Dartmouth Chapter – Nevil Shute Society

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A Town Like Alice Screening – 11 November 2013


Today, the ILEAD course, Nevil Shute’s Australian Novels, spent the day at the movies…rather the mini-series. We watched all 301 minutes of A Town Like Alice (ATLA). We were fortified by snacks, lunch, Kettle Korn and Emergency Chocolate (in the form of English candy bars).

I was reminded of Director David Stevens telling the story of how Helen Morse and Bryan Brown (Jean and Joe) fell in love during the filming of A Town Like Alice. Apparently, Morse held Brown at bay until the shoot was complete. I didn’t know this when I first saw the mini-series but watched them carefully this time around. Perhaps, with my newfound knowledge, I thought their affection was genuine. It wasn’t just great acting but maybe business and pleasure mixing together?

Gordon Jackson, as Noel, was kind, stoic, shrewd (with Joe) and patient with Jean. When Jean told Noel she was going to marry Joe, I thought my heart would break right along with his. Get out the tissues!

The mini-series was pretty true to the book although there were a couple of HUGE exceptions. 1) In the novel, Jean and Joe didn’t consummate their relationship on Green Island but they did so in the mini-series. This reminded me of the panoramic kiss at the end of On the Beach. The whole point was that they’d waited six long years to be together and after all that time, waiting a few more months wouldn’t make a difference. In the mini-series, they kissed and then ended up in bed. I think Shute would have had fits about Jean and Joe giving in to their passion. While it made them human, it also took away from their characters.

2) In the novel, Noel wasn’t at Jean and Joe’s wedding, nor did he give her away. Further, Noel’s visit wasn’t a surprise. His trip was arranged so he could help with the legal aspects of Jean and Joe buying Midhurst, as well as having a look at all of Jean’s businesses in Willstown. It wasn’t plausible that a man like Noel, who famously took time to think things through, would pick up and travel halfway around the world on a whim.

One explanation could be that David Stevens felt that if Jean and Joe had traveled to opposite ends of the earth to find each other, so Noel could do so to win Jean’s heart and bring her home to England. Again, my comments reflect my opinions after having read the book. When I first saw the mini-series, A Town Like Alice, I had never heard of Nevil Shute (gasp!). There was nothing to compare because I hadn’t read the book. After many, many readings of ATLA, I see things a little differently. It didn’t make this viewing unpleasant. Rather, it made the viewing a richer experience.

The original A Town Like Alice manuscript is in the National Library of Australia in Canberra and is titled, Adamstown. I read it in 2007 after the Nevil Shute Norway Conference, Nevil Shute’s Legacy, in Alice Springs. There were a few interesting re-writes, including the famous scene on Green Island when Jean appears in her sarong. I wish everyone could see how Shute transformed his manuscript with very minor edits.

The final scene of the mini-series shows Noel at home, at his desk. In a voice over, Noel narrates the last paragraph of the book. It is gut wrenching and poignant. Tears flow each time I read the book and, apparently, when I watch the mini-series. Having the same reaction each time illustrates the impact of great story telling. Shute re-wrote the final paragraph and changed only four words. They were small and seemingly insignificant but they made a very good final paragraph perfect.

If you can make it to Canberra, check it out. The next best option is visiting Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY. They have copies of all Shute’s work except in a few cases where the original words are taped under the final drafts.

In the final analysis, this mini-series was as enjoyable today as it was when I first saw it. It captures some of the hardships of war as well as the sweetness of falling in love. The mini-series holds up beautifully because Shute wrote such a powerful book. It should be noted that Shute considered A Town Like Alice to be a “potboiler”, which he wrote in approximately three months. Shute took experiences from his flight to Australia and put them in the book. Jean and Joe were drawn from two real people who had similar war experiences, including being marched all over Sumatra (not Malaya) and being crucified (and living to tell about it).

If you want to borrow the miniseries, please contact me. It is a wonderfully satisfying way to spend 5 hours.

Too right!


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