‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Gone are the tensions of multiculturalism, the significance of suburbia, and the sense of a Greek culture at odds with an Aussie one. The slap itself loses its intensity, some of its shock, and, most importantly, a lot of its context. When the pivotal moment happens in the Australian adaptation of the novel, and Harry Apostolou strikes 4-year-old Hugo at a backyard barbecue for coming at his son with a cricket bat, the slap hits hard and fast. It’s presented without nuance or subtly and it ricochets violently. The harshness of its delivery and, arguably, the harshness of the events that follow isn’t a new theme in Australian texts. Often bleak and unrelenting, our stories rarely get mixed up in niceties. It does seem, however, that they can get lost in translation.
When it was originally published in 2008, The Slap presented a unique snapshot of Australian society, multiculturalism and the cultural tensions that existed in middle-class suburbia after the Howard years. Its sense of place and time was so strong that the social and political significance of its setting was indistinguishable from the story around it. In the US series, New York replaces Northcote and the once distinct suburban landscape becomes a wealthy, contemporary world stretching from the Upper East Side to downtown Brooklyn. The cultural differences that were central to the structure of Tsiolkas’ story (and to a broader commentary of the divisions in Australian society in general) are overlooked, replaced with a new discrepancy: one between class and parenting styles. The focus changes to the moral dilemma the slap presents – whether or not Harry was right to slap Hugo.
Australian texts have a fickle history when transplanted overseas, especially when those stories are then changed to suit a different audience. Kath and Kim, the cultural cornerstone of Australian suburban satire, was cancelled after one season of its US re
make, which starred Selma Blair and Molly Shannon. The FOX network’s take on ABC’s Rake met a similar fate, being pulled after only 13 episodes. SBS’s Wilfred has proved to be the most successful adaption in the US market, receiving critical acclaim and running for four seasons. Unlike Kath and Kim and Rake, Wilfred was able to adapt to a US market because the ‘buddy comedy’ aspect of the show was easier to integrate and less grounded in cultural significance. Budget constraints aside, there are however distinct differences between the two Wilfreds and the tone of the show did change to fit an American audience. Jason Gann reprised his role as the eponymous dog in the American series, but his character was presented with an explicit explanation of his existence that was absent in the Australian version. The kookiness and cynicism of the original disappeared and instead, the US Wilfred explored mental health and eventually, finding happiness.
This altering of plots and characters is common for Australian shows attempting to crack the notoriously difficult US market. The general consensus, according to Karen Hornick, a professor of pop culture and television at New York University, is that US networks ‘would much rather take a good idea from abroad and try to Americanise it, which often means dumbing it down’. In the case of The Slap, the US version has become a heavily plot-driven, narrative-based interpretation. The pivotal slap and its subsequent court case play an integral role in each individual character episode, ultimately working to tie up any loose ends and reach a nice, neat conclusion. The Australian version delves deeper into its characters, and acts as a study of the nature of people, as well as the nature of commitment and marriage.
In the US version, Peter Sarsgaard’s Hector is immediately a more likeable, gentler version of Jonathan LaPaglia’s depiction of a breaking man slipping into a mid-life crisis and behaving badly for it. Rosie and Gary, the parents of Hugo (and the least affluent couple in the novel) become loft-living Brooklynite hipsters, with Gary depicted as a successful contemporary artist rather than the pseudo-intellectual, financially struggling painter he was in Melbourne’s inner north. The heartbreaking frailty of the relationship between Essie Davis’ Anouk and her neglected, sick mother Rachel (played by Gillian Jones) in the Australian series is altered to become not much more than a domestic argument between Uma Thurman’s Anouk and her mother, played by Blythe Danner. Moreover, the involvement of Rosie (played by Melissa George in both adaptations) in Rachel’s life is completely cut out in the US version, and we’re left not knowing much (or anything at all) about the tired relationship between Rosie and Anouk.
The effect of the narrative-focused nature of the adaptation is to downplay the crucial aspects of character exploration that the original novel and series thrived on. The slap in the original series acted as a prologue of sorts to a dissection and discussion of the nature of commitment and compromise. What was once a gritty portrayal of the unapologetic awfulness of people becomes a glossy showcase of an incident that is drawn out for far too long, between people you don’t even care about enough to hate.
Tsiolkas’ novel is an uncomfortable read and it’s just as uncomfortable to watch. Yet it’s precisely this ruthlessness that adds a certain truth to its portrayal of family and friendships. People don’t always act in the way we think they should. When NBC stripped The Slap of its harshness, it really stripped it of its narrative richness. It’s this chopping and changing of Australian stories that tends to undermine our content in a global television market – and just like many adaptations before it, the US version of The Slap failed to reach anywhere near the success of its Australian counterpart. Ultimately, when The Slap is taken out of its own backyard it loses its cultural complexity, cricket bat and all.