‘Jasper Jones’ Author Craig Silvey On Taking His Aussie Novel to the Screen

Image via David Dare Parker / Madman Films

In cinemas now is Jasper Jones, an Australian coming-of-age story directed by Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) and based on Craig Silvey’s book of the same name. Often described as an Australian To Kill A Mockingbird, Jasper Jones is set in a small country town in 1960s Western Australia where a young boy named Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is visited in the middle of the night by Jasper (Aaron L. McGrath), a slightly older boy of mixed heritage. Having discovered the body of his girlfriend and afraid the town will blame him for the murder, Jasper recruits Charlie to help find out who killed her.

After almost a decade, Silvey has returned to his story to co-write the screenplay along with Snowtown writer Shaun Grant. The Reel Word was able to speak to Craig to find out how he felt about returning to his story after such a long time, and whether there was anything he wanted to do differently this time around.

“I was really less proprietary about the material with a 10-year break… I realized that over that 10-year period I had done a lot of readings and always wanted to edit it and improve it, and so I was just kind of looking forward to the opportunity of getting stuck in and trying to make it a little bit better.

“What the film afforded me was the opportunity to kind of broaden the lens of the story. The novel is told through the perspective of Charlie Bucktin, who is a 13-year-old boy and we are very much inside his head for the duration. His mother in the novel, for example, never kind of gets a fair hearing. It is always through his lens, it gets kind of coloured by that. But in the film we see her for what she really is, and we see these characters for who they are. So it is kind of an opportunity to explore their stories in a more complex way… we get to see characters in their own light. That was what I was most excited about.”

Image via Madman Films

Having himself grown up in a small town in Western Australia, Silvey understandably feels quite close to his second novel. So after living with these characters in his mind for so long, it was only natural for Craig to be cautious about them existing beyond his control.

“It was something that I was always a bit worried [about]. For a novel that is special to me or that I feel a great kinship with, I would avoid the film adaptation because I don’t want to run the risk of it being replaced. Fortunately, the film and the book are so distinct to me, they are such separate experiences and such separate adaptations that they both kind of curiously exist beside each other… I am quite heartened by that.

” [–] I would be remiss to not sort of pay tribute to the collaborative team who were a part of fleshing those characters out. Shaun Grant, the original screenwriter, producers David Jowsey and Vincent Sheehan, and most pertinently Rachel Perkins, the director. We all discussed those characters and collaborated and built these things together as a team. There were some unexpected elements, but I think we made a richer story.”

Image via Madman Entertainment

Of course not everything from Craig’s original work was able to make the final cut.

There were many arguments over the making of this film, many of which I lost, some of which I kind of snuck through. Principally, the longest running stoush was including the cricket scene in the film, which was difficult to justify in terms of the mechanics or parameters of film technique. It didn’t have much bearing on the main plot and so it was getting hard to justify, and if it weren’t for the passion of the readership it would have been a little bit harder to argue for. But, I think that we worked it in in a way that feels relevant I suppose, so I think that we got there in the end. But it was a tough road to get there, especially since Rachel Perkins f**king hates cricket.”

The scene Craig is referring to is a turning point for Charlie’s friend, Jeffrey (Kevin Long), whose Asian heritage saw him bullied by his cricket team until he can prove himself in a key game. Though only a small plotline in the final film, Craig identified this was one of the few scenes where the town actually reneges on some of their prejudices.

“That was an important thing to try and capture, and it is a point that the book kind of makes too. When the rules are very clear, when everyone is wearing the same uniform, when people can put aside their predeterminations… I think that can be the cultural function of sport. Particularly in a place like Australia, where it is so important to people, where it really can bring communities together under a similar set of rules and under a similar banner, so that was something we wanted to capture. That was certainly something I was arguing for.”

Image via Madman Entertainment

Jasper Jones very clearly takes some influences from Craig’s time in country Australia and his observations on some of the deep-seeded problems that exist within these communities. We asked Craig whether the story grew from a desire to explore a small-town Australia, or whether the 60s countryside was simply the best setting to explore Jasper Jones‘ themes.

“I think the book and the film for me was partly informed by my experiences growing up. And some of Charlie’s feelings of displacement might have been informed by my experience growing up, but a lot of it is just imagination and observation from country towns that I spent some time in – other people’s experiences.

“The first spark, that ember of an idea of a story was the name Jasper Jones, and then a figure emerged that kind of corresponded with it. And it was of an Indigenous kid who felt a little bit timeless; the clothes he was wearing, the mannerisms he had didn’t feel contemporary to me. He was really distant and quite inscrutable for the longest time. I didn’t have an opportunity to kind of access this character until I designed Charlie, our book’s narrator, and he enabled me to meet Jasper. The further I followed their stories the clearer it was [to me] what their story was about and what world it was exploring. It was only once the town itself took shape that I understood the forces that informed Jasper, that I knew I had a world to explore and what the conflict and difficulty of that period were.”

While the question of what happened to Jasper’s girlfriend Laura frames the story, Jasper Jones is littered with smaller plotlines and other characters who each carry around their own little secrets, such as Charlie’s mother Ruth (Toni Collette), an old hermit named Mad Jack (Hugo Weaving), and Laura’s sister Eliza (Angourice Rice). With so many moving parts, we asked Craig if there was a central theme tying Jasper Jones various threads together, or if the mystery was simply a gateway into a slice of rural life.

Image via Madman Entertainment

“For me, the murder mystery is the red herring. It is the opportunity to give the story momentum and to tell this story about Charlie’s coming of age. But what I philosophize coming of age to be is a little bit distinct to what we commonly believe. I think coming of age is different to maturing and different to becoming a functional adult and learning how to pay bills and rent and holding down employment. Those are all things that we have to contend with, but coming of age is really a journey towards a more empathetic space. It is that moment where that protective bubble of childhood kind of bursts and we see the world for what it really is. We understand and we are confronted by the truth of things and in doing so, we kind of have to appreciate what the world is like for other people. This is what happens for Charlie; he meets Jasper Jones and the truth of Jasper is distinct to the myth [he was] warned about. That is the catalyst for Charlie’s journey… and is ultimately what changes him the most.”

While Jasper Jones is not without its warmer moments, Craig’s darker take on what a coming-of-age story should be is evident throughout his story. There is a growing frustration that veers towards hopelessness for Charlie and the audience as acts of prejudice become more frequent, and more secrets are uncovered. In this story, coming of age means being exposed to certain realities and deciding how you’re going to deal with them, a milestone both Charlie, and the town of Corrigan, experience. The key difference is in how Charlie changes from the experience, and how the town seems unable to.

“What the story seeks to explore is how these kind of toxic values can endure, how it is that the lies, the myths and the misunderstandings can bleed through generations. It was important for us to keep the town as a constant and have Charlie as a contrast against that. By the end, I think Charlie has grown up. It sounds like cliché, calling it bittersweet, but it is. Growing up is a hard thing to do, but that is part of being a thoughtful and compassionate human being. That is his journey; that is the journey of a coming-of-age story. It is difficult.”

You can find our review of Jasper Jones HERE.

Jasper Jones is out now in Australian cinemas.