Growing up in Brisbane in the late 1980s, I didn’t see a lot of my home city on screen.

There were plenty of stories set in the Outback, suburban Sydney and Melbourne, inner-city Sydney and Melbourne, coastal Sydney and Melbourne, and small towns outside Sydney and Melbourne – you get the idea – but not so much set in our river city.

There was the 1988 Mission Impossible reboot, but even that was stolen from us by the Victorians for season two.

You couldn’t read many novels about Brisbane either, or at least so it seemed to me. Like many others I had David Malouf’s Johnno shoved down my throat in English class (I’m sure it’s good, but nothing killed my enthusiasm for a novel quicker than it being an assigned text), but that was written in the 1970s.

Criena Rohan’s blindingly brilliant The Delinquents – don’t let the film put you off – came out in the 1960s. Thea Astley wasn’t even on my radar.

That all changed in the 1990s with the release of three iconic books that revolutionised perceptions of Brisbane. They were relevant, fun, accessible and genuinely recommended among friends, who would lend, borrow or steal dog-eared copies.

They were truly local, accompanied by inevitable Brisbane scuttlebutt at the R.E. (Royal Exchange) beer garden: “Oh yeah, my brother, cousin, aunt knows that author and told me that bit in the book was based on XYZ.”

The books I am referring to make up Brisbane’s Holy Trinity of Gen X Lit: Andrew McGahan’s Praise, Nick Earl’s Zigzag Street and John Birmingham’s He Died With a Felafel in His Hand.

All three books explored contemporary Brisbane life, but through different lenses.

Praise was your grungy, I’m gonna-drink-smoke-and-root-a-lot-because-I’m-lost kind of book from the School of Charles Bukowski.

Zigzag Street was more of a sad-boy novel, eagerly related to by whiney lawyers such as, well, me, who also hated their job, went to the Underground night club and got drive-through at Taringa Hungry Jacks.

He Died With a Felafel in His Hand was a knockabout comedy, but with serious bits that people always forget are in there, and was required reading for anyone who lived in a share house or who just wanted to read a funny book.

I fully acknowledge they were all authored by white cisgender Gen X males, which is what I was and am, and that there were and are many other types of stories out there. But it was this trio that had the massive impact on me and friends.

Boomers no doubt felt the same way about Hugh Lunn, author of a number of books including the bestseller Over the Top With Jim. (Just to be clear, I have never met Birmingham, McGahan or Earls, although I once saw Helen Demidenko at a toga party in the late ‘90s.)

All three novels sold well and were adapted into other formats. Praise became an acclaimed movie, shot in Sydney (boo!) though still set in Brisbane (yay!).

Felafel was turned into a stage play that totally got the spirit of the book. It ran for years and was then adapted into a film that totally missed the spirit of the book.

Zigzag Street was turned into a popular stage play and people were, and are, forever talking about adapting it into a film.

All successful adaptations of these books, like adaptations everywhere, including Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, have the same thing in common: they capture the DNA of the source material.

Yes, changes are always made, they have to be made, but what has to be kept is the spirit of the piece. Now, sometimes adaptors don’t get the DNA, either through incompetence or misunderstanding or miscasting or because they secretly just want to hijack a pre-existing piece of IP to tell their own story.

But when they do “get it”, adaptations are a wonderfully effective way to make broad-appeal art, because it means the makers can use something that’s already been road-tested and has a built-in fan base.

Sometimes you can even be bolder with adaptations than originals because the money people are more confident in the material. For example, the Barbie movie. And adaptations can act as a check against self-indulgence from creators who might otherwise want to dramatise their own navels.

It’s important that Brisbane novels are written, read and adapted – just as it’s important that novels from all around Australia, not just Sydney and Melbourne, are written, read and adapted.

As Noosarian David Williamson once wrote in his play (and film) Emerald City: “We need to know that we are important enough to have fictions written about us, or we will always feel that real life happens somewhere else and is spoken in accents other than our own.”

The more cultural specificity a work has the greater the odds it will ring true and thus the better chance it will have universal appeal. I admit sometimes that it does help if you throw a murder investigation in there as a basic structure.

That 1990s trilogy of Brisbane books completely changed how I looked at my own city, just as Boy Swallows Universe did. Hopefully the success of Universe on Netflix will pave the way for more screen adaptations of Bris-lit, because we’ve got a lot more to share.

Stephen Vagg is a Brisbane writer who is also a script editor for Neighbours

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