Back in 2008 Australian author Christos Tsiolkas released his novel The Slap, to bucketloads of controversy and debate. Set in suburban Melbourne, the titular “Slap” referred to the book’s main plot point: the moment Greek man Harry hits four-year-old brat Hugo — a boy who is not his child — during a cricket game at an everyday Australian birthday barbecue, with the fallout constituting most of the book’s narrative. Aside from being nominated by the UK’s Literary Review for the Bad Sex in Literature Award (which is totally justified) and Tsiolkas accused of being “unbelievably misogynistic” (also justified), the novel took a hard look at the cultural changes in contemporary Australia, multiculturalism and, mainly, the moral questions of slapping a child that is not your own, something that has changed over the years. Naturally a TV adaptation was imminent, and the 2011 ABC miniseries continued to polarise viewers as it did readers. Still exploring the contentious issues of fidelity, racism and classism, the miniseries did not avoid the themes of the book, still focusing on critiquing middle-class Australia, domestic violence and the place of migrants and migrant families in a culturally aware society. At the time the series had near-universal acclaim, with The Age saying that the pilot was a “deftly written 55 minutes of television that keeps faith with Tsiolkas’ desire to portray today’s Melbourne” and Film Blerg calling it “captivating and hard-hitting television that took an unflinching look at contemporary Australia.”
Lost In Translation: An Australian Story In An American Setting
Taking into account the nature of the plot and the fact that the novel was able to capture specific parts of Australian society and culture that hadn’t been properly explored before, it’s no surprise that the new Americanised series, which premiered last week on NBC, has received mixed reviews. Having reviewed the pilot “Hector” and the sophomore episode “Harry”, The Atlantic called the series “a work of ostentatious faux-prestige” and a “yuppie hellstorm,” while The Hollywood Reporter said: “Whatever The Slap may have been in previous iterations, it’s flat-out annoying in this one”. The AV Club said that it felt “more like a cable show that made a wrong turn at Albuquerque” while Time said the show “has the ideas and the assembled talent to make a better, subtler character exploration,” but suffered from “hamhanded characterisation.” Unfortunately, the critics aren’t wrong. Many things have changed in the move from Australia to the US. The first major one is moving the action from suburban Melbourne to Brooklyn, New York, which clouds the fact that the opening environment where the slap itself occurs is quintessentially Australian. The barbecue, the backyard cricket, the extensive alcohol and the simplicity of an outdoor summer birthday are lost in translation when the setting is moved to Brooklyn, with the replacements being a baseball bat and some all-American wine – not exactly the best American equivalent of an Aussie BBQ. Among the hip brownstones of upper middle-class Brooklyn, multiculturalism and cultural changes are very different to the suburban Melbourne of the original Slap. Instead of the clawing aspirational suburb-dwellers of the original, hipsters reign supreme. Lower class “bogans” Rosie and Gary are re-imagined in the series as New Age yuppies (Gary is a full-time artist now…what?). Harry is more socially Darwinian than ever and openly makes comments about invading Iraq again, becoming the Republican the audience is already meant to hate, rather than present him as a more nuanced character. In fact, judging by the “newly imagined” characters in this American adaptation, it seems as if the only city livers who are friendly with lots of multicultural friends and hold outdoor parties are the attractive hipsters of Brooklyn, never mind the middle-aged, bored, financially insecure characters The Slap was originally about.
The Problem with American Television
Promising to be “far more psychological” than the original, the series deviates from focusing on the social and cultural change facing contemporary society and the ethical questions at play throughout, instead centering more on the more intense drama of the slap and its consequences. It probably doesn’t help that despite the American script being almost identical to the Australian counterpart, the action unfolds in 43 minutes rather than the hour we luckily have on our network (thanks, Aunty).