October 4, 2012

At least I got a ring: How 'Puberty Blues' compares from book to film

“When we were thirteen, the coolest things to do were the things your parents wouldn’t let you do. Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-ins, take drugs and go to the beach.”

From the very first paragraph, it’s clear that Puberty Blues – the 1979 novel by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette – is incredibly raw and honest.

On Wikipedia, the book is described as “a strongly autobiographical” teen novel. Although Carey and Lette write under the assumed names of Deborah Vickers and Sue Knight, this book oozes authenticity.

From the unashamedly Aussie language to the detailed ins-and-outs of Debbie and Sue’s world, you can tell that this book wasn’t written with the assistance of imagination or voyeurism – the authors actually lived it.

The book is credited as being the first teenage novel published in Australia that was written by teenagers. Carey and Lette are said to have met at the age of 12 and wrote Puberty Blues after they left school and shared a flat together.

In the world that they portrayed, there are certain rules that must girls live by – unless they want to be consigned to the social dustbin of being a prude or a moll:
  • Girls couldn’t eat in front of their boyfriends because “skinniness was inniness.”
  • It was acceptable to sit in a bikini, but never to walk around in one – “that meant she was showing off her body and was an easy root.”
  • You had to go out with a guy for at least two weeks before you’d let him screw you.
  • And perhaps the most important rule of all: Girls are not allowed to surf.

The female characters were “skinny, hair-free, care-free, and girlie,” and the male characters were assessed by the length of their blonde hair and their talent in the surf, rather than on the quality of their character.

Underage sex in the back of a panel van with the aid of a dirty tub of Vaseline was a simple rite of passage – it’s just what you had to do to be accepted by the ‘in crowd’.

It’s no wonder that the content of the book shocked the Australian public. Perhaps as a result of the naivety of the authors at the time of writing, it provides a frank, unapologetic account of all of their youthful misdemeanors.

There are cringe-worthy moments, as you worry on behalf of the girls’ safety and lament the boy’s cruelty as they take advantage of prepubescent bodies for their own gratification.

“Sometimes you’d think it was all worth it. But next day you may as well have been a baked dinner that he’d gorged, enjoyed and forgotten.”

This book provides a candid insight into the dark underside of the world of surfies and molls; the world of teen sex and drugs; and how quickly recreational fun can ruin a young life.

But it’s this rawness that makes you appreciate Puberty Blues – you take pleasure in the girls’ honesty, for how else could you ever understand their lives? And for all the tears there are an equal amount of laughs.

The 2012 TV mini-series, starring Ashleigh Cummings and Brenna Harding in the lead roles, is superbly done. From the opening credits, which depict a stunning swirl of blue crashing waves to the tune of the appropriate ‘Are you old enough?’ by Dragon – to the hilariously retrospective costumes and attention to detail 1970’s sets – its clear that every effort has been made to bring this story to life in the most faithful and devoted fashion.

The series is so committed to presenting an accurate 1970’s Sutherland Shire that it offers an interesting analysis of how far Australian society has come, and how many things have changed in the last four decades. Drink driving, sun tanning, skinny-dipping and smoking – all were accepted day-to-day occurrences on the Puberty Blues set and all are frowned upon today.

By expanding the plot to include the stories of the families, the series has cleverly created a new depth to the original story and has allowed it to appeal to a much broader audience.

Claudia Karvan (as Debbie’s mum Judy Vickers) and Roger Corser (as Garry’s father Ferris Hennessey) are as fantastic as you would expect – as are the rest of the cast. Ashleigh Cummings, in particular, shines as Debbie.

The Deb and Sue from the book do have more attitude – they already knew all the rules, they just needed a way to get into the Greenhills Gang. In comparison, the Deb and Sue of the series are learning on their feet and they reek of innocence and desperation.

A notable difference between the television series and the book can be found in the personal growth of Debbie and Sue. Although they start naïve and silly, they grow to have a conscious and actively demonstrate it when given an opportunity to help one of their own. In the book, the girls only ever turned their backs.

Garry Hennessey’s (played by Sean Keenan) character in the series is also given ample opportunity to shine. By giving him a depth of character, a troubled family life, and a conscience, he is able to give Debbie a credible chance at romance, and provides a welcome relief from the caveman antics of the rest of the boys.

The series also does – understandably – gloss over some of the heavier content of the book. The sex scenes are less vivid, and the topic of abortions, miscarriages and gang rapes are only touched on lightly – whereas in the book they are explored in a shocking amount of matter-of-fact detail.

Undoubtedly due to the fact that producers wanted to leave the story open for a second season (which Channel Ten have now confirmed is coming), the series didn’t tie up the loose ends in the way that the book did. In the book, the ultimate futures of the characters were summed up and displayed like a checklist – in the series, we are left to wonder: what will become of the Greenhills gang? Guess we will just have to wait and see.

The verdict is:
Book or Silver Screen? Silver Screen
The series is: 5. An exceptional improvement on the original

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.

What’s coming next? A review of Bel Ami (I promise!)

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