Spud

2010-12-01 13:06
 
Spud
 
What it's about:

South Africa, 1990. Great political changes are coming to the country as Nelson Mandela is about to be released from prison. For John "Spud" Milton (played by Troye Sivan), however, 1990 will always be the year that he started an unforgettable four years at a private boarding school for boys.

What we thought:

John van de Ruit's Spud novels have deservedly been a tremendous success in this country so it was hardly surprising that we now have a feature film adaptation of the first novel. What was less of a given was whether or not the diary-entry format of the novel would lend itself to the big screen. More than that, even assuming that the film would work for South African audiences, it's still uncertain as to whether it would manage the crossover to international markets. The latter question remains, to date, unresolved but the makers of the film can take pride in knowing that, a few niggling problems aside, Spud more than delivers as a very good, satisfying piece of cinema.

The biggest hurdle facing screenwriter/director Donovan Marsh in adapting Spud for the big screen was clearly how to take a the very literary device of the diary entry and turn it into something that would work on the audio-visual medium of film. After all, more than anything else in the novels, it is the immensely likeable first-person voice of our young protagonist that makes them as charming and resonant as they are. Converting that to screen was never going to be easy. Even a certifiable classic like To Kill A Mockingbird lost something in translation as the film shifted the focus away from the novel's central character, 12-year-old Scout Finch, to her father, Atticus.

For Spud , Marsh turned to the always unreliable voice-over, a decision that, while understandable, is probably the film's biggest flaw. At the best of times, voice-overs are tricky to pull off, not only because they often disrupt the flow of the story being told but they all too often commit the cardinal sin of filmmaking: they tell, rather than show you what's happening on screen. It seems that Marsh realises this too as he leans less and less on Spud's narratiion as the film progresses. Puritanical fans of the books may protest but it would probably have been best had they left the diary out of the film entirely. Even having Spud turning to talk to the camera, High Fidelity style, would have been preferable.                  
 
It especially didn't need the narration because Spud actually manages to stay very faithful to the plot of the film, a plot that actually lends itself wonderfully to the big screen. Better still, Marsh takes full advantage of the medium he is working in by bringing the musical school play, on which much of the action hinges, to glorious life on screen in a way that never could be done in its original print form. The visual gags too, work even better here.

Most importantly - and this is the reason why Spud should work every bit as well for overseas audiences as it does for South Africans – Marsh and his fantastic cast capture all of the humour and melancholic teenage angst that made the novels such riveting works of fiction. Spud clearly follows in the respectable tradition of angst-filled teenage cinema that stretches all the way back to Rebel Without a Cause right up to the latest Harry Potter film. Indeed, Spud and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows would make for a superb, if lengthy double bill.

If all this isn't enough to ensure universal appeal, Spud can also sell itself on having the Living Legend that is John Cleese in his finest role in years. The rest of the cast may more than hold their own as the wonderfully weird collection of characters that inhabit Spud's crazy yet real world but, as opposed to the books where plenty of attention is placed on The Crazy Eight (Spud's eclectic assortment of dorm mates), the film's focus lies squarely on Spud and his eccentric, foul-mouthed English teacher The Guv. Cleese wasn't just a natural fit for The Guv as he brings all of the unmistakable dry but off-the-wall hilarity of his best creations to the fore but he also gives a hefty dramatic performance filled with pathos, subtlety and heart. And to think that they originally wanted Hugh Grant for the role!

Not to be outdone is SA-born Australian actor Troye Sivan, who is equally excellent as Spud. He seems rather uncomfortable with the voice-over, unsurprisingly, but he is a thoroughly charming presence as a kid who is by turns naïve, likeable and clearly in way, way over his head.          

I know that the accents might take some getting used to – hell, even as a South African, I am always thrown off by South African accents on screen – but Spud really deserves to take the world by storm.

A worthy, endlessly enjoyable adaptation of John van de Ruit's hugely popular novel, featuring John Cleese's finest performance in years.
Read more on:    john cleese  |  spud  |  review  |  movies

TinX87 2010/12/02 3:26 PM
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I'm going to see Spud after work tomorrow evening. I CANNOT WAIT!!!!! :) :) :)
dave 2010/12/03 5:01 AM
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i read all 3 books and LOVED them. of course movies never match books but for those who did not read the book 1st it will be enjoyable entertainment!! such a pity that sooo much blasphemy was needed. the story can hold its own without it!
Gillz 2010/12/06 5:51 PM
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Saw it last night after reading the books and following the progress of the filming through 2010. It didn't disappoint. Just an enjoyable film with some good performances. It has also set up some great characters to be developed in the hopefully imminent sequels. It is not overly parochial (like much of SA film is) and will hopefully do well overseas.
Crispy_Duck 2010/12/07 6:53 AM
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Being a fan of the books I thought I'd give the movie a try.... It turned out as expected with the big screen being unable to encapsulate the detailed and rich world that John van de Ruit created in the books. It was a thoroughly disappointing performance by John Cleese that continually felt forced and insincere. Troy Sivan's performance is cringeworthy and doesn't live up to the spirit of Spud. Instead of coming across as the highly intelligent, awkward and resilient character that Spud is in the book; he reduces Spud to a snivelling turncoat with the gumption of a gnat and the likeability of a rather damp lump of coal! It was incredibly disappointing and I give it a score of 3 out of 10 (it would be 2 out of 10, but I'm feeling sentimental). Overall it was highly disappointing and I'd like my money back. Definitely a wait for DVD or not at all movie.
Ilan Preskovsky 2010/12/07 9:55 PM
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Great review, Crispy_Duck! I don't agree at all (well, mostly) but great review.
Darr3n 2010/12/09 11:11 AM
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I read all three books too, possibly the funniest book I have ever read, definitely top two. I never once expected the movie to live up to the book, the movies never do, having said that, the movie was funny and entertaining! If there was one thing I would change, it would be the lack of focus on the Crazy Eight and their unique characters, they almost totally left out Vern (Rain Man), in my opinion he is responsible of half of the uncontrollable laughter that comes with the novel. still a great view and those of you who have not read the book, definitely read it, its not long and its really easy reading, the joy it brings is worth it! Just don't let the movie characters put a "cap" on the depth of the characters when you do read the book, drop any ideas about the characters you may have after watching the movie, before you read the book!
Nigel Sweet 2011/04/18 10:04 PM
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I have given the movie Spud a miss because of negative "local reviews". I'm so very glad I chose to over ride "local reviews". In my opinion Spud was a totally enthraling tale(I'm a minority of not read it yet)for a guy coping with extreme puberty challenges it made me smile clap and cry. In my humble opinion it was a well cast, well directed and well presented night of entertainment with no "for local add on". Great stuff.
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