May 22, 2011

"The willows become agitated": Angela Carter and The Christchurch Murder

“Take a point in time where Pauline and Juliet meet each other and another at the point of the murder, which is about two years, and trace the key events that happened between them, and there’s a three-act structure already there.”
-- Peter Jackson in “NZFX: The Films of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh”, by Jim and Mary Barr, Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (VUP, 1996).

“The story of Heavenly Creatures is a magnificent one. It required no additional fictionalising in terms of the drama, its inherent tragedy or the extraordinariness of the friendship between those two young women. It was all there.”
-- Fran Walsh in “NZFX: The Films of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh”, by Jim and Mary Barr.

Film history is littered with those what-ifs, the great unmade films. Perhaps the greatest film never made was Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, or maybe Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness, although a fanbase makes a case for Vincent Ward’s version of Alien3, which is really in a different category – the alternate version of an existing film. That’s what Angela Carter’s unmade The Christchurch Murder screenplay is – an alternate Heavenly Creatures.
And it wasn’t the only one. In his unauthorised Jackson biography, Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings (Random House, 2003), former Evening Post film critic Ian Pryor describes a kind of screenplay arms race in the late 1980s and early 90s as competing Parker-Hulme projects were shopped around. The best-known alternate version is Michelanne Forster’s stage play Daughters of Heaven, which premiered in Christchurch in 1991, before shooting even started on Heavenly Creatures, was published in 1992 and still gets performed occasionally. 
But before that, Australian writer Louis Nowra wrote a version called Fallen Angels, completing it in 1987 – research took him to Christchurch and those with access to the National Library of Australia could seek it there. Nowra called the girls Juliet and Lisa and his script ended, so Pryor reports, with the girls in different jail cells, communicating via their imaginary/perhaps schizophrenic “fourth world”. Nice touch. 
In the same year, British writer Angela Carter was commissioned to write a Parker-Hulme script. It was completed in 1988 and titled The Christchurch Murder. A little later, in the US, screenplay writer Wayne McDaniel wrote a version called Sugar and Spice that was said to have attracted the interest of Dustin Hoffman’s production company, with Hoffman even rumoured to have considered playing the chief prosecutor. 
In 1992, Michelanne Forster submitted a TV script based on Daughters of Heaven to TVNZ. Between 1989 and 1992, Fiona Samuel also wrote a Parker-Hulme script, this time called The Pursuit of Happiness, with producer Bridget Ikin (Crush, An Angel at My Table) and then unknown director Niki Caro attached, but Jackson and Walsh’s Heavenly Creatures trumped them all and was the one anointed with Film Commission backing. And the rest is history.
But the unmade versions? While Nowra’s version is stashed in an Australian archive, Angela Carter’s The Christchurch Murder is more easily accessed; it was published in the posthumous collection of radio plays and scripts, The Curious Room (Chatto & Windus, 1996). Production notes in the book tell us that Andrew Brown of Euston Films commissioned the screenplay, but was unable to find a production company to make it. In his account, Pryor suggests that Auckland’s South Pacific Pictures had a hand in developing it with Euston but that Carter’s script “failed to satisfy all parties”. 
So much for the business side, what about the art? Part of the reason this fascinates us is the possibilities of what a writer as brilliant as Carter would bring to it, knowing that she had both an original approach to fairy tales and mythologised stories – especially as metaphors for female experience – and knowing too that she had some appreciation of Hollywood’s dream factory, the lure of its saints, sirens and sinners. Both have some bearing on this story of teen-girl delusion and matricide (this Canterbury University thesis makes interesting connections between this Carter assignment and her famous book The Sadeian Woman). Of course, some things have to be present in any version of the Parker-Hulme story: the pair meeting at a Christchurch girls’ school; the intense and obsessive friendship with its fantasies of escaping to Hollywood and – emphasised by Jackson and Walsh in particular – a medieval kingdom of their own devising; finally, the murder of a mother in a park in the hills. But other elements of the story will appear and disappear depending on the version.
Carter called her girls Nerissa Locke (Juliet Hulme) and Lena Ball (Pauline Parker). At one point, Nerissa explains that her name comes from Shakespeare – but The Merchant of Venice not Romeo and Juliet. The descriptions still match: Nerissa is blonde and conventionally pretty; Lena is small and dark and walks with a limp (as in Heavenly Creatures, the girls bond over their histories of illness). But Lena is not unattractive: Carter describes her at one point as looking like “a desperately sexy witch”. 
