It is not that often that a television or film adaptation of a literary novel can lay claim to have improved upon the original. Now, having seen the first five episodes of The Slap I think it might be one of those rare instances. This is not because I think the book is bad, unlike a surprising number of the Amazon.co.uk reviewers. It was a more enjoyable read than either of the last two Booker prize winners despite being a surprising omission from the shortlist. Rather because the adaptation has so far managed to balance between remaining faithful to the book while remedying many of the areas where the novel might have been seen to fall short.
The plot revolves around “the” slap given by a guest at a 40th birthday party barbecue to an unruly 4 year old child and its repercussions as the child’s parents decide to press charges for assault against him. However, the plot is somewhat secondary to the characters.
The characters show a slice of the uneasy multiculturalism of Melbourne. Hector, whose party it is, is the son of Greek immigrants and married to Aisha (slightly curiously played as Black or Aboriginal rather than from the Indian subcontinent as in the book). His cousin Harry is the “slapper”. Harry is married to Sandi, who is of Serbian origin. Aisha’s two best friends are Anouk, who is Jewish, and Rosie, the mother of the “slappee”, Hugo. Rosie is married to Gary. Hector’s old school friend, the Aboriginal convert to Islam, Bilal (formerly Terry) and his white wife, Shamira are also at the party. As are Connie, a 17 year old schoolgirl who works at Aisha’s veterinary practice and her best friend, Richie who comes out as gay. Some of the Amazon reviewers have commented that this seems artificial, but my experience of having worked for an Australian company and spent some time in Melbourne is that it would not seem unusual beyond, perhaps, ironically, having an Aborigine within Hector’s middle-class professional social circle.
The structure of the series replicates that of the book in having each episode focus on the story from the perspective of a single character. The first episode (about Hector and showing the events of the day of the barbecue) sticks very closely to the text of the book but later episodes depart in significant ways from it. Anouk’s life as a childless, frustrated author working as script editor for a trashy soap opera whose much younger star, Rhys, she is in a relationship with, is coloured in and Rhys is fleshed out. Harry in the book is somewhat one-dimensionally boorish and violent so that even though there is a degree of sympathy for finding Hugo’s behaviour unacceptable this dissipates very quickly. In his episode he remains far from pleasant but the echoes of his own abusive upbringing and the tensions of being too flashily successful for other people’s liking give a little shade to this.
Other areas where the series has been able to improve upon the book are in the sequencing of events. In the book there is a long section about Connie and Richie attending a party after their end of school exams which comes after the main arc of the story of the slap itself has finished. It seemed to me on reading it that this was somewhat artificial and didn’t really belong in the story other than to show something of what the next generation of Australians would be like and how they differed from the second generation children of immigrants like Hector and Harry and were a world apart from the first generation like Hector’s parents. As Hector’s father gets a chapter in the book and an episode (yet to be screened in the UK) this theme is not an unimportant one for what the book was attempting but possibly one that is less of interest to a non-Australian. Or rather that it appears to be because the travails of European immigrants and their changing attitudes over the generations may be less of an issue in a European country. The Slap set in Britain might have Hector’s family as Afro-Carribeans or Indian/Pakistani.
In the series these scenes come earlier to show the parallel life of Connie as a child approaching adulthood alongside her relationship with Hector where she pretends at adulthood (the acting and cinematography are strong enough that when we first see Connie at the beginning of the first episode in Hector’s dream she appears adult, then when we see her in “reality” she is clearly a child in the eyes of any adult).
Other touches which I’m not sure Christos Tsiolkas was able to get across as well in words as the series did was the character of Gary, Hugo’s father and Rosie’s wife. On reading the book the lack of a chapter from his perspective seemed to be an odd omission. Rosie and Gary, unlike their friends, live a life that is both somewhat bohemian and realistically poor. Rosie is still breast-feeding Hugo at four and comes across in the book as a weak earth-mother hippy type. Gary, we are endlessly told in the book is a drunk and thwarted artist carrying on thundering about the iniquities of a capitalist and philistine world that has only allowed him to earn a living by menial work. One of the advantages of the screen is that it allows for this sort of detail to be introduced more unobtrusively. So, the only mention of Gary’s talent is a short scene where Rosie is sitting in Gary’s home studio with his paintings (of himself) around her. There isn’t a lot of discussion about his drinking until Harry’s trial, but he is constantly shown beer in hand. Harry’s trial is visually as much a trial of Gary’s parenting (he is shown more than Harry as the defendant) and when Rosie comes home to tell Hugo that “the bad man has been punished”, Gary’s muted echo of “yeah, he has mate” suggests that he knows who has really been punished. Whereas in the book I wanted to see more from Gary’s perspective, he was written and played in such a way in the series that this was no longer an omission.
Another aspect which Amazon critics of the book seemed to take a prurient dislike to is the frequent portrayal of sex. It didn’t particularly bother me as it didn’t appear to me to be gratuitous or especially badly written and did show the characters’ differences in their perceptions of themselves and others. The series is shot in a sensual way so that these scenes work well in fleshing out the characters. For a British audience used to Little Britain’s “Bitty” sketch of the adult son breastfeeding who might have had to suppress a titter in the first episode as Hugo shouts “Boobies” to Rosie the sight of her involuntarily expressing milk when she hears Hugo’s voice while she’s having a bath takes away any element of comedy to remind you that these are meant to be real people to empathise with. Even if you find that there aren’t any characters that you might like in the abstract, actually, many of them are rather more like you or people you know than you’d like to admit.
I recommend the book as it is an interesting and illuminating read despite its flaws. For a generation that has grown up watching Neighbours it is a glimpse at a more naturalistic portrayal of Melbourne and Australia with rather more warts. Watching the series will be at least as rewarding and there is still time to catch up on iPlayer (the DVD comes out on 1 December). A lot better than following “celebrities” in the making, enjoying that status on the dancefloor, or on their way down in the jungle. It is a shame that it is only being shown on BBC4 as it deserves a wider audience, perhaps with a repeat on BBC2 in the New Year.