Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road looks set to become a feature film. The author walks us down the long path of the adaptation process.  

The film adaptation of Marchetta’s debut novel, Looking for Alibrandi opened across Australia to critical acclaim in 2000. The story of Josie Alibrandi not only captured the nation’s attention, but also that of the Australian Film Institute, which awarded the film with five AFI awards (now the AACTA Awards), including Best Film.

Marchetta also won for the Best Screenplay Adapted From Another Source. Not bad for an author who had never written a screenplay. With eight years between publication and the screen version opening, the process wasn’t quick. Years before she even attempted the script she’d bestowed the rights of the book on Strictly Ballroom producer Tristram Miall.

‘There was never any indication at all, in his head or mine, that someone who had written their first novel could write a script,’ she explains. ‘It’s written down somewhere that prose writers don’t make good scriptwriters.’

When writers had tried unsuccessfully to adapt the book, Miall reconsidered and asked Marchetta to attempt it herself, based on the strength of her dialogue. After writing Looking for Alibrandi, Marchetta became a teacher, but her own screenwriting education came from working on the script. ‘I was really lucky that [Miall] passed the project on to Robyn Kershaw [producer] and Kate Woods [director]. It was because of those two women that I got my education as a scriptwriter.’

This isn’t just exposition – it highlights the different approaches between Alibrandi and On the Jellicoe Road. ‘There’s so many different ways you get a film off the ground and Alibrandi and Jellicoe were both two very different ways.’

There’s likely a perception among some that you write a novel, sell the rights, it’s flipped into a film and you sit back counting your money. Well, it’s not that simple, especially if you want to do it yourself and the story is as complicated as Jellicoe, a YA mystery about Taylor Markham, the leader of a boarding school on Jellicoe Road, who was abandoned on the titular road when she was 11.

Jellicoe started with me and me wanting to write this script,’ she admits. In fact, Jellicoe was originally conceived of as a film rather than a novel. While she was still teaching, she related the tale to a student, who said were it a book, he’d read it. ‘That made me write it as a novel, and I’m glad I did but I always saw it as a film.’

When the book came out in 2006, she immediately started planning the screenplay. At a meeting with Cameron’s Management, who represented her literary work, they told her that it would make a great film. ‘I said to them “Don’t send it out!”, they could’ve sent that manuscript out to people on their books, but I wanted to stamp my vision on it.’

So began the process, which Marchetta undertook in 2007. One year later filmmaker Cathy Randall contacted her after ‘she accidentally read Jellicoe’ when looking for Marchetta’s fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock. The bookstore only had Jellicoe, which Randall promptly read and decided to adapt.

In the beginning, it was just the two of them ‘bouncing off each other’, but Randall suggested taking the script to Screen NSW’s Aurora Script Workshop. The intensive invites applications from scriptwriters and selects five to work with industry insiders over a week. They were accepted, and took the script along in 2011. Later in the year, another Aurora workshop takes place and by that time projects need a producer attached to continue.

‘We were told by all the funding bodies that no one was going to take us seriously until we had a producer. We were told that it was a bear of a book and it couldn’t be done, so we really wanted someone who could get this project off the ground.’

They found that producer in Sue Taylor. While securing Taylor was an incredible boon, the news was bittersweet with Randall having to pull out due to personal reasons. ‘It was very hard because we were emotionally attached to this project. The only bright side was that Kate Woods, who directed Alibrandi, stepped in and we’ve been working together since last year.’

The need for a producer and director highlights one of the important differences between writing a novel and a script. ‘When you’re writing a novel no one cares about a budget,’ she says.

While penning a book, she’s confident that if she works hard and ‘rewrites and rewrites’, she’ll eventually have it published. ‘With a film script you can work on it just as hard, I’d say I’ve put more into the film script of Jellicoe than anything I’ve ever done, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s going to get made.’

A producer helps the script pass the gauntlet of funding bodies before it hits the screen. During this time, it’s ‘judged by people who are going to give you the finance’, who generate reports that are ‘contradictory’, which then, despite the best efforts of producers and directors, lands the script back with the writer. ‘You’ve got to stay true to the vision of what the story is, so it kind of begins and ends with you,’ she explains. ‘I’m always so grateful for feedback, but it’s about what you do with the feedback that’s important.’

Another of the challenges adapting a novel to script is a curious one – the fans. Without a readership, the novel has no life, but Marchetta believes that when you’re adapting a novel, you’ve ‘got to let go of the readership’ of the book.

‘There are some people out there who are obsessive about this novel, which is beautiful, but they’re going to be the hardest to please, so I had to let go of them because I can’t please everyone.’

This raises the age-old consideration of all adaptations, fidelity to the source text. Because of the complexity of Jellicoe, it was impossible to do a straight, scene-for-scene adaptation. To get around this, and stay true to the story, Marchetta formulated a plan to ‘stick to three or four things about the novel that people really adored’.

‘Then I could move around everything else and that’s what you have to do when adapting any work, you give the audience of the book what they love but then you change everything else because you can’t tell the story in the same way – they’re completely different mediums.’

Despite this careful control of the script, soon Marchetta’s part in the production will wrap. It’s not an unfamiliar experience nor is it an uncomfortable one. On the set of Alibrandi she encountered all the people working on the film in one building. She recounts first seeing the set designers, costume people and cinematographers.

‘I remember at that exact moment that it wasn’t mine anymore and it belongs to a whole lot of different peoples vision. I had to trust them, and that’s hard but it’s also exciting – I’m so excited to think of what Kate Woods’ visions is and the cinematographer’s vision and what the editor will end up doing.’

Although Marchetta is currently scouting locations, there’s still one massive consideration – casting. Because of the large overseas fan-base for the book, Jellicoe will be an international film that, although shot in Australia (on Marchetta’s insistence), will likely feature an American actress in the lead role of Taylor Markham.

While Josie Alibrandi was a distinctly Australian character, Marchetta believes that ‘Taylor could be anyone from anywhere’, and that’s important on a financial level as well as in regard to narrative.

‘A lot of the finance people have said you need a big name to play her or you won’t get American distribution on a large scale, or you won’t get an audience except the novel audience. I don’t think that it would be compromising the project if the main actress wasn’t Australian.’

So does she have an idea who she wants to play the lead? Of course, she’s even got a secret Pintrest board that only her and the producers can see, and on that board is the actress she wants for her lead. Helping with the overseas courtship are Goalpost Pictures, the production company behind The Sapphires.

Still, as Marchetta points out, ‘film is all about money’ and securing a big name comes down to cash. ‘It’s a double edged sword – some people will get a name and use that name to finance a film, while other people will get the finance to get the name – that’s the way we’re doing it.’

This is what Taylor and Goalpost Pictures are working at securing. Screen NSW has already kicked in via the Aurora program for drafts, but at the moment Marchetta and the team are waiting on word that they’ll get funding from government agencies (there are ‘chats’ with Screen Australia) and film distributors.

‘All I’m told all the time is “be patient”, it might seem as if things aren’t happening, but I would say by the end of July we’ll know whether this film has been funded or not. Fingers crossed, we’re making a film this year.’