In spite of recent jaw troubles, I have continued to get out and about lately, which is exhausting but exciting! On Saturday afternoon, I went along to see a preview screening of Tomorrow When The War Began. This story follows the lives of 7 rural teenagers, centering on our journaling heroine Ellie, who return from a camping trip to discover that Australia has been invaded by an unknown military enemy and their entire town is being held hostage in fictional small town Wirrawee’s showgrounds. John Marsden’s thrilling Tomorrow series have long been cherished friends of mine, a relationship that has been revisited in recent years through Marsden’s related series The Ellie Chronicles. I can pretty much sum up the experience of watching this movie in one word: effingawesome.
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It’s hard to imagine that Tomorrow When The War Began, the movie, could have been more jaw-clenching and breath-stopping than it was. This storyline has long resonated with me as one of the scariest situations imaginable. I am lucky enough to live in a country that isn’t tortured by war and the idea of such lawless and horrifying things happening around me makes my heart beat like a running mouse’s and the air seem to stiffen in my lungs. What on Earth would I do, if I were Ellie? I like to imagine that I would fight with cleverness and courage as she does, but honestly, it’s impossible to know how I’d react in a situation so foreign to anything that I have experienced. Watching these scenes play out in familiar settings, further facilitated my fear, much in the manner of Wolf Creek. I’ve seen a billion war movies set overseas, but that, there on the screen is my country, that’s familiar, that’s here. Whilst I felt a huge identification with the setting, I did think the film failed a little in conveying the sense of community that exists in a small town. In the books, it is quite clear that when Ellie and Co. get a view of their families and friends being held prisoner, they know just about everybody there. There is a critical scene in which the horror of the situation is brought to life for Ellie and I can’t help thinking that were it clear that she would have personally known just about everyone being imprisoned, that particular scene would have been more powerful.
When I first heard that TWTWB was being made into a film, I was fairly dubious as to whether or not this could be pulled off. The casting of Caitlin Stasey, of Neighbours fame, as the protagonist, Ellie furthered my trepidation – Ellie was a strawberry blonde, tomboyish, country chick and Caitlin just didn’t fit with my image of her. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and her portrayal of this beloved character was fitting, believable, engaging and endearing – far more than I would have expected from a former soapie starlet. Ellie’s strength, her determination and her confusion were all present in Caitlin’s performance. It was easy to put aside my predetermined beliefs about Ellie’s appearance as I watched her coming to life on the screen in the body of this talented, young actress.
I have read quite a lot of criticism regarding the attractive cast of this movie, especially in regards to their associations with iconic Aussie soaps Neighbours and Home & Away. Frankly, I think these critics are grabbing at fault straws here. TWTWB is an action movie. Let’s look at the second part of that first, ‘movie’: How is anyone surprised at discovering good looking people cast in a movie? A book has the liberty of introducing characters slowly, allowing us to enjoy them as we envision them, a movie doesn’t have that freedom. A movie needs its audience to become attached to its characters quickly and being attractive helps this, no matter how much we like to believe that finding pretty humans attractive solely because of their pretty is pretty shallow of us. Bringing in the first part of the action movie equation further enforces the need to get things moving along quickly. This story has 7 main characters, that is a lot to introduce to viewers, who might not have had the pleasure of reading the book beforehand. The film falls back on cliche’s to accomplish these introductions and I would have to say, effectively so. By the time Ellie and her friends begin their journey up Tailor’s Spit and into Hell, the audience has a pretty good idea of which character is standing up for which teenaged stereotype.
Overall, I think they cast the characters well. This is with the exception of Phoebe Tonkin as townie chick, Fi. From my memories of the book, Fi wasn’t a valley-girlish, make up clad, pretty princess. She was prissy, uptight and not as accustomed to getting dirty as her friends, however I don’t think that a passing decade should translate this character into a pampered teenage, Paris Hilton wannabe. Providing little help to my acceptance of her character was Phoebe’s performance, which was by far the weakest of the group.
