When will we see the first coronavirus novel, film or TV series?

Article by Melanie Kembrey /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
April 11, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

In the musical number Bad Signal Fugue, an increasingly frustrated chorus sings the refrain: “Can you hear me now? Wait, wait, wait, I’m going to move to another room.”

Well before the coronavirus left our video calls in a state of perpetual buffering, composer and playwright Yve Blake wrote a musical about a pandemic, caused by drug-resistant tuberculosis, that forced people into isolation.

The fortuitous project was shelved but Blake’s stash of songs about the awkwardness of cybersex, boredom and germaphobia have never felt more prescient.

So how long will it be until we’re infected by the contagious tunes of Corona, The Musical or find ourselves turning the pages of the bestselling Love in the Time of Corona? Will a coronavirus cluster soon divide the good friends of Ramsay Street, or could legal eagle Janet King take on the case of a runner who stopped to eat a kebab in the face of social-distancing laws?

Lauren Rosewarne, a pop culture expert at the University of Melbourne, has already seen one casting call for an isolation-themed reality TV show. But she doesn’t expect a deluge of direct representations.

“Having not only, hopefully, lived through it and experienced it endlessly while cooped up self-isolating, I imagine our appetites for more corona content will be limited,” she says.

“Instead, I imagine that we’ll see the mood of coronavirus – for example hygiene paranoia, isolation, working from home and sustaining relationships in such strange circumstances – to feature prominently in our pop culture going forward, rather than the virus itself.”

Catherine Milne, the head of fiction at HarperCollins, thinks the first Australian coronavirus novel is probably three to five years away, saying writers will require time and space to process the pandemic and the best fiction to emerge will explore the experience in a surprising and subtle way.

“To be honest, I’m not sure if readers are quite ready for a coronavirus novel. I think in the short term, we want to escape from it in our imaginations – to go somewhere else entirely. After all, we readers need time to process what has happened and is happening to us, just as much as writers,” she says.

If great fiction emerges from crisis, it has also been preparing for the end of the world for some time now. In recent years in Australian literature there’s been a tsunami of sci-fi, dystopian novels interested in environmental catastrophe and the collapse of social order. This month saw the publication of Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country, about a viral pandemic that sweeps the nation and allows sufferers to understand the language of animals.

University of Sydney associate professor Bruce Isaacs, a film studies academic, said rather than shying away from global catastrophe, COVID-19 will inspire us to take our apocalyptic speculation even further.

“I think the capacity of COVID to infect what we do in cinema, TV, literature and art is probably greater than anything I’ve ever encountered,” Isaacs says.

But what will be particularly interesting to trace is how pop culture will speak to the pandemic in unexpected and inexplicit storylines, themes and genres.

The September 11 attacks inspired a flood of Cold War and superhero films that reflected an era of fear, anxiety and paranoid nationalism. But Isaacs notes there’s no clear “villain” in the coronavirus pandemic and its containment is fostering a sense of society rather than individual identity.

“Superheroes really milked [9/11] to construct a new American identity and they did it unbelievably successfully,” Isaacs says.

“COVID-19 is not going to lend itself to the rise of individualism. If anything what we see is the frailty of people. How do you combat a virus? The only way to combat it is to give yourself over to traditional structures. It’s the rise of the state and national and global healthcare systems. But we’re probably not going to see a movie where people are saved by better healthcare.”

While Troy Lum, an independent producer and chief executive of Hopscotch Films, has not yet received any movie pitches, he thinks there will be a clear break in the films that came before and after the pandemic. Influenced by Trumpism and the MeToo movement, Lum says films in the last few years have focused on taking a stance. The crisis, he thinks, might fuel a nostalgic return to scripts about human connection and empathy.

“A lot of films thematically in the last couple of years have been pretty dark and have been trying to comment on where we are. I think this is the kind of end of that, in a way. I feel like this is the full stop,” Lum says.

And if universal healthcare might not make for an obviously sexy story, the pandemic does lend itself to multiple genres. Imagine a romance across balconies on the Ruby Princess; a political satire where ministers go to beach houses; a comedy about a family quarantined together or an uplifting tale of the fight to find a vaccine.

“I can imagine a smart, nimble series like Succession incorporating the pandemic into its storyline. I reckon big players like HBO and Netflix will develop high-budget sprawling series with storylines following the personal, political and medical threads – big-canvas shows about sacrifice, governments scrambling to respond, terrible suffering, great love, families under pressure,” says screen writer Debra Oswald, creator and head writer of the first five seasons of the TV series Offspring.

It seems likely that direct representations of the pandemic will emerge first in documentary films and series and non-fiction books, but to attract interest they will need to offer something different to the endless news and social media commentary we are already receiving.

Joseph Maxwell, head of documentaries at SBS, said he’s seen a steady stream of pitches related to the pandemic, but as the situation is still moving fast he’s reluctant to go on a commissioning spree.

“This is one of the great moments of our time but we also need to escape that moment. A show about lockdown is going to be very claustrophobic. It is a very tricky thing to get right,” he says.

Instead, Maxwell sees the pandemic being a part of many documentaries. Already the broadcaster is updating existing series, such as Come Fly With Me, about women in aviation, and See What You Made Me Do, about domestic violence, in light of current events.

Artists exist in a perilous financial state at the best of times, and this crisis is among the worst of times. They will need to be supported to weather this storm before they can show us the storm we have weathered as a society.

And although the pandemic musical she started in 2018 seems ready-made to roll out, Yve Blake, the creator of the acclaimed musical Fangirls, is moving in a new direction.

“This moment hasn’t made me go ‘wow what I really want to write about now is isolation and virus’. What I really want to write about right now is anything but that. I want to create work that is an escape, that has parallels to the emotional reality we are in right now but also gives us somewhere else to go,” she says.

Blake predicts we’ll soon see a massive resurgence of romance as a genre as we reach an “all-time horniness high” after weeks of social isolation. The next cultural moment, she says, will be all about relief.

And if the Bad Signal Fugue doesn’t reach our stages any time soon, just stop for a moment and listen carefully. Across the country, you can still hear a chorus of cries: “Can you hear me now? Wait, wait, wait, I’m going to move to another room.”