The Two Walkabouts

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20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection
Walkabout, directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1971

It is the fate of certain novels to become classics only after they become movies, and then to be eclipsed by the movies that made them classics. James Vance Marshall’s enchanting short novel Walkabout was published in Britain in 1959. Yet it was not until Nicolas Roeg turned it into a film twelve years later that the book acquired an aura of wide renown, despite the fact that relatively few people had read it.* This is an ironic enough fate for a work of literature, but in fact the movie is so strikingly different from Marshall’s affecting parable as to verge on travesty. It is a brilliant travesty, though, one that adds a curious urgency to the book’s very different, apparently old-fashioned pleasures, which, as it turns out, have a good deal to tell us now.

Roeg’s film begins with a by now familiar evocation of the rote complaints about modern Western civilization—the monotonous dress of office workers, the synchronized pace of commuters, etc.—until we see one such office worker, still wearing his gray suit, driving his young daughter and son into the Australian desert in a black Volkswagen. The girl is around fourteen, the boy eight or nine. The girl darts a disapproving glance at her father. We can tell that she doesn’t trust him, that she’s scared.

Now he stops the car. He orders the girl and boy to lay out a picnic, and while they are doing so, he grabs a revolver out of the glove compartment, steps out of the car, and starts shooting at them. The girl pulls her brother behind a large rock. The father continues to shoot, commanding his daughter in a weird, robotic voice to come to him and to “bring him with you!” “Can’t waste time!” he says, as he douses the Volkswagen with gasoline and sets it on fire. Stepping back, he puts the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. His daughter watches in horrified disbelief as he drops to the ground in a sitting position. As flames engulf the car, he falls onto his back.

It is a scene of stunning violence, and its repercussions are felt throughout the movie. Stranded in the desert, the children are on the verge of dying of thirst and hunger when they come upon an Aborigine boy, who will lead them back to civilization. To ensure the survival of all three of them, he kills various creatures with terrific violence. In the end, out of some mysterious depression that we are meant to associate with encroaching civilization itself—at one point, he encounters a white hunter shooting game with a high-power rifle—the boy, like the children’s father, commits suicide. The story, scripted by avant-garde playwright Edward Bond, the British heir to Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty,” is framed by violence and self-destruction.

In the film’s …

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  1. *

    This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to a new edition of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout, to be published by New York Review Books in January. The film version, also titled Walkabout, directed by Nicolas Roeg, is available on DVD from Criterion.