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Holding The Man started life as a memoir by Timothy Conigrave, who died of an AIDS-related illness not long before it was published. An award-winning popular Australian book, it was adapted into a play by the then–up and coming playwright Tommy Murphy in the mid-2000s for the Griffin Theatre Company, playing multiple sell-out seasons in Sydney. It has since toured the world. In 2015, the film adaptation, also written by Tommy Murphy and directed by Neil Armfield, was released in Australia.
I don’t remember precisely when I first read the book, but I imagine I was in my early 20s, so not long before the play landed. It’s a beautiful story, funny, but also incredibly sad (as you would expect.) Conigrave really captured the ups and downs of life, I felt — yes, he and John were diagnosed with AIDS, but they were still people, in love. Complete with arguments, laughter, anguish.
The adaptation to the stage must have been challenging. The SBW Stables Theatre (where Griffin is housed) isn’t particularly big. The stage is a strange shape; there aren’t any curtains or flats you can drop down to change scenes. It’s intimate, even if you’re in the back row.
I saw that first production about mid-way through its run, so I’d heard that it was fantastic. I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly Murphy had transformed the book into a play. The memoir is incredibly well-loved, especially among the gay community. The expectation was enormous, and I have no doubt many were filled with concern that it wouldn’t work. It was spectacular. (So spectacular I saw the return season in Sydney and the first season in London.)
Murphy recognised the intimate theatre setting (though it did also work in the less-intimate Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House, and wherever it played in London — my memory fails me) and embraced the audience. I don’t remember laughing so much at a play (especially one that you would imagine would be very sad.) At times it was almost corny (perfectly so), it was camp fun, it could be brash and in your face. And then, on a dime in the second act, the play moves from light to so, so dark. You are, almost literally, laughing one second and crying the next.
What was incredible, and which we’ll also get to in the film, was his respect of both the source material, and of the format. It followed the same storyline, but tweaked it enough to really make it sing on stage. He didn’t just take the memoir and speak it aloud, he made it its own property.
Murphy also wrote the screenplay, and a point made by Armfield at the Q&A after the screening I went to was that he again adapted it from the book — he didn’t try and adapt it from the screenplay. And he again did it very well, respecting the medium entirely. He acknowledged that a non-linear storyline doesn’t necessarily suit the cinematic form, and that filmmaking techniques exist to allow you to easily manipulate that linearity.
An interesting point I read in an article shared by the director Tony Ayres was that he had the rights to the film adaptation of the novel for a while in the mid-1990s. He knew Conigrave, who had given the rights to Ayres before he died.
Ayres is a very talented writer and director (Walking on Water and The Home Song Stories spring straight to mind, though he has a whole swag of television credits, other film credits, and Cut Snake coming up), but he couldn’t make the script work. He himself said it was because he was too close — he couldn’t step back and look at how to make it work as a screenplay. He wanted to tell the story accurately. He couldn’t move around happenings or omit storylines, he couldn’t change the details to suit a dramatic arc, because he wanted to be true to the memory of Conigrave. Of course. As would any friend.
This is the joy of Murphy’s adaptation. Of both his adaptations, really. And the point of this post. The memoir, Conigrave’s personal story of his life with John, was incredibly moving and beautiful. Because it was his, and because a book is the perfect place to tell it in that way.
The play was incredibly moving and beautiful. Because it was written by a stranger who had a lot of respect for the source material, and you have to tell a story differently on stage.
The movie was incredibly moving and beautiful. Because it was written by a stranger who had a lot respect for the source material, and there are so many different expectations in a film, broader potential audiences than with a play, and direct international markets you have to take into consideration.
Each version of this story was told differently, but each version of the story had the same message, and rendered the same effect on the audience (ie I laughed and cried in every one of them.)
So the takeaway is: every time you tell your story to a different person, think about that person and how they want or expect to receive it. The blog post on your website is probably going to be different to the product listing on that same website. Which will be different to your media release. Which will be different to your Instagram post. Which will be different to your television advertisement. Every time, you have to think about the platform broadly, and your specific audience. Think about what you’ll change and how (which is generally what you’ll cut.) As long as the underlying message is consistent, you don’t need to include everything everywhere, or even have the same tone.
Respect your audience individually and they will respect you.
Welcome to rosscolebatch.com! It's been a long time coming...
This blog will be populated with various posts on all things storytelling. I'll always broadly try and keep it relative, but the scope for that is huge — sometimes it will be on a movie or a song or a television show, sometimes it might relate to developments in social media, sometimes cross-platform projects, or anything in between. I'll do my best to keep it brief.
In the meantime, you can catch me on Instagram (it's uncurated and WILL feature food, animals and sunsets, so be warned), or Twitter (also uncurated, but generally related to politics, current affairs, and announcements on whatever might be in my head.)