Excerpt from the NFSA's Oral History interview with writer Eleanor Witcombe. She was interviewed by Stuart Glover on 18 March 1998.
NFSA Title: 367326
Photo: Eleanor Witcombe in The Australian Women's Weekly, 2 September 1950; via Trove: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/4308608
SG what is there about adaptation that makes it different? Why is it that some people are good or bad at it?
EW I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. It’s –er- let me think- Dick, y’know, they reckon that he could adapt War and Peace in five minutes! Laughs So in a way it has to do with –er- finding the nitty-gritty and this is one thing that was extremely difficult in both films that I did, was finding the nitty-gritty. Er- you find it and then you –er- wind what you can around it, to come out to where you think the book wanted to go, if that makes sense.
Casey Robinson said to me once, he said, “You should never embark on a screenplay until you can say exactly where you’re going in a sentence- what it’s about in a sentence.” And so you’ve got to have a goal. That’s where you’re going. This book –er- for instance- Red Heat- Norman Lindsay, Red Heat is about escape. Now you put escape up there, right? Now, the first episode is about the old thing- the old thing about three acts- three episodes, the first one is how do I get out of this mess? Er- Now I’ve made a worse mess of it, here I clear it up, type of thing, y’know.
And I think it’s- it’s simply to an extent- and this is only talking technically and without any artistic thing about it- technically, -er- an ability perhaps to see the wood in spite of the trees. In a matter of fact, I’ve been doing this a lot for people, for other people writing scripts and things, and saying, “Right, what are we trying to say here?
Is that necessary? It’s not. it’s another side issue.” Once you’ve got the wood, then you can put in the details, y’know. In a narrative piece of work where the dramatic climax is, because it just goes on like this.
But it’s not impossible, and –er- sometimes you –er- you have to stress this and not stressing that, y’know. Stressing that, but always, always, always you come back to make it –er- character driven. this is a story about this woman- this is a story about this man. this is a story about what happens to these people. Pshew- down, y’know.
It’s- adapting is very much a technical thing, but then again it’s not a technique you know, it’s a technique I think you have to be born with. Like you say some people are born with a dramatic sense, and some people aren’t. I think Leslie Reese told me that. He said you either have it or you haven’t. got it, and it’s no use trying to get it if you haven’t got it. You may go in another direction.
SG You’ve had a good career. Have you enjoyed it?
EW No I’m disappointed in myself. Because I don’t think I’ve – I haven’t adapted myself well. Laughs I haven’t found my centre enough and quickly and solidly and surely enough, to be able to go for that centre, y’know? I haven’t looked at me like a book and said, “That is what this book is about, and that is where the centre is.”
SG Are you going to do that?
EW Well if not in the incarnation, then in the next.