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Volume 10, No. 6 - September 2000  
Table of contents for this issue
The Purloined Piano?

IN 1993, JANE CAMPION'S STRANGE AND mesmerizing film The Piano grossed over $100 million at the box office, catapulting the New Zealander's work from the art house to the cineplex and securing her status as a major director. Starring a stoic Holly Hunter, a hunky Harvey Keitel, and the Oscar-winning eleven-year-old Anna Paquin, The Piano also showcased Campion's talent as a writer: That year she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

But should she have? The fine print in the recently published Oxford Companion to Australian Film suggests otherwise. In its entry for The Piano, the volume notes that the film was in fact "based on the novel, The Story of a New Zealand River, by Jane Mander," though the book was "uncredited." It's a bold and controversial charge, and one that has stirred up a considerable storm Down Under.

The Oxford Companion's allegation may well have gone unnoticed were it not for an alert reader who sent a copy of the Piano entry to Robert Macklin, an associate editor at the Canberra Times. In late March, Macklin published the first in a series of articles about Campion's apparent failure to give proper credit where it was due. Macklin pointed out that Jane Mander's 1920 novel and Campion's screenplay both tell the story of a young European woman who arrives on the wild New Zealand shore with a lively, fatherless daughter and a piano. In both stories, the woman falls in love with her husband's associate and eventually leaves a logging camp to live with him in the city.

Of course, there are substantial differences between the novel and the movie. The Maori natives in Campion's film do not appear in Mander's book. Campion also invented the memorable bargain that Ada (Hunter) strikes with Baines (Keitel): Ada earns her piano back from Baines key by key in exchange for letting him "do things" with her. Moreover, the brutal scene in which Ada's husband chops off her finger is Campion's alone. With such discrepancies in mind, Macklin poses a question: Does the "screenplay of The Piano contain sufficient elements from the book that it was clearly based upon it?"

Local pundits have weighed in on both sides. Rae McGregor, Mander's biographer, told the New Zealand Herald, "I've always maintained that it would be a huge coincidence if the film wasn't based on the novel." But the film critic Sam Edwards, writing in the Waikato Times, found the connections between the two works "tenuous in the extreme." Ann Hardy, a screen studies lecturer at the University of Waikato, goes further. "I think that The Story of a New Zealand River was just one of a number of stimuli which informed The Piano." She adds, "I was also somewhat dismayed at the gleeful energy which people in this part of the world were prepared to deploy in order to belittle Jane Campion's achievements."

The most striking response, however, has come from Helen Martin, the co-author of New Zealand Film, 1912-1996 (also published by Oxford). She told the New Zealand Herald that Campion and her producer, Jan Chapman, had used "bully tactics" earlier in the decade to keep her from publishing her own claims about Campion's use of Mander's book. Martin wanted permission to illustrate her discussion of The Piano with stills from the film, and she contends that the request was denied until she removed the statement that the film was based on the novel. "I believe justice will win out," she told the newspaper. "It wasn't just alleged in the Oxford Companion to Australian Film -- they put it in as a fact and in print."

Although Campion readily concedes a longtime familiarity with the novel, she has never acknowledged any debt to The Story of a New Zealand River. At the time of The Piano's release, she cited Wuthering Heights and The African Queen as her main sources of inspiration for the film.

After Macklin's article appeared, Campion fought back. Her agent demanded an apology and correction from both Oxford University Press (OUP) and the Canberra Times, calling the accusations incorrect and defamatory. Then, on April 8, the Wellington Dominion published a letter from Campion in which she explained how she secured copyright for her screenplay. Campion noted that before The Piano was released, "the legal agent of the owner of copyright in the Mander book confirmed in writing that it had no claims of any kind in connection with the book or [my] screenplay or film." She concluded: "The debate about the copying of Jane Mander's book hits a reef when it comes up against fact and copyright law."

None of this stopped Macklin from burrowing further into the matter. In an April follow-up article, he revealed a 1985 letter from Campion to John Maynard and Brigid Ikin, who held the film rights to Mander's novel and had contacted Campion about directing a film version of it. In the letter, Campion wrote of her screenplay in progress: "The first thing I ended up working on was 'The Piano Lesson,' my inspiration from Jane Mander's melodrama, and you will see there is precious little of the original, but the inspiration was still there." Macklin also related an interview he'd conducted with the New Zealand literary agent Ray Richards, who had represented the Mander estate in its dealings with Campion at the time she was trying to secure copyright. According to Richards, the estate had hoped to issue a new edition of Mander's novel to coincide with the release of Maynard and Ikin's proposed movie. But because of thematic similarities between The Story of a New Zealand River and The Piano, Maynard and Ikin canceled their project. Richards claims that prior to The Piano's release, Campion agreed to pay the estate a N.Z.$2,000 "compensation" fee (a little over U.S.$900) for its "lost opportunity" to reissue the book.

As of this writing, the Canberra Times has declined to retract or correct its claims. "Simply, we stand by our story," says a confident Macklin. OUP-Australia, for its part, has chosen to meet Campion's demands. In a May 15 letter to Jane Campion sent in the care of her lawyer, Oxford Managing Director Marek J. Palka gave Campion exactly what she wanted -- an apology and a promise that the companion's next edition "will be amended to omit the statement." Palka wrote that "Oxford University Press and Mr. McFarlane [the companion's editor] accept the claim by Jane Campion that the film was not based on, adapted from, or a reproduction of the novel....The entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Film was provided by an external researcher and was published by OUP in good faith."

While some feel that Campion should return her Oscar, Macklin isn't taking on that crusade. "In a sense, there's nothing more to be said from my point of view -- the story has been told, the case made," he says. And perhaps the novel's failure to become a film in its own right is for the better. It is rumored that Jane Mander, who died in 1949, disliked the movies. Still, her great-niece speculates angrily on her behalf: "If Aunt Jane had been alive today, she would have kneecapped Jane Campion."

Hillary Frey is managing editor of Lingua Franca


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