It’s becoming a shameful reality of my life that nothing will move a book more quickly from the Plan To Read One Day list to the Read This RIGHT NOW! list than if said book is about to be made into a movie. In same cases, this doesn’t bother me, but a lot of the time, especially if there is a lot of hype around the story, I want to be in there first to know how faithful the film is to the book.
This is why I have just now turned to a novel that I’ve bought and owned for something like five years, always planning to read it one day. And even then, I was thinking about reading it for several years before that.
Anyway, enough of my slackness. On with the review.
Somebody once said that anybody who was a teenager in Australia in the 90s would be familiar with the Tomorrow series (this novel is the first in a series of 7). That’s not quite true (I missed out), but certainly, it was hard to ignore. In fact, the first time I heard about it was when a Christian writer in Australia was critiquing it, strongly recommending that Christian parents keep their teenagers away from it – or at least be aware of what’s in it.
I still remembered that article when I started to read this book, so I was rather curious to see whether it was As Bad As All That. Now that I’ve finished it, to be honest, I can understand the guy’s concerns. However, I also have to admit, that – despite being written for young people – it’s a remarkably well-written novel that would have a wide appeal and deserves to be remembered as one of Australia’s great novels.
So for those who’ve never heard of it, it’s set in the fictional town of Wirrawee, which I can’t remember if it’s mentioned where it is, but feels like it’s in rural Victoria in the south of Australia. While being fictional, Marsden’s description of small town life is spot on. What made me especially nostalgic while reading it, is that it’s set in the early 90s – in other words, just before the arrival of mobile phones and the internet. The fact that these technologies don’t exist give the story a simpler air, which is really refreshing. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-technology, but it was different back then. That was the day when you picked up the phone and rang someone if you wanted to talk to them…)
The story is narrated by a girl named Ellie, and tells of a time when her and her friends decided to go away camping for a week in the summer time (just after Christmas). The friends have great fun hanging out for several days, but when they head back to town, they discover that a foreign army (you’re never told which country they are from) has invaded their town, cut the phone lines and rounded up everyone as captives. So from then on, the teenagers are forced to be guerrillas, hiding out and fighting for their freedom.
This is a story that could easily have become a clichéd action story. As it is, for those who just want a bit of gung-ho action, there’s plenty of car chases, near-escapes, explosions. But what makes it stand out is Ellie’s first-person narration. In a very clever move, Marsden’s tale unfolds with all the excitement you want – but none of the mindlessness that could easily creep into a story – and this is largely due to Ellie’s thought life. As well as giving a very realistic portrayal of the sheer terror of coming back and finding that life as you know it has completely disappeared, Ellie is always weighing through the moral and philosophical elements of what she is doing. (This is when she’s not trying to work through her troubled love-life, where she finds herself caught between two boys, and not sure which one she likes.)
What does it mean to take a life? Is it justified in war? It’s certainly not pleasant. In the end, it is these very human thoughts that elevate this story to greatness.
However, it is also this element that makes the story problematic. Marsden wants to use this as an excuse to get us to buy into a very post-modern concept that, in a war, nobody’s wrong. So Ellie and her friends might be fighting for their freedom, but the other side might be fighting for something as well. While I’m all in favour of having an open-minded approach to war where we understand the other side, Marsden is taking it a step further to say that nobody’s wrong.
In a striking sequence, Ellie watches a grasshopper eat a mosquito. She decides that from the mosquito’s point of view, the grasshopper’s action was evil. However, hasn’t she killed mosquitoes as well? So she concludes that good and evil are merely a human invention. In the end, about the only thing she’s certain about is that she loves her friends and wants them to be safe.
So back to where I started – I can understand why Christian parents might be worried about their kids reading this story. Certainly, the philosophical side of things is problematic – but I think the issues raised are great things to discuss. In fact, given that nearly all major conflicts that we see reported in the media are reported in mostly black and white, good vs bad terms – I think it’s a good idea to step back and consider the bigger picture of war.
The other issue would have been the language and sexuality of the teenagers, which is certainly noticeable, but quite mild compared to how teenagers are portrayed today. Also, none of it has the the gratuitousness of modern storytelling for teenagers.
In conclusion, if the movie manages to be remotely faithful to this story, it’s going to be one of the most exciting contemporary war stories in a long while. How much of the philosophy and strong characterisation of the story makes it into the film will be interesting to see. And, certainly, I’m keen to read the other six books and see how everything turns out.
4 out of 5.