THE STORY OF HOW AUSTRALIAN WRITER Michael Noonan's 1963 novel December Boys became a feature film begins over four decades ago, in rather surprising fashion. Writer/producer Ronald Kinnoch, fresh off the success of the 1960 cult horror film Village of the Damned, optioned the rights to December Boys and wrote a relatively faithful script, but he wound up shelving the project. Flash forward nearly three decades. In 1990, the Walt Disney Company decided to relaunch Walt Disney Pictures, its storied family-oriented live-action studio, as a more active producer of high-profile nonanimated family films. On the heels of this announcement, Jay Sanders, then an assistant to new studio executive David Vogel, received three scripts in the mail from Kinnoch. "He sent them with a cover letter and nothing else––no calls or agents or anything," recalls Sanders, who knew that the scripts were unlikely to get read. On a whim, he pulled one out of the pile: "It happened to be December Boys, and it was one of the most charming things I'd ever read."
Noonan's novel tells the story of five boys around the age of twelve from a Catholic orphanage who spend a summer in a cove in South Australia, among a community of eccentrics. When the boys discover that a young couple are considering adopting one of them when the summer ends, they begin to compete for the adults' affections. Told with the verve of a boys' adventure tale, Noonan's dense, affecting story is as much about youthful camaraderie as it is about the peculiar sense of freedom youngsters from a rather strict background would surely experience at the seashore. It features a motley cast and achingly resonant passages describing the beauty of the landscape. But it's also episodic and packed with incident; as such, it strikes the reader almost immediately as unfilmable. Perhaps that is one reason Kinnoch's original script clocked in at 169 pages––a prohibitive length for a motion picture, especially a kids' movie.
Though he was only an assistant at the time, Sanders decided to become involved in the project himself and work with Kinnoch to trim the script. He then sought a partner to buy the property. "Everything took years," he recalls. At one point, he even came close to persuading his old bosses at Disney to purchase the rights: "They wanted to Americanize it and bring it into the present day. It would have been a disaster." In 1992, Sanders introduced the project to producer Richard Becker (Gross Misconduct, Only You), head of Becker Group Limited, an Australian film and television production and distribution company. After years of negotiations, they signed a deal in 1994.
At that point, Sanders and Becker set about finding a new screenwriter to rework the story. "Ultimately, while Ronald's script was pure charm, it was also, much like the novel, largely devoid of conflict," Sanders recalls. "It basically stuck to the episodic nature of Noonan's book." The producers wanted to simplify the original while introducing more drama. Initially, they enlisted a young screenwriter named Eric Tuchman, and together they went back to Noonan's novel, to re-insert story elements that Kinnoch had done away with.
The real breakthrough came when the producers hired Rod Hardy, a veteran TV director (The Yearling, The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica), to helm the film. "I think they had gone through just about every other Australian director out there," Hardy recalls. "And I know there was initially trepidation about hiring a TV director for this job." Hardy brought ideas that shifted things in a new direction: "I saw this as a movie about the search for family and the search for self. It was a coming-of-age story, but it wasn't for kids. And that wasn't in the book, really. And it wasn't in the script I had been shown."
Still from December Boys, directed by Rod Hardy, 2007. From left: Daniel Radcliffe (Maps), Lee Cormie (Misty), Christian Byers (Spark), and James Fraser (Spit).
In 1998, Sanders and Becker began working with screenwriter Marc Rosenberg, who had written and coproduced the 1992 Miles Davis vehicle Dingo, although the writer notes that he and Sanders had discussed December Boys on occasions dating back to 1994. Screenwriter and director immediately hit it off. "Rod and I saw things in very much the same way," Rosenberg says. "We weren't interested in making a film for ten-year-old boys. We were more interested in . . . an older audience, one that was looking back to their childhoods. We wanted to capture that sense of remembrance and myth."
With several iterations of the story at this point, Rosenberg consciously chose not to read Noonan's novel: "A true adaptation of a novel I see as a son or a daughter. December Boys the movie is more like a cousin of the novel. I riffed on elements I liked from Ronald Kinnoch's script, and those elements were also in the novel." Rosenberg felt it important to think about the story in fresh terms and not to feel beholden to the original; it was becoming increasingly clear that the film would have to depart radically from Noonan's book.
After the number of boys had been whittled to four (over various stages of the script), the filmmakers made them teenagers, ranging in age from fourteen to seventeen. Rosenberg and Hardy were then able to change the story accordingly. The screenwriter began to focus much of his attention on the character Maps, who went from merely the most brash and fearless of the twelve-year-olds to a reflective seventeen-year-old, a kind of reluctant older brother to the orphans. "He'll have to leave the orphanage soon, and he has a pretty good idea that he's not the one that will be adopted; he would have to grow up quickly," observes Hardy. Because of his attraction to the themes of belonging and isolation in Maps's story, Rosenberg also felt a certain kinship with him: "I was intrigued by the idea of a damaged hero. And he was growing bigger in the story, so I gave him a girlfriend."
Making sexual awakening a major part of the film, Hardy feels, allowed the story to become more universally resonant. (It's also worth noting that, whereas the novel is set in the 1930s, the film takes place in the '60s.) "Marc and I both drew from our first loves for Lucy," the girlfriend character, the director says. "We felt that this was the purpose of Maps's story. As an older character, he's not all that interested on the surface in the adoption, but deep down he really wants to be found. Lucy would become his savior in a way. He would imagine that this first love would become his love forever and that everything would be perfect. And of course, very quickly, he realizes that's not to be."
Sex wasn't the only adult theme the filmmakers inserted. "We needed a crisis situation," Rosenberg recalls. Hardy puts it more colorfully: "You can make things as cute as you like, but you have to eventually turn things around and get these boys at odds." Early versions of the script focused on a scene in which Maps briefly abandons the other boys inside a cave. In the novel, this is a small incident that serves merely to illustrate the extremes of the boys' competitiveness. "The story has no antagonist," Hardy observes. "In science fiction, westerns, action movies, a bad guy will always get you out of a problem. But we wanted to both keep it simple and honest, while also building up the tension." By working in Maps's isolation from the others, his growing resentment, and the heartbreak of his first love, Rosenberg and Hardy were able to turn the boy into someone who must redeem himself. Making Maps a more pronounced and complex character also paid off for the filmmakers when they were able to sign Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, to play the part, his first major role outside of the blockbuster boy-wizard series.
With the presence of Radcliffe, there's a very good chance that December Boys the movie will attract a new generation of readers to Noonan's acclaimed novel, which has long been out of print but is now being rereleased by the University of Queensland Press. The author passed away in 2000. Kinnoch, whose screenplay kick-started the adaptation process, died in 1995. The film that hits screens this autumn bears the imprints of both men (Kinnoch is given a "story work" credit in the film), but it is a decidedly new, more mature and touching take on what could have easily been a simplistic journey through childhood whimsy. Those who do read the novel will be struck by the film's rather stark departures. But they will also find that the movie and the book share a unique feel for the landscape and, more important, a particular sense of freedom and vitality that mark them as lasting entries in the coming-of-age genre.
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