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By Joshua Smith

From Book to Film - Peter Carey's Bliss (1985)
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: March 10, 1998

History has shown that films, which attempt to emulate works of literature in such a fashion as to remain totally faithful to the source, often fail both critically and commercially. The sheer and, to a certain extent, uncontrollable limitations of the cinematic medium mean that attempts made at upholding a large degree of fidelity will only succeed if cinema's virtues are employed. Ray Lawrence's Bliss (1985) provides a textbook example of how transposition adaptations can fail, while a less literal, more visual interpretation of the work can succeed.

Bliss was originally released as a 135-minute transposition adaptation of Peter Carey's critically acclaimed novel of the same name. Peter Carey's collaboration with the relatively inexperienced Lawrence on the script resulted in a screenplay that remained true to the text in almost all respects. This version, when screened at its full length at Cannes, was received poorly. Carey's response was to re-cut and re-mix the film, resulting in a 110-minute version which displays a greater degree of focus on the main character, and his adulating quest of self-discovery. Lawrence cleverly extracted the brilliant, and eliminated the banal in this later version, which displays a greater understanding of the cinematic form.

This later version still maintained a large degree of fidelity to its source, but the replacement of aural metaphors with surreal vision, the combination of scenes, and an increased focus on the three leads; those being Honey Barbara (Helen Jones), Harry Joy (Barry Otto) and Bettina Joy (Lynette Curran), spawned a commentary adaptation that is better suited to the screen.

Lawrence opted to maintain a similar narrative form to that reflected in the literary version. Harry, a born storyteller, narrates the film in flashback, as he seems to be doing in Carey's book. The film is also littered with subjective imagery, which often seems to come from the imagination of another character, as in the book. Cleverly, though, Lawrence kept these asides as a series of brief surreal encounters (such as the sardine incident, David's transformation into a Nazi, Bettina and Joel's sexual romp in the café), maintaining Harry's reminiscence as the core of the narrative, thus congealing the otherwise chaotic perspectives traversed by the film's content.

In recording and interpreting such a formidable and intensely psychological work, Lawrence has scattered implicit clues; surreal imagery, motifs, small passages of dialogue - that realise the most important of these asides, without creating a haphazard vision.

Bettina Joy's pathological hatred of her lower-class background, and her fear of petrol, are established in one single sequence in which she refuses to wind down her car window to thank her father for filling her tank. David Joy's (Miles Buchanan) capitalist desires, his criminal fantasies and his desire to establish a ruthless image in order to dominate others is realised in a scene in which he sits alone in his bedroom/office counting money, before seemingly transforming into a Nazi as he demands that his sister trade certain sexual privileges for the drugs that he trades. Honey Barbara's uncontrollable nature, and her deliberate inability to adapt to urban life is suggested in her attitudes relating to sexual freedom, and, more subtly, in the fact that one of her shoulder straps is almost always off her shoulder. Implicitly, Lawrence reveals early in the work that she is a wild, passionate romanticist whose spirit cannot be contained by the sophistications of contemporaneous urban life. Similarly, Lawrence has constructed Harry Joy's intricate sense of self-induced psychosis through the combination of his voiceover and shocking surreal imagery such as Harry's waking moments during his operation, his post-operative cockroach incident and the bleeding image of a crucified Christ (symbolising Harry's loss of faith). By utilising cinema's visual scope, Lawrence successfully forged a number of complex characters in little more than a few seconds of screen time, thus eliminating the audience's necessity to hear important details regarding each character.

Similarly, the director precisely and skilfully employed a variety of the viewers' senses in order to reveal the film's key themes subliminally, relationships and character motivations in as little time as possible. While it is significant to note that Lawrence and Carey's script makes no mention of Harry's categorisation of all people into one of three groups (those being Captives, Actors and Those in Charge), the harsh lighting, stark sets and lack of music that form the basis of Harry's urban existence conveys a sense of claustrophobia, of coldness, of solitude. The film's mise-en-scene makes it clear that Harry, Alex Duval (Tim Robertson), David and Honey Barbara are all captives; pawns left to play out the carcinogenic fantasies of the Actors and Those in Charge.

The employment of softer, more natural lighting, soothing music and a desperately romantic voiceover from Harry in the latter stages of the film (and some earlier scenes involving Honey Barbara), Lawrence has eluded to another key theme of the novel - that being the suffocating, carcinogenous reality of modern society, contrasted with the liberating purity of nature. His romantic mise-en-scene also creates a paradox. While both Carey and Lawrence have suggested that people are inevitably punished for leading their comfortable urban lifestyles, Harry himself lured by the thought of a comfortable silk shirt and personal safety, the contrasting lighting between the scenes set in the city and those in the bush indicate the inevitable prior to Harry's realisation. Comfort, for Harry, is in the bush, where he may seek protection under a blanket of foliage.

Lawrence and Carey's adaptation maintains fidelity to the black comic elements of the literary source, while enhancing such through a combination of cinematographer Paul Murphy's highly-charged visual imagery, elements of surrealism and the motif of insects relating to the devolution of 'civil' people to primal beings, controlled by pure emotion instead of imposed norms. Themes of dysfunctional family interactivity, faith, the consumerist corruption of urban existence and creation are played out faithfully in the screenplay. Lawrence has, in his cut version, also utilised the tools of cinema in both implicitly and explicitly constructing a complex band of characters. He has dissected the literary work, extracted significant clues, cut and combined characters (such as the community on Bog Hill Road), and moulded the result around Carey's narrative progression, creating a commentary adaptation that is not only faithful to its source, but faithful to the medium in which it is presented.

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