Holly Ringland grew up on the Gold Coast. But it was living in the UK a decade ago that gave Ringland the fresh perspective she needed to action a long-harboured ambition: to write a novel. Having attempted the task without success, Ringland realised she needed to write from “the sore place”, or the wounds of her past.
“I’ve lived with male-perpetrated violence for a lot of my life,” says Ringland. “[It] silenced my voice, courage and the dream of being a writer I had since I was a child. I realised that I’d never written from the sore place. If anything, I’d written around it.”
The ensuing work of fiction, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, took Ringland years to write and was inspired in part by the evocative coastlines of her childhood on the Gold Coast, as well as the dramatic beauty of the western desert landscapes in the Northern Territory where she also spent time.
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It’s the story of a young girl, rendered non-verbal after a family tragedy, who finds her new life at her grandmother’s flower farm a mixed blessing. Published in 2018, the novel received the kind of instant acclaim debut author’s dream about: global success and television networks and streaming services calling.
As soon as she began reading the novel, executive producer Jodi Matterson saw the need for an adaptation. “It was such a striking opening to a novel, I was immediately in, and then it didn’t disappoint,” she said in a press statement. “It’s one of the most beautiful Australian books I’ve ever read. I was desperate to bring it to the screen … Holly did an incredible job of tackling a subject matter which is really hard, and it’s dark and incredibly heart-wrenching, but she did it in a way that you never lose hope. What’s really special about this novel is the idea of sisterhood; the idea of these women coming together to support each other and to not only survive, but to thrive.”
Matterson brought it to Bruna Papandrea, founder of production company Made Up Stories, who was also immediately on board. “Despite how much we had on our slate, we knew from the first page we had to tell this story,” she said in a press statement. “I was completely bowled over by the beauty of Holly’s writing and I had never read an Australian story that felt like this.”
One Skype call between Made Up Stories and Ringland later and the production company
had acquired the screen rights for an adaptation. Soon after, Sarah Lambert – creator of the Nine series Love Child and writer behind Foxtel’s Lambs of God adaptation – joined the team, and production was underway.
A time jump partway through the story meant the lead role of Alice would be split across two actors, so the search was on for a duo that could each handle their individual roles while still believably play the same person across two decades. Eventually they cast Alycia Debnam-Carey (The 100, Fear the Walking Dead) as the older Alice, with Alyla Browne (Nine Perfect Strangers) playing her younger self.
“It was a long journey but when we all saw Alycia’s screen test, I think we all knew we’d found our Alice,” says Lambert. “She did such a moving and powerful audition, I cried when I watched it. Then we had to find someone who could match older Alice and we found Alyla. She was a joy to work with and held her own with some of the greatest actors in the world.”
Alongside Alice, the cast for The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart includes local librarian Sally (Asher Keddie), Twig (Leah Purcell), Candy (Frankie Adams), Sally’s husband John (Alex England) and June Hart, matriarch of Thornfield flower farm, played by Sigourney Weaver.
“We sent [Weaver] the first couple of scripts and were so thrilled that she responded to the material,” says Lambert. “We had a meeting with her, and I was so nervous. But she was so brilliant and engaged. It was still slightly surreal when she signed on. She is an icon, and someone I’ve grown up watching on screen and in awe of, so it was a real career highlight to have the privilege of working with her on this series.”
Matterson echoes the sentiment. “The entire cast of this show is incredible with many people giving what I think is a career-best performance and Sigourney is the anchor to this extraordinary group that we were able to bring together with the help of our exceptional casting director, Jane Norris,” she says in a quote provided to Broadsheet. “One of the most exciting moments of the production was walking into our office and having this sea of mostly women, up on our casting wall, knowing that they were coming to bring this story to life. That was just incredible.”
With the cast locked in, the next big challenge was finding the locations. In The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the settings play as big a part in shaping the story as the characters. “I don’t feel I could have written any of the places in this book without first-hand sensory knowledge of and connection to the landscapes and people I’ve fictionalised,” Ringland says. “A sense of place tells us who we are and how we are.”
Alice’s adult life was filmed in the Northern Territory, while scenes from her early childhood were shot in Grafton, NSW. And the pivotal Thornfield flower farm was shot outside the small NSW town of Scone.
“Once we saw the house and the land, everyone was convinced we’d found the perfect location,” says Lambert. “It’s an extraordinary place to shoot. “
The other element of the novel essential to the adaptation was the meanings behind the plants and blooms that Alice learns at Thornfield. When Ringland discovered the Victorian-era language of flowers, she decided to give it a uniquely Australian spin.
“I knew from being in the gardens of the women who raised me that Australian flora often thrives under harsh conditions,” she says. “Thornfield and its language grew from there. In a way, creating this language of flowers was a way of writing myself home.”
Now back living in Australia, and with the miniseries about to debut, Ringland is still grappling with how far the story of her debut novel has come.
“Writing my first novel, getting it published, having it be loved by readers was one entirely mind-blowing thing. Now, for The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart to take new life on screen, with the cast and production that it has … I’m aware that it’s ironic for a writer to say, nevertheless it’s still true: I really have no words.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Prime Video. The first three episodes of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart are now streaming on Prime Video, with new episodes dropping on Fridays from August 4. A 30-day free trial is available for new subscribers.