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Ronald Hugh Morrieson


The legend of Ronald Hugh Morrieson is that of a man from the sticks who, despite writing funnier, darker and more original novels than his compatriots, got little praise for it at home. The legend is sealed by the author providing his own epitaph: "I hope I'm not another one of those poor buggers who get discovered when they're dead". 

Morrieson's books are coloured by his own experiences as a musician and drinker in hometown Hawera, plus references to movies and popular songs. "Profoundly susceptible" (Peter Simpson) to American film, Morrieson's four novels would each find their way onto the cinema screen in the years after his death. 

Born in 1922, Ronald Hugh Morrieson was an only child who spent his first three decades living with his mother and Aunt (his father died when Ronald was six). Removed from school after a prank went wrong, Morrieson's musical talent led him into dance bands; later the sound of a piano pulled him prematurely from university back to Hawera. 

At 37, Morrieson swapped playing for music teaching and writing. His first novel The Scarecrow was published by leading Australian company Angus and Robertson in 1963. Mixing comedy and horror, it was the gothic tale of a stranger who turns up in a Hawera-like town awash with pubescent teenagers.

Morrieson's comparison of the scarecrow to a horror movie zombie is just one of many cinematic references found in the author's work; biographer Julia Millen has also written of his "enduring fascination" with the "smart clothing, habitual drinking, smoking and gambling, and large touring cars" of Hollywood gangster films. 

Though The Scarecrow's sales were initially unremarkable, newspapers on both sides of the Tasman were generally impressed - The Dominion called it brilliant and highly original, while the Sydney Morning Herald praised how Morrieson had melded at least six genres together "to produce a brilliant, hallucinatory mixture distinctively his own". 

Morrieson's second novel Came a Hot Friday emerged in 1964. Set over one hectic weekend in a post-war New Zealand loaded with bookies, carousers, cars and conmen, Friday was met with reviews that ranged across the board, from enthused to offended.

The Listener praised its gusto, wit, headlong pace and sickening plausibility - yet preferred The Scarecrow and argued the new book was best carried in an anonymous cover so no one could see you reading it. While Australian literary journals were comparing Morrieson to a sex-obsessed Dickens, Landfall damned the author's first two books, by neglecting to review them. 

Writer Peter Simpson has argued that such indifference was due partly to Morrieson having deliberately moved in another direction from the dominant mode of local writing, which Simpson calls provincial realism.

Came a Hot Friday was the last book published before Morrieson died in 1972, after a bout of drinking. In that period the increasingly reclusive Morrieson worked on another two semi-autobiographical short stories, his novel Predicament, and his only contemporary work, Pallet on the Floor - variously described as a novel, a novella or unfinished.

Morrieson's novels - rich in dialogue, colourful characters, melodrama and period detail - would prove a magnet to filmmakers. 

The first to reach the screen was The Scarecrow in 1982, one of a number of literary adaptations to emerge during the Kiwi filmmaking renaissance. The book was adapted by Michael Heath and director Sam Pillsbury. For Pillsbury, Morrieson's book was about "my childhood and the country I live in: tedious, comic, bizarre; amazing, frightening, silly. I knew the places, the characters and the events, and I wanted to make them come alive."

Enlivened by inspired casting (the ensemble, which was headed by Hollywood legend John Carradine, later won an ensemble award in Italy), The Scarecrow was the first Kiwi film to win official selection at Cannes. Local writer Nicholas Reid  called the result "a unique example of cinematic Gothic". Guardian reviewer Derek Malcolm called it a genuine original. The American distributor decided to call it Klynham Summer. Pillsbury vigorously defended one local writer's accusations of sexism, counter-arguing that The Scarecrow's teen characters were "in the process of joining an adult world in which nearly every male is corrupt and degenerate". 

Five years before, filmmaker Lynton Butler had interviewed Morrieson's acquaintances for a proposed documentary (some interviews were used in Peter Simpson's book on Morrieson). By 1982 Butler's doco had morphed into drama, substituting the famous "one of those poor buggers" quote for the more polite title One of those Blighters. Bruno Lawrence channelled aspects of his own life to play Morrieson, while the writing credits included a rare screen credit for writer Vincent O'Sullivan (alongside director Butler, cast member Martyn Sanderson and ad man Bob Rising).

The One of those Blighters team also developed a movie from Morrieson's final novel Pallet on the Floor. Shot in Patea in 1983, and given fitful release three years later, this bleak death and freezing works tale had been rewritten to try to add a dose of comedy, and hopefully win the attention of Peter O'Toole. It wasn't to be; O'Toole's Kiwi debut (Dean Spanley) would be another 24 years away. Despite another solid ensemble cast, the film is most notable for the musical contributions of Bruno Lawrence and Jonathan Crayford. 

When Came a Hot Friday hit the screen in 1984, it scooped the local awards ceremony and became one of the most successful Kiwi films released to date. Author Nicholas Reid praised the way that director Ian Mune and co-writer Dean Parker had "managed to preserve the essentials of Morrieson's yarn whle extensively remoudling it". The Listener welcomed this "fresh, fun, exuberant, childlike hoot of a film"; Variety called it "a major advance in Kiwi comedy". 

Predicament - originally published in 1975 after multiple rewrites, rejections, and a posthumous burst of publishing interest - was the last Morrieson book to reach the screen. After the success of Came a Hot Friday, Mune spoke to Parker about getting the rights to the book, but nothing came of it. 

In later years Parker would write scripts for two different Predicament projects. The novel involves a lonely teenager caught up in blackmail, thanks to local bad influence Mervyn Toebeck. One-time co-producer Don Reynolds suggested turning Toebeck's character into a teenage girl. Parker ran with it, finding that "the script took off like a rocket". 

The project ultimately failed to win funding. In 2010, writer/director Jason Stutter, won over by Morrieson's "fantastic" dialogue and characters, emerged with his own adaptation; this time Australian comedian Heath Franklin and Jemaine Clement played the bad influences. 

Profile written and researched by Ian Pryor

Sources include
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
Patrick Evans, 'Morrieson, Ronald Hugh' (Profile). Original Source The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998). New Zealand Book Council Website. Accessed 27 September 2010
Julia Millen, 'Morrieson, James Ronald Hugh' (Profile) Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Website. Accessed 27 September 2010
Julia Millen, Ronald Hugh Morrieson - A Biography, (Auckland: David Ling Publishing,1996)
Roger Horrocks, New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Sam Pillsbury (Catalogue) 1984
Nicholas Reid, A Decade of New Zealand Film - Sleeping Dogs to Came a Hot Friday (Dunedin: James McIndoe, 1986)
Peter Simpson, New Zealand Writers and their Work - Ronald Hugh Morrieson (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1982)