The Challenges of Writing for the Small Screen

To coincide with the screening of the screen adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas' novel The Slap, the first episode of which aired on the ABC last week, we’re republishing a piece by Kris Mrksa. It was originally published under the title, ‘The Truth in 42 Minutes’ on this site in November last year. Kris is one of the screenwriters to have adapted The Slap for television.

One of the things that first attracted me to script writing was that there could be no right or wrong. A TV script might be boring, vapid, clichéd or pretentious, but not incorrect. Or so I thought, until I joined the Underbelly team.

You know that thing it says at the start, “based on events”? Well, the Underbelly producers take that very seriously. Huge wedges of photocopied research material soon started to arrive at my home in express post packs, and I was expected not only to absorb it, but turn it into drama.

Readers are accustomed to literature that takes liberties with real characters, recasting them in fanciful and speculative roles, but their square-eyed opposite numbers are far less tolerant. Indeed, most of the criticism of Underbelly focussed on its historical accuracy. Lapses were pounced upon with glee, as a sign that the show had sold out.

Interestingly, the people who have the most cause to be offended by the liberties that Underbelly takes - the crooks themselves - are usually very forgiving. I also co-wrote The King, a telemovie about the life of Graham Kennedy, and I reckon I’m far more likely to be whacked by one of Gra Gra’s former gag writers than I am by any of the drug peddling scumbags I’ve depicted in Underbelly.

After The King premiered there was an avalanche of criticism, not focussed on its artistic merits, but on its accuracy. Kennedy was depicted as drinking brown spirits, while the truth is that he preferred white. He was shown driving to Noeline Brown’s place in a Rolls Royce, while in fact he’d traded the Roller in for a Mercedes by that time.

Such crimes against ‘The Truth’ deserve to be exposed in the popular press, and they were. Repeatedly. Yet there were practical explanations for these outrageous lapses. Clear fluid reads as water on the screen, while brown liquid says booze. And we could only afford a limited number of vintage luxury cars, unlike the King of TV himself.

Turning real lives into an hour or two of commercial television is a wrestle, and compromise is inevitable. But if liberties are taken they are more likely to be due to something boring like the budget bottom-line than a grubby writer’s desire to sex the story up.

Right now I’m working on a TV adaptation of The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas’ world conquering novel; a book which aroused passionate feelings among the literati. The characters aren’t real of course, so Hector and Harry won’t be coming round to my place to rough me up. But I do wonder if I’ll ever feel safe in a book shop again.

Kris Mrksa is a Melbourne-based writer and script editor. In the course of a 13-year career he has won many prizes and accolades, including two AFI Awards.

The Wheeler Centre is hosting a series of crime-related events we’re calling Law & Order Week from 7-10 November.

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