In pleasant contrast to my preconceptions was the casting of Ashleigh Cummings as Robyn. Robyn is the town minister’s daughter. Religious, down-to-earth and sensible, she is every parent’s dream. In the books, Robyn came across as having quite a rough, self-empowered edge to her and I found this lacking in the initial characterisation in the film. Ashleigh seemed much more mousey, timid and naive than the Robyn of the books. I can understand the choice to write and direct her differently in the film, Robyn takes some huge metaphorical steps and overcomes her internal struggles to come through for her friends in a time of great need. This moment is heightened in the film by the more extreme portrayal of Robyn’s good girl traits at the beginning. Without the time to investigate her character thoroughly, the film successfully shows her to us through a stereotype that can build into the hard-assed Robyn that we know and love.
As for the boys: Deniz Akdeniz is hilarious as Greek descended, bad boy larrikin, Homer. His moments of humour provide some well needed tension release breaks amongst the explosive and heart-racing scenario of the film. Lincoln Lewis gave a believable, if not quite as convincing portrayal of the group’s jock/coward, Kevin. Kevin didn’t get a lot of screen time, however I think they did well to convey his cowardice in a critical scene during the film that causes us to question the integrity of his character thereafter. I have read a bit of criticism of Christopher Pang’s performance as quiet, artistic and Ellie-loving Lee. I actually thought he did well to carry off what he was given. The film did little to show us why Lee was there, as a part of this group, instead focusing on his differentness and having him come across as almost autistic. I can also understand this characterisation decision, in the context of this being an action movie, there wasn’t a lot of room to indulge in the complexities of the personalities and relationships amongst the teens.
That’s not to say we weren’t given a bit of teenage love story. A rather stunning actress, Rachel Hurd-Wood, was cast as Corrie, a character who might bring a tear to the eye of any long time reader as they realise they had just about forgotten her and her role at the beginning of this series. Corrie and Kevin’s relationship gave us a bit of kissy kissy, there was also a hinting at the long-time, maybe-one-day, Dawson & Joey like feelings between Ellie and Homer. The film focused more on the development of Ellie’s feelings toward Lee, rather than honing in on the inherent love triangle, which I felt to be a wise decision. It was much more interesting to watch more things blow up than to focus on the awkwardly standard teenager emotional confusion.
As a film adaptation of a well loved book, I have to say, this is one of the better that I have seen. Sure, there are some corny lines here and there, but that’s because it’s an action movie. Sure, there are some odd sounding Aussie accents in the bunch, but let’s all remember for a second that the Australian accent is usually a kind of butchering of the English language. So much so that when we do hear people speaking who have been coached to pronounce things like ‘t’ not as a ‘d’, or perhaps to verbally acknowledge the ‘al’ in ‘Australia’, they can sound, to the average Aussie, as though they are speaking strangely. TWTWB is designed to have international appeal, that means that any effort that can be made to ensure that other English speaking nations are able to understand us needs to be made. I know, correct pronunciation isn’t quite cool in this country, but let’s give these actors a break and quit ragging on them for using their tongues properly when talking.
In regards to the unknown enemy being presented as Asian, I can understand yet not entirely agree with the decision. In reading the books, I always imagined the invaders to be from a middle-eastern nation, so it clashed a little with my own personal interpretation. I would have loved to have seen the film take on the challenge of not showing the faces of these soldiers through masks and shadows. It might not have been easy, but it would have made for more fascinating viewing.
I love that this film embraced its action movie qualities. Explosions are exciting! Car chases, bullets and bombings are enthralling! I would advise putting aside any literary snobbery when sitting down to enjoy TWTWB on the big screen. It does a brilliant job of telling Marsden’s tale without tearing it to shreds, unlike many book to movie adaptations. The movie itself asks this of its audience in the much laughed at, corn-filled scene in which Ellie and Fi comment that books are usually better than movies. The film builds tension brilliantly and delivers when things are ready to boil over, I don’t think there’s much more to be asked of an action film. Realism? Nope, action film. Go along and enjoy these characters in a new medium, embrace the differences from the book and get caught up in the excitement as the film has presented it, I did and I had a fabulous time!
Love & Peace,