BARRACUDA BY CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS – NOVEL AND TV
You are a reader and a writer and you are sick. What do you do?
I have had the most ridiculously severe flu of my life in the last few weeks, which is why I haven’t posted for almost a month. Especially the heavy cough exhausted my body and mind to such an extent that I certainly couldn’t write, and while I could read, I found myself not enjoying anything I was reading. Now that is a rare state of affairs for me indeed. I couldn’t even enjoy watching favourite programs on television. So what to do?
I thought of books and films that I have loved. And one of both is the novel Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas and its adaptation for ABC television.
The story focuses on Danny Kelly, the 16-year-old son of working class parents (his mother a hairdresser of Greek background, his father a truck driver of British background), who dreams of winning Olympic gold in swimming. He wins a sporting scholarship to a prestigious private school, where his coach, former Hungarian swimmer Frank Torma, propels Danny’s swimming to greater heights.
As a reader who writes, I love the novel for several reasons:
- As a reader and a writer, I love strong themes, especially when the author focuses on inequalities. Tsiolkas is an Australian author who is very strong on theme. In Barracuda, he questions the lengths parents and kids themselves go to to pursue their dreams of attaining Olympic gold, but at heart, in Barracuda as in his body of work as a whole, his interest lies in sexuality and in Australia’s multicultural and class-based society and the clashes that can occur when one moves from one culture and class to another.
- One of the highlights of Tsiolkas’ writing in Barracuda is the intensity of Danny’s interior monologue. Tsiolkas puts himself into his protagonist’s shoes so well that as a reader, you are inside Danny’s skin.
- Third, I love the rhythm Tsiolkas employs in his language, especially when Danny is swimming. In fact, Barracuda is one of the best novels I’ve read with a strong rhythm in the writing:
All that day, teachers spoke and lectured but Danny didn’t hear a word. All that day, boys came up to him, behind him, around him; they whispered, they jeered, they catcalled. Danny didn’t say a word.
That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obeyed; the water would give him his revenge.
Before watching Barracuda on screen, I wondered how – or if at all – that rhythm would translate onto the screen.
There are differences between the novel and its adaptation for the screen. In the novel, the dominant characters are Danny; his foe and later friend Martin Taylor who is in his swim squad at the prestigious school and eventually bestows the name Barracuda on him; Coach; his friend Demet; and Mrs Taylor, Martin’s WASPish mother. The novel moves back and forth between three different time periods in Danny’s life – including significant chunks of time after the end of Danny’s swimming career – and between Danny’s first person and third person point of view.
The script for the television series was written by Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko, directed by Robert Connolly, and Christos Tsiolkas was on board as Associate Producer. The writers decided to focus the series on Danny’s swimming quest during his teenage years only. And on screen, the only possible point of view is third person – unless you use a voice-over narrator.
The dominance of the characters on screen was different to the novel, and that was primarily due to the acting. Matt Nable gave what might have been the performance of his life so far as coach Frank Torma, which lifted the significance of the coach beyond the pages of the book. Similarly, Rachel Griffiths as Martin Taylor’s mother was sensational in her portrayal of snobbish private school parents.
And the translation of Tsiolkas’ rhythmic language onto screen? The miracle was achieved by the visual effects in the swimming scenes, underlined with musical effects. It was that camera work which translated the rhythm of Tsiolkas’ writing onto the screen – which made me wonder whether Tsiolkas had intended his rhythmic language to mirror the action of swimming in the first place.