‘Whose side are you on?’ is the challenge posed on the cover of the tie-in edition of The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas’s bestselling novel of 2008. Yet there isn’t really a ‘side’ in The Slap, more a series of angles, explorations, and provocations. It has a ‘way we live now’ scenario and a structure that lends itself to television adaptation, with eight chapters told from different points of view. At its centre is an incident at a barbecue, in which a man slaps a four-year-old boy. The child’s mother is outraged and determined to pursue the matter, and the destructive fallout begins.
The Slap is less concerned with the rights and wrongs of what took place, and more with what is laid bare; a narrative of expectation and identity – and, for many of the characters, consuming disappointment. It is a vision of an Australian middle class in a state of denial. Comfortably off but not comfortable, its members chafe with discontent and disenchantment. The new Australian bourgeoisie, upwardly mobile and professional, is no longer necessarily white and Anglo-Saxon.
The television series – eight one-hour instalments, from five scriptwriters and four directors – embraces the blunt propositions and abrasive energies of the novel, but it smooths out some of the rougher edges of the prose, elides protracted arguments and stretches of dialogue. Many of the episodes, however, include an occasional voice-over that is a rare false note – it never feels illuminating, and often grates.
The television series has a more elegant surface than the book; it creates, with beautifully detailed certainty, a sense of place, of the texture of consumption, of the possessions and identifying objects people surround themselves with. And it has the vivid presence of its actors, set in train by the figure of Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia), handsome, strong and melancholy, never quite giving up smoking, and grieving for his life in a way he never fully understands. The series begins with images of his longing for teenage Connie (Sophie Lowe) – a longing she is eager to pursue.
Women, in the world of The Slap, often have authority, or are in a position to make decisions. The male characters seem to simmer with suppressed rage, resentment, or bewilderment; they are more passive than the women. The exception, Harry (Alex Dimitriades), the slapper in question, is a wealthy, self-made man, assertive and brutally confident, yet constantly restless.
In the novel there is a sense of immediacy, but there is also background, recollection, and context. On the page it’s easy to shift in and out of time; on screen in this immediate, vivid depiction of here and now, it’s a different matter. Where this is most conspicuous is in the treatment of Rosie, the woman so intent on finding ‘justice’ for her child. Tsiolkas works hard to create a background for her in the book, something that illuminates why she behaves as she does, but there is almost none of that in the television series.
What we see, instead, is her outrage. Rosie, given a mixture of fragility and ferocious conviction by Melissa George, is all-embracing, all-forgiving, when it comes to her child. Nothing he does can be questioned; everything he wants must be enabled. Yet there are a couple of scenes that represent her fears and moments of panic about her role as a mother. And there is something disarming about the presence of an actual child on screen, sweet-faced and turbulent, an unwitting catalyst of so much angst.
There are also some helpful amplifications. Anouk (Essie Davis), a television writer, single and determined to remain childless, is the weakest character in the book, but she is strengthened on screen. And Hector’s wife, Aisha (Sophie Okonedo) is tougher and more decisive, more sharply defined.
In the end, like the book, the television manifestation of The Slap is a harsh, not necessarily judgemental, portrait of the generation turning forty, as well as a gentler evocation of those on either side of the divide: an elderly man, Harry’s father, Manolis (Lex Marinos), ruefully acknowledging lost opportunities and intimacies, and the two adolescents trying to claim a future.
Teenagers Connie and Richie (Blake Davis) – both from households headed by women – are not the children of affluence. Tenderness and trust flow between Richie and Connie, but there are also currents of betrayal, and a shared desire for Hector. There is also, finally, a sense of discovery, as they launch themselves into the world. But will they find themselves, decades on, at a barbecue … and what, I found myself wondering – as I did not when I read the book – of the generation that will soon follow them, the children of Aisha and Hector, Harry and Sandi, Gary and Rosie? What kind of world and expectations will they be defined by?
The Slap, directed by Jessica Hobbs, Matthew Saville, Robert Connolly, and Tony Ayres. 60 minutes. Screening from 6 October 2011 on ABC1.
CONTENTS: OCTOBER 2011