Race, Sex and ‘Round The Twist’: A Chat With Tomorrow When The War Began’s Molly Daniels
Why is it that teenagers are so obsessed with stories about war?
John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The War Began, a story about Australian teenagers thriving in dystopian wartime, came out in 1993. It predates Katniss entering the Hunger Games, Divergent’s Tris fighting for her freedom and Thomas trying to figure out why he has to run through a goddamn maze.
Stories about young people negotiating dangerous conflicts while churning through regular adolescent drama, is the lifeblood of young adult fiction (plus it makes potentially boring scenarios much more interesting — you think Bella would have been into Edward if he wasn’t a murderous vampire?). Perhaps this is the reason why this book, depicting an imagined invasion of Australia in which a group of teens become a motley crew of vigilantes, has stuck around for so long.
In 2010, Tomorrow When The War Began was made into a successful film starring Caitlin Stasey, but now the story has been adapted into a more fleshed-out six-part series on ABC3. In this version, the relationship drama is turned up, the “enemies” of Australia’s sovereignty are actually given speaking parts, and the parents of the teens (including Deborah Mailman and Sibylla Budd) have an equally important part to play.
We spoke to Molly Daniels, who plays leader of the pack Ellie, about why teenagers are so obsessed with stories about war, and how it feels when the bully from Round the Twist ends up playing your dad.
Junkee: Have you read all the books? It’s okay to say no, I was just super obsessed when I was a pre-teen.
MD: I was too! I read the whole series when I was like 10 or 11. But re-reading them now, especially in the second one, there’s a lot of sexual stuff and I was like, ‘Oh no, what was I doing when I was 10!’
Yeah, I think those bits just didn’t really register with me either… Why do you think this story has stuck around for so long? It’s kind of crazy that it has inspired both a film and a TV series.
Yeah, because it’s quite dark. I think it’s the way that all the characters are so strong, different and flawed, I think that’s what people connect with. It’s a book about war but it’s also about that sense of needing to protect each other. And I guess, it could happen. What would you do if war did break out? It’s very Australian and I think it hits home.
It didn’t trivialise teenagers which is something I really liked too. It trusted that they could actually survive those circumstances.
Absolutely. And it never let them off the hook for bad behaviour, but it redeemed them too. Everybody is flawed and annoys each other and makes mistakes, but they’re all good people.
Have you seen the film? Was it kind of strange to see someone else playing Ellie? Did it alter your performance at all?
I didn’t see it before we started filming the TV series, but I have seen it now. After we were done shooting I could watch and go, “Okay, that’s everybody’s interpretation of their own character”. But if I’d done that before I’d played that part I would have been like, “Urgh! Never gonna be as good as that, oh no!”
Ellie is a very beloved character, partly because she’s a rare case of a teenage girl being celebrated for being bossy and a natural leader — since The Hunger Games’ Katniss we seem to be getting more characters like that in YA fiction, but there’s still not a huge amount. Why do you think that is?
I think people have this inherent feeling that boys won’t like [film or TV] that stars a female lead. That because we’re used to seeing male protagonists all the time — female protagonists wouldn’t be accepted in the same way. But I think things like The Hunger Games and the Divergent series, are a pretty big indicator that no-one cares [laughs].
Boys are not not going to watch a film because a girl is the lead; they’re going to watch a film because it’s a good film. I hope that’s something that becomes less of an issue. Definitely when the books first came out, I remember — being super bossy and controlling — going “Hey! Here’s a girl like me!”
It’s kind of annoying that these complex female characters in teen pop culture mostly exist in an alternate reality.
Yeah! Because they’re real!
War and dystopian futures are such potent tropes in YA fiction and movies. Why do you think that is? Why do teenagers really connect to these kinds of stories?
You know, heightened states bring out the best and worst in people. So I guess that’s an exciting thing to watch, and I guess it’s exciting to put yourself into that and go, ‘What would I do?’ I would think about that with The Hunger Games, like if my sister got picked would I take her place in the Hunger Games? I would, I would! I’m not a horrible person. [laughs]
I think that it’s a really appropriate time for this TV series to be coming out because it’s something that is so popular right now — that dystopian, the world-is-in-a-critical state kind of thing.
Well often in YA we see these teenage girls adapting and having total agency, which we don’t always see in teen media.
Yeah, I think that’s really true. Maybe the next step will just be like, a normal office with a flawed female lead!
Just everyday equality!
This series is super colloquial, which is nice. Were there any Australian shows you watched when you were younger like, “Man I wish I was on that?” I love that there’s several actors from Secret Life of Us as parents in this.
Isn’t that the best? Brendan [Maher], our director, did Secret Life of Us so it was like a fun reunion for them and I was just watching from the sidelines in awe. Look, all I can remember really is Round the Twist. Richard Young, who plays my dad, used to be on that and when I made that connection, I was on the table with him at lunch one day and I actually nearly cried like, “You were Gribble!” [laughs]
Oh my god!
I know! I since have gone back and watched all of Round the Twist because it’s on Netflix now, and I’m like “Oh my god, it’s my dad!” I think one of the wonderful things about this series is that they’ve made it appeal to other age groups, so hopefully it’ll be able to cement itself in the new wave of Australian television. That would be amazing.
Just before the film version came out, there was a bit of uneasiness about what nationality the invaders of Australia would be depicted as. In the TV series this has resulted in the invaders being called the “Asian Coalition” to try to avoid any specificity, but that might even be too specific for some people. Were you at all wary of this?
I definitely was. I think because we don’t attach one single nationality to it… one thing I thought about, is that my little sister who’s 13, has a lot of guy friends who love talking about North Korea. I went: “I think there will be kids who think we’re talking about North Korea”. I know [John Marsden] does a really good job of skirting around it in the books, but I think at the end of the day for a TV series that’s six hours long, we kind of had to do that. I don’t think we’re ever setting out to label anything or attack anyone, I think it’s just part of the way the story is being told.
I think, even the way it’s discussed in the TV show, it’s not like anybody is a full villain. Robyn, who is the moral compass of the groups, says: “They have their reasons for invading. They didn’t have a choice to come here”. I don’t think that nationality is informing the way that they behave. That’s why I think that James Stewart [who plays an army colonel] is such a phenomenal character.
In this version of the story there’s kind of a love triangle between Robyn, Lee and Ellie which is intriguing. Is this series going to be like Heartbreak High in wartime, because I’m all in on that.
[laughs] Given that they’re at war, there is a crazy amount of relationship drama. I was super excited because in the books, Robyn and Lee was never a story. It’s really fun and the three of us had this great chemistry that made for a good fiery relationship. It gets intense. That’s what I love about the series, one minute we’re all making bombs and the next second we’re fighting over gets to date Lee.
Tomorrow When The War Began is on ABC3 at 7.30pm Saturdays. You can watch the first episode here.