Paul Genoni (left) and Tanya Dalziell sold the film rights to their book. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira.

First we take Hydra, then we take Hollywood

Monday, 22 July, 2019 - 15:18

Perth academics Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni have sold the film rights to their book Half the Perfect World, a biographical account of the time Australian literary couple George Johnston and Charmian Clift spent on the Greek island of Hydra.

To be produced by Cascade Films, the film will be directed by Nadia Tass (Malcolm, Fatal Honeymoon), with a screenplay adapted by Andrew Knight (Hacksaw Ridge, The Water Diviner).

The book covers nine years during which the likes of Leonard Cohen gathered against an Aegean backdrop to live a carefree, bohemian lifestyle, and Associate Professor Dalziell from The University of Western Australia’s School of Humanities told Business News it offered a fascinating insight into characters such as Johnston, Clift and Cohen.

“We had discussed half-jokingly that it would make for a good film,” Associate Professor Dalziell said.

“We could see why people were interested, but we were surprised there was cinematic interest.”

Associate Professor Genoni, from Curtin University’s School of Media, said the book was written over a five-year period, with the impetus coming after 1,500 photographs taken during Johnston and Clift’s time on the island were published online from Life magazine’s archive.

“We came across these photos taken by James Burke on Hydra in 1960, which was right at the point where Cohen had arrived and this colony was in its heyday,” he said.

“James Burke had been a friend of Johnston’s for some years and when he came to visit, he saw a story he could tell through his camera.

“We thought the photos were fantastic and that they gave great insight into the community, but we didn’t have any sense of how a book would emerge.

“From there though, we contacted Burke’s family, and he had an excellent archive of correspondence and photos he had taken.”

As associate professors Dalziell and Genoni looked over the photographs, they began the process of identifying and researching recurring faces so they could put together a story of the period.

“We conceived of a social history,” Associate Professor Genoni said.

“We wanted to know what it was like for these people to live in this environment at this point of time, as well as about the literature and music that emerged from the group.”

While Leonard Cohen remains the most recognisable name in the book, George Johnston is perhaps best remembered for his 1964 novel My Brother Jack, while Charmain Clift developed a national following through her weekly articles in The Sydney Morning Herald, published from her return to Australia in 1964 through to her death in 1969.

Over time, the couple gained further coverage as Cohen began touring Australia and his association with the two became better publicised.

Associate Professor Dalziell said it was for that reason that she didn’t want the book to rehash already well-established biographies.

“We were interested in thinking of this as a post-war story, thinking about modernity and that moment where the Aegean was opening up to tourism as we know it now,” she said.

Associate Professor Genoni agreed, and said what made the story compelling was its emphasis on the trope of the tragic literary couple.

“The fact they were prepared to give up good jobs in Sydney and London, throw it all up to go and live in almost poverty in the Greek islands has a mythical resonance,” he said.

“Everyone has a dream in the back of their mind about living that life in the Mediterranean in their 20s, and they actually went and did it.”