WriteStuff: the 3 texts of Lantana

Hunter Cordaiy

On my desk are 2 texts–a play by Andrew Bovell titled Speaking in Tongues and a screenplay, also by Andrew Bovell, titled Lantana. There's also a third text, the film Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence. I almost wrote “by” Ray Lawrence.

The writing of the story of Lantana is fascinating, and goes to the heart of how films are made, and how texts are shifted across forms of representation, in this case from a series of short dramatic ‘sketches’ to a play, then a script which became a film.

Adaptation is as thorny an issue as the vine which became the name of the film–it is a labyrinth of power asserted and surrendered, of the requirement of faithfulness often betrayed in the face of expediency (a standard claim against the film-industry-as-whore), and a perverse fascination with the transformation process. The regeneration scenes in even the worst horror films are often the most riveting–we are fascinated by the process of transference and the interference with universal powers it suggests.

During the lengthy story development Bovell says he was influenced by the films of Robert Altman, and it’s possible to sense this in the narrative twists and deceptions (for both characters and audience) that survived the adaptation process and make the final film such a clever piece of genre trickery.

But the origins of what has become Lantana go back to 2 short dramas, Whiskey and Distant Lights, performed in 1993 at The Stables in Sydney. When asked to make a third piece to accompany them by Griffin Theatre Company Artistic Director Ros Horin, Bovell merged characters from the existing works and placed them into a new and larger drama, Speaking in Tongues, which Horin successfully directed for Griffin and Melbourne's Playbox. The characters we know from the film are all present in the play and there were, in the ‘merging’ process, some significant changes. These are at the centre of what can be called the story development, that search for the core meaning which will motivate and validate the existence of characters and their relationship to each other.

Firstly, Leon becomes a policeman investigating the disappearance of Valerie. In Distant Lights, Valerie is a woman who leaves messages for her husband on their answering machine. Two people who are not functioning as a couple frequently communicate via such technology. It saves having to talk to each other. But then Bovell had a form of textual epiphany–the focus would not be the wife but the husband. Bovell says in the Writer's Note introducing the script, “I distinctly remember the moment of discovering that this was not a story about a man who came home to find those messages at all but a story about a man who had been home all the time and heard those messages but failed to act.”

This is precisely the moment when writers know the story has shifted and taken on its own sustaining power. The story is really about 'moral weakness', a universal theme. In the film it is hidden from the audience for most of the story. Thus the film pretends to be a genre piece, recognisably a police hunt for a missing person, which then evolves into a murder with the audience deliberately mis-directed as to who the killer might be.

Yet, when considering the core premise of the play, the killer is, in a moral sense, Valerie’s husband because he did not prevent her death when he was in a position to do so. This now centres the question of adaptation on the differences in form between theatre and film, and a risky assertion–confirmed by Bovell in his Writer's Note–that a film could not be made based on the concept of moral weakness, but that a play could successfully present such an idea as its core.

This has something to do with the mode of presentation, but more significantly with the differences in the underlying rationale for financing a project. Bovell says, “It has been difficult to classify the film according to genre and its complicated multi-plot lines made it a nightmare to pitch to investors…Lantana is part mystery, part thriller and part journey through the labyrinth of love.”

The core experience of film writers lies in this realm of what will be seen as a story and what will not. Lantana is testimony that the core idea (of a play) can be subsumed into the text of a film without ‘loss’. The film is even more emotionally charged because it has a moral centre of such depth.

Lantana, screenplay by Andrew Bovell, Currency Press, Sydney 2001; Speaking in Tongues, by Andrew Bovell, Currency Press, Sydney 1998

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg.

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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