The December Boys


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The December Boys was originally a coming-of-age novel by Michael Noonan. It related the story of some orphans from the Australian outback who get a chance to take a dream vacation together at the seashore one summer in the 1930s. The filmmaking team apparently thought that premise was too non-commercial, so they updated the kids' story to about 1970 or 1971 (the oldest boy and his girlfriend listen to and sing along with "Who'll Stop The Rain?"), and they added a framing story that takes place in the present, allowing one of the boys to narrate the tale as a recollection, and creating an opportunity for the boys to have an emotional reunion as adults. That change was obviously meant to target the baby boomer market, and that ought to have provided a financial benefit since it would alter the pop culture backdrop to fit the memories of a very large group of prosperous people, almost all of whom are still alive to buy tickets. Very pragmatic. Plenty of potential ticket buyers remember childhood in the 1970s, but there are not many left alive who remember boyhood in the 1930s.

There was another key change from the book. The story had originally been about five pre-pubescent boys who were all about the same age. In order to add further spice to the film, the five were consolidated to four, and one of them was promoted to teenager status, thus creating the genre-obligatory feature of a doomed summer romance. As a kicker, Daniel Radcliffe, known to the world as Harry Potter, was cast as the older boy. The final product therefore lined up a well-established source novel, spiced it with baby boomer nostalgia, and added Harry Potter's first sex scenes. It seemed like a respectable formula for success.

All those changes did not create a box office winner. Major films appear in about 300 theaters in Australia, but The December Boys opened quietly in 72 theaters, barely making the top ten in its opening week, then dropping immediately off the leader board in the following week. The film grossed about a half-million Aussie bucks. There was no U.S. distributor who believed in the film, so it never reached more than 13 theaters in the States and grossed less than $50,000.

I tend to be too picky about faulty chronology and period details, but in this case I think it is worth noting that the scriptwriter just wasn't paying attention, and made the chronology downright confusing. The boys' holiday has to be taking place no earlier than 1970, so the three younger kids have to have been born around 1960. That would place them in their late 40s in their 2007 reunion, yet the actor hired to play Misty as an adult, and thus to narrate the story, is 67 years old! Poor ol' Misty lost twenty years of his life. The other actors are not famous enough to have published birth dates, but they also seem to be in their sixties or seventies. That was not the only time I got totally confused by the timeframe of the story as I was watching it. When the boys were in the orphanage I thought the story was placed in the 1930s. Then I saw the scene where Harry Potter and the girl were listening to a 1970 pop song, and I started to wonder just when the hell it did take place. Even after I started paying attention, the references didn't seem consistent. That's what happens when you decide to mess around with a book's chronology in a film adaptation. You lose track of the details. Even the great Kubrick got caught in this trap in Eyes Wide Shut. In my opinion, the potential financial benefit to be derived from moving a story into the lifespan of a vast number of filmgoers is not worth losing the integrity of a project.

Well, unless it's really a big chunk of money. If you can duplicate Titanic-sized grosses in Titanic 2, then go for it. Take a pass on the boring old iceberg and have the ship run into a spaceship full of vampires and mismatched buddy cops who play by their own rules.

Anyway, December Boys is a small movie, even with the changes. One of the four boys overhears an attractive and kind-hearted young couple debate about adopting one of them rather than sending all four back to the orphanage at the end of summer. The three younger boys then start modifying their unruly behavior to conform to their concept of a properly desirable adoption candidate. Meanwhile Harry Potter sneaks off to a cave and gets laid. End of story. There's really nothing that can make a sweet, simple, sentimental, devoutly religious, coming-of-age tale into a blockbuster, not even if the cast includes Harry Potter, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Jessica Alba naked.

I don't agree with the vitriolic review written by The Guardian's resident curmudgeon, Philip Bradshaw, but it's worthwhile to cite his overview, because it includes some insight:

"There is no magic in Daniel Radcliffe's first non-Potter movie: it's an incredible clunker: naff, sentimental, like an episode of the treacly US TV show The Wonder Years, full of golden summery memories and riddled with irritating, unconvincing child acting.

Radcliffe is the oldest of a group of boys at a 1960s Australian orphanage who are allowed a wonderful holiday by the sea. There are tears and laughter and for Radcliffe a coyly dramatised sexual awakening with a local girl. Nothing about it rings true and the touches of whimsy and fantasy are toe-curlingly awful."

Those are mighty harsh words for a film rated 7.0 at IMDb. That score obviously indicates that there are plenty of people who relate to the script, but I do think Bradshaw was on the right track. I don't feel that the whole film rings false, but parts of the screen adaptation did seem phony to me as I watched it, especially the romance, the reunion, and the smallest kid's ultimate refusal to be adopted and leave his mates. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that those elements were all tacked on to the novel's original story when the screenplay relocated it to the 1970 era. The young couple in the novel never offered to adopt one of the boys. Noonan didn't grow up listening to CCR. He and his friends were too young to have girlfriends.

A personal recollection, in order to be worthwhile, has to be presented as it is remembered by the author, and cannot be orchestrated by the marketing department. This sort of sentimental first-person narrative has to be candid, personal and close-to-the-bone to work perfectly. We will always forgive excessive, good-hearted sentimentality if it is genuine, but will usually despise it if it is contrived. Author Michael Noonan was born in the 1920s and was therefore the age of these boys in the 1930s, where he had originally placed the story. It was a story he must have known well. The various changes which were necessary in order to move the story into the 1970s and add a romance did not leave the author's original voice sufficiently intact to retain the degree of sincerity necessary to lift this kind of nostalgic personal recollection to a level more memorable than the usual genre formula.


* widescreen anamorphic

* details not yet available







The screenplay won the Australian Writer's Guild award for best adaptation.

1 The Guardian (of 5 stars)
2 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
42 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
56 (of 100)







7.0 IMDB summary (of 10)








Box Office Mojo. See the details in the third paragraph of the main commentary.








  • Victoria Hill did a topless bathing scene, but far from the camera and with the sun at her back.
  • Hill also did an undressing scene which was watched by the boys. One breast appeared in dark profile.








Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is an OK movie which might have been great if they had kept the marketing considerations away from the script.