In its early pages, The Christchurch Murder even gives us the thrill of a Heavenly Creatures sequel, picking up where Jackson and Walsh left off. Their version ended on the moment of the murder, with the bloody shock of it jolting both the girls and the audience out of an increasingly feverish shared fantasy. They’re screaming, they’re covered in blood. Yet, one of the fascinating and awful things about the real story is that the girls were reported to have been in high spirits after the murder, when they were back at the Hulmes’ Ilam Homestead. In taking us into the immediate aftermath of the murder, Carter gives us some of that. 
This is how it goes. In Victoria Park, there is birdsong and the constant sound of an axeman chopping wood. The girls rush into the tearoom, claiming that Lena’s mother has had a fall (“She cracked her head wide open”). Nerissa asks the proprietor of the tearoom to ring her father; importantly, it is actually her mother’s too-smooth boyfriend, Douggie Quinn (played by Peter Elliott as Bill Perry in Heavenly Creatures) who picks them up and drives them back through a recognisably 1950s Christchurch: “the long, straight road that leads from the Cashmere Hills into Christchurch”, past the Kiwi Bacon factory and onto Ilam Homestead, which “looms out of its lush garden like the witch’s house in ‘Hansel and Gretel’”. And if you’re counting witch references, it is only a page earlier that Quinn says to the girls, “Two hundred years ago, they would have burned you both for witches”. There is also a sense of complicity in this version: after the murder, Quinn helps the girls to burn their bloody clothes and neither Quinn nor Nerissa’s mother Mary seem too surprised at what happened. 
On the night of the murder, the girls go back to Ilam Homestead, sleep in the same bed and wake in the morning when a police car arrives (“We must stick to the script whatever happens!”). Then, we flash back to Nerissa’s first day at school in Christchurch and move forward, chronologically, through the friendship towards the murder. 
What else differs about the Carter version? For some characters at least, there is an idea of Christchurch as a provincial imitation, with desperate aspirations towards Englishness – “all the respectable citizens of Toy Town,” as Nerissa’s mother says. But at the same time, she finds it hard to believe that her daughter could be at the same school as the daughter of a fishmonger (“Christ. What an egalitarian place New Zealand is”).
There is also more family background – context, if you like. There is more about the affair between Walter/Bill/Dougie and Hilda/Mary and its effect on Juliet/Nerissa. More about the then-shocking fact that Pauline/Lena’s parents weren’t married. And there is the inclusion of Pauline/Lena’s institutionalised Downs Syndrome sibling (a younger brother in Carter’s screenplay, a younger sister in reality). Jackson has said that he steered clear of including this character as it seemed too “invasive”, but you can also argue that it compounds the tragedy of Honora and the Parker family to include him/her in the story. Lena sees her brother as something to be ashamed of, and part of the reason she was keen to join another family (“He’s the Monster of Glamis. He’s the dark secret of the Ball family. Mum must have done something dreadful to be saddled with him.”) All in all, family dynamics – or, more precisely, strained relations between mothers and daughters -- are more rounded and less cartoonish in the Carter version. 
There are other powerful moments in the Carter screenplay. To raise money for their trip to Hollywood, Lena works as a prostitute on the banks of the Avon (“The willows become agitated. There is the sound of the man's harsh breathing, a whimper from Lena, the gurgle of the river”), based on an idea in Pauline’s diary. Their interest in Harry Lime – Orson Welles in The Third Man – is used more effectively here, to comment on their own amorality and nihilism (Nerissa: “I really liked Harry Lime. I liked his sense of innate superiority”) and Harry Lime’s big speech about the Borgias is even referred to when the girls plot to take their mother up to Cashmere (“So high up that the people look like ants”). 
Even Christchurch’s A and P Show makes an appearance (Lena: “Hicktown in carnival mood”) with a very Carter-esque touch thrown in – a freak show tent, complete with alligator boy -- and a Third Man-ish Ferris Wheel. Overall, the Hollywood infatuation is stronger in the Carter version – references to the movie theatres and posters in Cathedral Square in the 1950s – but, crucially, there are no references at all to the part of the story that so fascinated Jackson: the girls’ imaginary medieval world of kings, queens and monsters. Not one reference. With that relatively childish element absent from the Carter screenplay, and obsession with movie star glamour emphasised, the girls seem colder, more calculating and less sympathetic – although, that might have become more complicated if actresses as good as Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet had been cast.
Finally, descriptions of Christchurch in the published Angela Carter screenplay suggest that she came here at some point. We know that she was in Wellington in 1990 for Wellington’s Writers and Readers Week but was there an earlier visit? Sadly, Carter didn’t live to see the Jackson/Walsh version of the story on screen – she died of lung cancer in 1992, aged 51.

PICTURE: Doublet (after Heavenly Creatures), by Ann Shelton (2001). More here, via the Christchurch Art Gallery.