Kate Grenville & The Artistic Adaptations

Australian literary wonder Kate Grenville has shaped a generation and remained a strong, original voice in thematic, contemporary art. In an age of both technological and creative invention, poignant literature like Grenville’s is inevitably taken unto adaptation. This interweaves our audiences with the art we consume as we become a part of and process the stories we know and love in various settings.

Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ has become a gem of a novel and discussion that boasts various delicately conveyed themes and political perspectives. In a modern setting, artists have taken a tale and intimately involved audiences in novelistic settings like Grenville’s. Thus shaping it by performing it as a screen and stage adaptation.

Telling the story of an illiterate Thames bargeman and to-be Australian convict, William Thornhill, ‘The Secret River’ is a classic in Aussie literature, as it emotively recalls the classically known convicts’ story. Set on the banks of greater Sydney’s Hawkesbury River, Thornhill explores his new existence amongst the sacred Indigenous settlements. 

Sentimentally discussing land as a reflection of the contrast between indigenous and white settlers, thus debating the stark reality of colonialism and one character’s reality/perspective of it, along with what he works with it. Utilising fiction based on reality. 

Kate Grenville, the story behind the author

Writer Kate Grenville has published fifteen books, including The Secret River, which won her the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Critic Clare Wright states that ‘Kate Grenville is a literary alchemist’. Grenville’s focus always remains purposeful when it ranges between spheres of fiction, non-fiction, and book writing. 

Writing powerful historical, feminist, and thought-provoking fiction, Grenville’s insightful and delicately written works are much to be commended. She intertwines character action with thought, situation (class, country, culture, period), and action with such meticulous realism and technique that it is hard to fault her work. If ‘auteur’ is a term fit for filmmakers, Grenville’s stylistic approaches mark her as a literary auteur/wordsmith. This sets us up nicely for a discussion on the elasticity of her art. 

The adaptation itself manifests as a way to allow artists to take a story and interpret it on their own accord, fitting to their niche. This means we can have one woman’s fable flourish at the hands of another creative. A text contains endless opportunities through collaboration as it reveals the beauty of individual perspectives.

A stage adaptation will vastly differ from a television transformation, though both involve an audience – showing the influence that literature and, thus, entertainment itself has on many differing spheres. When understanding that Grenville’s works are rooted in topical themes, we can see how they would make for palpable and beautiful adaptations. 

Aussie entertainment icon and writer Tim Minchin features in the television mini-series of ‘The Secret River’ (2015), comprising two episodes and a total runtime of 160 minutes. The separation of the two episodes gives room to illustrate Grenville’s detailed storytelling, using filmmaking as a way to interpret theme and emotion.

However, The Guardian disagreed with the novel’s adaptation stating that it “has the potential to enhance debate” and asks, “Why not leave it (tales of colonisation) alone as it has been for the past 200-plus years?”. The process of adaptation has brought up these issues.

An argument can be made that retelling an old-fashioned tale does not belong in a modern context. And this, too, depends on the moral heart and expression of the original text. Where the screenwriters of Kate Grenville’s TV interpretation may have focused too much on the upsetting colonial invasion that Thornhill represents, other reworkings depict the softer voices of ‘The Secret River’.

Kate Grenville - The Secret River
2015’s Televised Two-Part Series of ‘The Secret River’

The Sydney Theatre Company premiered the first stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s bestseller in 2013, the analytical and powerful performative reworking earning it six Helpmann awards. Running to Melbourne and Queensland, Its popularity lies in the fan-base and popular following of the original text, along with the immersive, striking emotional delivery of a stage production. Mark Howett’s lighting recreates the warm gleam of the Australian sun, as a white silk curtain acts as the rocky sandstone backdrop of Sydney’s foreshore.

 ‘The Economist’ reported that “watching an adaptation of The Secret River on ‘the banks of the Thames’ is a disconcerting experience…projections ripple along the floor to mimic water; sea shanties blend into clan songs.” And this is all before the beginning of the show, presenting how adaptation and the magic of live theatre can truly, inspiringly transport and transform us.

Director Neil Armfield shifts the settings from a barren eucalyptus tree-laden scene to a shadowy London street and then back to an Australian hut full of homesick settlers. It is not only the dialogue or context of the tale that we are witnessing as we would upon reading or watching a television show of Grenville’s story. It is the pure transformation and raw emotion presented via visuals and live acting that both give audiences an alternate insight into what Grenville may have been trying to portray. 

Tess Schofield’s costuming represents the two cultures (Caucasian & Aboriginal) – earthly tones and yarns dress the Dharug people, whilst distressed patterns and cooler palettes adorn the English settlers. Furthermore, the sickly, plasterly white face paint on the settlers presents their foreign contrast to the warmer Aborigines.

The well-received and emotionally harrowing interpretation of The Secret River presents a sensitive topic with a bout of recognition for elders past and present without harshly separating white from black in a negative sense. The play has gone on to be performed in London & premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Almost three hours later, Neil Armfield’s stage adaptation was received with a roaring standing ovation, tears mellowing amongst the crowd. Grenville’s open mind atop her passionately moving fiction have her works exceed and rise above when adapted for various audiences. Her works are insightful, sensitively written, and thought-provoking. In all of her works, she sees “ the shape of the land, the place itself, and the spirit of the people who were here.

To detail, the inspiration behind The Secret River was Grenville’s research of her ancestor Soloman Wiseman who settled on the Hawkesbury River in an area known as Wisemans Ferry. The tale of early colonisation on the shores of Sydney is something that most Australians either know well or have been told about. To which this work is known and loved or wants to be forgotten (based on dated colonial conversation) is presented in a myriad of versions, be it book, television or stage. 

The power of adaptation is the fact that us artists showcase our understanding and highlighting of sectors of work, fitting or interpreting them in a modern, creative setting. I know I am a proud Australian knowing that Kate Grenville is our grand national treasure and that we are showcasing such celebratory art.