers all had mobiles and iPods and their first instinct to find out what had gone wrong was to hop on the internet.
- The racial identity of the enemy. There’s been heaps of talk about this – it’s one of the disadvantages of a visual text as opposed to a written text that you have to assign a racial identity. It makes sense that they were ‘Asian’, however non-descript, considering Australia’s global location. But the film didn’t make a big deal about their race and I thought that was appropriate.
- The Ellie-Corrie relationship was brought out more in the film than in the book. In the books, I knew Ellie and Corrie were the best of mates, but I didn’t feel like I’d known Corrie enough to lament her loss to the same extent that Ellie did. But in the film, their connection was much stronger and I thought it enhanced the shock and horror of Corrie getting shot.
- Soundtrack. I don’t tend to take a lot of notice of the music in a film but I did notice that a fair bit of it was Australian and, again, that added to the authenticity of the film.
- This film didn’t feel low budget. I’m no expert, but it looked like a blockbuster to me, complete with explosions. It’s got a strong script (largely thanks to Marsden) and it’s well acted even though half the stars come from Australian soaps – it’s nice to see what they can do when they’ve got decent material to work with!
Was it a good book to screen adaptation?
This, of course, is the big risk with such a well loved book and the film acknowledges this – there’s a cheeky scene where Ellie says that books are normally better than their movies. But I thought this film almost nailed the balance between what to keep and what to change.
- The dialogue was almost all from the book. I didn’t feel like I was watching something foreign to the story I loved so well, in fact, many of the lines felt like old friends to me.
- Adapted scenes. With the exception of the final action sequence, I thought these were all adapted appropriately. One of the main changes they make it to mainly keep the characters together – no long sojourns in Hell for Ellie, Homer, Fi and Lee; no splitting up while one group blows up the bridge and the other goes off to find food.
- The pace and action were appropriate for a feature film. Marsden makes quite a bit in subsequent books about the boredom of war but I don’t think that translates particularly well into a 100 minute movie. You can do it with a book, not a film. I think it would have detracted from the film. As a result, the film is more fast-paced than the book but I don’t think you feel like that’s a betrayal.
- New things you can do with film. Some of this was sheer genius – Ellie’s opening monologue happens on a camcorder, for example.
- The chemistry of the characters. The film actually has fewer love scenes than the book. There’s only one kiss between Ellie and Lee, for example. But the film plays this out in other ways, drawing more from suggestion than from Ellie’s inner dialogue as the book does. What is not said prepares you for Ellie’s incredible emotional connection with Lee.
Were the characters right?
When it all comes down to it this film depends on characterisation to be considered an authentic Tomorrow When the War Began. By and large, I thought they did a pretty good job of the girls – Ellie had a funny accent and was too skinny and pretty; Fi was less elegant than I had imagined her; Corrie taller, but I still found them believable. I thought the film captured the guys well too. Lincoln Lewis portrayed Kevin’s contradiction of bravado and cowardice and that was brought out by the screenplay too. Lee said less in the movie than he did in the book and his voice was harsher than I’d imagined it but this only enhanced the notion of his existence in an inner world. Chris was more light-hearted than he was in the book but at the point in the movie when he appeared, a little comic relief was appropriate. And I thought they nailed Homer. He transformed before my eyes as he had in my head when I read the book.
The big disappointment for me of the film was the characterisation of Robyn. For a film that was so careful with the other characters, it was a shame that they transformed the highly nuanced Robyn into such a caricature. Marsden’s Robyn is sturdy and gutsy. She’s the captain of the netball team and a fearless and fun member of the social group. The film’s Robyn looks younger than the rest and is the tag-along the parents insist the group brings to keep them all on the straight and narrow. Marsden’s Robyn is strengthened by her religion and respected for it by her peers, and she’s secure in what she believes. She is thoughtful about war and realistic about the challenges that she as a Christian will face. The film’s Robyn is a religious cliche from the cross around the neck of her collared blouse to her objections every time someone says ‘bloody’ or ‘Jesus Christ’. She knee-jerks straight to ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and won’t engage with suggestions that there’s violence in the Bible. In fact, her religion makes her appear weak and insecure until the very end when she seems to abandon her earlier principles.
***** This is the change in the final scene that I didn’t like. The enemy are aware of the theft of the petrol tanker and surprise Ellie and Fi, causing them to abandon the tanker. Robyn saves them by opening fire, killing the enemy soldiers, and Chris lights the fuse to the tanker. It’s not the change I mind so much as what it does for Robyn’s character. For a start, it raises consistency issues – Ellie later reflects that only she, Homer and Lee ever killed people directly and this had ramifications for the sentences they receive in the third book. I think what the film is attempting to do is to show a distinct change in Robyn, from good Christian girl to fighting machine, but it misses that the strength of the latter may be grounded in the former. It also minimises the struggles of the other characters – because Robyn is so stridently anti-killing people, there’s no room for Ellie’s questions about the morality of what they’re doing. Similarly, it prematurely introduces a Rambo-like scene which is Lee’s later on and pivotal to his character development and relationship with Ellie.***** When I read the books, I saw Robyn and Lee as corresponding characters – no one really ‘got’ either of them but they saw and respected their depth. The film manages this with Lee but completely fails with Robyn. She is only a shadow of the richness and realness that Marsden gave her.
It’s a shame that this film, which suggests a coming of age in Australian cinema in some ways, displays such immaturity when it comes to religion. I loved this film, but I don’t think it gives enough credit to Australians. My experience is that by and large even those who are not religious don’t feel the need to ridicule Christians. There’s some level of respect, if not understanding. And the thoughtless stereotyping of Robyn did taint the film for me. However, even with that, I’d recommend this film. I loved seeing such a classic played out on the big screen and I thought it was well executed. I spent most of the film with a deeply satisfied feeling that this was what I had hoped for in a screen adaptation of the book.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.