The December Boys was originally a coming-of-age novel by Michael Noonan. It
related the story of some orphans from the Australian outback who get a chance
to take a dream vacation together at the seashore one summer in the 1930s. The
filmmaking team apparently thought that premise was too non-commercial, so they
updated the kids' story to about 1970 or 1971 (the oldest boy and his girlfriend
listen to and sing along with "Who'll Stop The Rain?"), and they added a framing
story that takes place in the present, allowing one of the boys to narrate the
tale as a recollection, and creating an opportunity for the boys to have an
emotional reunion as adults. That change was obviously meant to target the baby
boomer market, and that ought to have provided a financial benefit since it
would alter the pop culture backdrop to fit the memories of a very large group
of prosperous people, almost all of whom are still alive to buy tickets. Very
pragmatic. Plenty of potential ticket buyers remember childhood in the 1970s,
but there are not many left alive who remember boyhood in the 1930s.
There was another key change from the book. The story had originally been
about five pre-pubescent boys who were all about the same age. In order to add
further spice to the film, the five were consolidated to four, and one of them
was promoted to teenager status, thus creating the genre-obligatory feature of a
doomed summer romance. As a kicker, Daniel Radcliffe, known to the world as
Harry Potter, was cast as the older boy. The final product therefore lined up a
well-established source novel, spiced it with baby boomer nostalgia, and added
Harry Potter's first sex scenes. It seemed like a respectable formula for
All those changes
did not create a box office winner. Major films appear in about 300
theaters in Australia, but The December Boys opened quietly in 72
theaters, barely making the top ten in its opening week, then dropping
immediately off the leader board in the following week. The film grossed about a
half-million Aussie bucks. There was no U.S. distributor who believed in
the film, so it never reached more than 13 theaters in the States and
grossed less than $50,000.
I tend to be too picky about faulty chronology and period details, but in
this case I think it is worth noting that the scriptwriter just wasn't paying
attention, and made the chronology downright confusing. The boys' holiday has to
be taking place no earlier than 1970, so the three younger kids have to have
been born around 1960. That would place them in their late 40s in their 2007
reunion, yet the actor hired to play Misty as an adult, and thus to narrate the
story, is 67 years old! Poor ol' Misty lost twenty years of his life. The other
actors are not famous enough to have published birth dates, but they also seem
to be in their sixties or seventies. That was not the only time I got totally
confused by the timeframe of the story as I was watching it. When the boys were
in the orphanage I thought the story was placed in the 1930s. Then I saw the
scene where Harry Potter and the girl were listening to a 1970 pop song, and I
started to wonder just when the hell it did take place. Even after I started
paying attention, the references didn't seem consistent. That's what happens
when you decide to mess around with a book's chronology in a film adaptation.
You lose track of the details. Even the great Kubrick got caught in this trap in
Eyes Wide Shut. In my opinion, the potential financial benefit to be derived
from moving a story into the lifespan of a vast number of filmgoers is not worth
losing the integrity of a project.
Well, unless it's really a big chunk of
money. If you can duplicate Titanic-sized grosses in Titanic 2, then
go for it. Take a pass on the boring old iceberg and have
the ship run into a spaceship full of vampires and mismatched buddy
cops who play by their own rules.
Anyway, December Boys is a small movie, even with the changes. One of
the four boys overhears an attractive and kind-hearted young couple debate
about adopting one of them rather than sending all four back to the orphanage
at the end of summer. The three younger boys then start modifying their unruly
behavior to conform to their concept of a properly desirable adoption
candidate. Meanwhile Harry Potter sneaks off to a cave and gets laid. End of story.
There's really nothing that can make a sweet, simple, sentimental, devoutly
religious, coming-of-age tale into a blockbuster, not even if the cast includes
Harry Potter, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Jessica Alba naked.
I don't agree with
the vitriolic review written by The Guardian's resident curmudgeon, Philip
Bradshaw, but it's worthwhile to cite his overview, because it includes
"There is no magic in Daniel Radcliffe's first non-Potter movie: it's
an incredible clunker: naff, sentimental, like an episode of the
treacly US TV show The Wonder Years, full of golden summery memories
and riddled with irritating, unconvincing child acting.
Radcliffe is the oldest of a group of boys at a 1960s Australian
orphanage who are allowed a wonderful holiday by the sea. There are
tears and laughter and for Radcliffe a coyly dramatised sexual
awakening with a local girl. Nothing about it rings true and the
touches of whimsy and fantasy are toe-curlingly awful."
Those are mighty harsh words for a film rated 7.0 at IMDb. That score
obviously indicates that there are plenty of people who relate to the script,
but I do
think Bradshaw was on the right track. I don't feel that the whole film rings
false, but parts of the screen adaptation did seem phony
to me as I watched it, especially the romance, the reunion, and the smallest
kid's ultimate refusal to be adopted and leave his mates. Unsurprisingly, I
discovered that those elements were all tacked on to the novel's original story
when the screenplay relocated it to the 1970 era. The young couple in the novel
never offered to adopt one of the boys. Noonan didn't grow up listening to CCR.
He and his friends were too young to have girlfriends.
recollection, in order to be worthwhile, has to be presented as it is remembered
by the author, and cannot be orchestrated by the marketing department. This sort
of sentimental first-person narrative has to be candid, personal and
close-to-the-bone to work perfectly. We will always forgive excessive,
good-hearted sentimentality if it is genuine, but will usually despise it if it is contrived.
Author Michael Noonan was born in the 1920s and was therefore the age of these
boys in the 1930s, where he had originally placed the story. It was a story he
must have known well. The
various changes which were necessary in order to move the story into the
1970s and add a romance did not leave the author's original voice sufficiently
intact to retain the degree of sincerity necessary to lift this kind of
nostalgic personal recollection to a level more memorable than the usual genre