Tomorrow, When the War Began is such a cherished book that adapting it to a movie was a major challenge for Stuart Beattie, but the producer looks happy and relaxed on stage, confident that he’s created something the kids (and the ones that have grown-up) will enjoy. At a premiere screening after a book signing at the Jam Factory in Melbourne, Beattie and the cast answer questions about the film.
‘John Marsden allowed me to make the movie because he wanted someone who has read the books and saw the books as a fan, rather than someone who just wanted to profit from it,’ says Beattie, one of many film producers to approach author John Marsden about adapting his book Tomorrow, When the War Began. Beattie who previously worked on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, has used his skills to make a film quite true to the book, that has an action-packed style comparable to anything coming out of Hollywood, with the warmth and humour of an Australian drama.
Ellie Linton, the main protagonist, is played by the outgoing Caitlin Stasey, an actor many teens will recognise from Neighbours. ‘I’m the only one who hasn’t read the books,’ she admits to the friendly taunts of the other cast members. The story focusses on Ellie’s relationships with her friends, specifically her best friend Corrie (played by Rachel Hurd-Wood). When Corrie cries, Ellie is there to comfort her. Corrie has a relationship with Kevin, played by Home and Away actor Lincoln Lewis, but their relationship becomes strained during the course of the movie. An angsty relationship also begins between Ellie and Lee (played by Chris Pang) during the movie.
The idea of an invasion of Australia is central to the story, but the identity of the invading army was kept secret in the book. Marsden says he didn’t want ‘people to use the books to justify some racist belief they may hold’. The invaders are Asian in appearance, but no particular country of origin is identified. Beattie says, ‘John (Marsden) was very smart in keeping the identity of the invaders vague. With a movie about politics and the motivation behind war you need to know the countries involved. This is really a drama about eight kids, so the country of the invaders is not really important’. Beattie says the logical choice for the invaders was from one of Australia’s neighbouring countries, but he treats the Asian identity as unimportant to the story, and uses the invasion as a device to unleash the drama without looking for underlying motivations of war. As Homer, one of the characters in the film (played by Deniz Akdeniz) says, ‘It doesn’t matter who they are. They’re here now. What difference does a flag make?’
The audience of teenagers at the premiere screening find plenty of laughs in the movie, especially from Homer the prankster. Often humour is also used to deflect bad occurrences during the war. Action scenes are graphic and shocking, but for today’s teens who are immune to screen violence, there’s nothing they can’t handle. The film does show how awkward and fragile the teenagers can be in matters of love and especially when fighting back, where their military strategies are based on luck.
As well as a story of survival, it is about the loss of innocence, epitomised by a scene with Ellie sitting in her cubby house. Ellie finds it hard to come to grips with the death of soldiers and says, ‘At what point do we loose our souls if we haven’t already?’ The character development from the begging to the end of the film shows a real change, because of their experience of the war.
One noticeable difference from the book is that the movie has been updated for the digital age. The movie begins with Ellie talking into a video camera instead of writing out the story in a notebook. When the characters all arrive back in Wirrawee they all check their phones at the same time and find no signal. ‘It was only logical that when they would all have cell phones, when Ellie wanted to talk to Corrie she was Skyping to her rather than sitting in a cafe, and the laptop would still have battery power when she checked the internet,’ says Beattie.
Some little things have changed in the story, which happens with every adaptation. Beattie says, ‘When we were writing the script, John (Marsden) kept away and that’s probably the best thing he could’ve done. The movie is a different animal than the book, and John knows that.’ The characters are slightly more exaggerated versions of the book characters. Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin) is the rich-girl stereotype, Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) is the uber-Christian and Chris (Andy Ryan) is a complete stoner (something barely mentioned in the books). There’s also a cameo by Colin Friels, who is excellent as the crazy dentist Dr Clements.
Beattie does include an in-joke when Corrie is reading My Brilliant Career (Miles Franklin). Ellie asks, ‘Good Book?’ Corrie replies, ‘Yeah. Better than the movie.’ Ellie says, ‘Books usually are’.
Tomorrow, When the War Began opens in cinemas nationally on 2 September. Film tie-in editions of the book (Pan Macmillan) are currently available in bookshops. Movie and television sequels will follow if the film is successful.
Read Andrew Wrathall’s article on John Marsden’s response to the movie in the August edition of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.