<i>Illustration: Robin Cowcher.</i>

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

WHY on earth don't we have a film industry that is more sensitive to the riches of Australian writing? And why don't we also think - at least every so often - that it might be possible to film something here as an Australian enterprise that didn't have to get a ringing endorsement when people ask, ''How Australian is it?''

Let's take the second question first. New Zealand has garnered immense prestige, made a lot of money and boosted tourism through Peter Jackson's Tolkien saga in the past 10 years - the three parts of The Lord of the Rings are being supplemented now with the release of his film of the precursor, The Hobbit.

It was an intensely imaginative thing for a small country like New Zealand to say, ''All right, we'll consider ourselves the centre of the world and make a long, multi-part film of one of the most popular literary works of the 20th century.''

The fact that Jackson and his Kiwis did so with such lavish homage to Tolkien and using the talents of everyone from Ian McKellen as Gandalf to Cate Blanchett as Galadriel shows a self-confidence that Australian filmmaking cannot match.

It's true that at that time Peter Weir made Master and Commander (from the Patrick O'Brian novels) with Russell Crowe as an Australian-accented Jack Aubrey and Russell Boyd getting an Oscar for his cinematography, but the film's Australian elements are more covert than Jackson's New Zealand ones.

Under the 10BA tax scheme there were projects such as the Jeremy Irons/Liv Ullmann films of Ibsen's The Wild Duck, but they're few and far between.

Imagine the kind of rolled eyes we'd get from the Film Finance Corporation if someone said they wanted to film, say, The Brothers Karamazov in Australia with a predominantly Australian cast. We have enough trouble filming the best of our own literature and drama.

It is, for instance, boggling that no one has ever filmed Henry Handel Richardson's extraordinary three-part novel The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

Fred Schepisi famously filmed Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm in 2010 but none of White's other major novels have been filmed. Not Voss - despite Max Von Sydow and Joseph Losey's best efforts 40 years ago - with its intensely dramatic story of excruciation and foolhardiness in the desert. Not The Tree of Man, with its epical treatment of a man and a woman making do in the bush. Not Riders in the Chariot, with its Jewish hero, its vistas of the Holocaust and the crucifixion parodied in outer suburban Sydney.

What makes this doubly absurd is that White had an intensely dramatic imagination that was too big and sweeping, too cinematic, for the stage.

And what's true of White is true of every aspect of our writing culture. Although there was a film of Christina Stead's For Love Alone 20 years ago, her most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, has never been filmed, even though it is the best-known work of literary fiction by any Australian.

Think of the Man Who Loved Children that you might get with Judy Davis as Henny and Sam Neill or Geoffrey Rush as Sam, the character she based on her father.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have no film of David Malouf's Johnno or the Langton Quartet of Martin Boyd, which could be given the most glamorous heritage treatment.

Schepisi filmed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally but Keneally's convict novel Bring Larks and Heroes cries out for film adaptation.

And so do a hundred books and plays. Middle-aged Australians will remember the '70s adaptation of Frank Hardy's Power without Glory (with a script by Cliff Green, who did Picnic at Hanging Rock) but the story of John West and his rise to power cries out for a new film.

Admittedly, we sometimes get turkeys like the recent film of Christos Tsiolkas' Dead Europe, but this is balanced by the success, both popular and artistic, of The Slap.

Sometimes it seems to take an age for the penny to drop; it was obvious decades ago that Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher stories had potential on the TV screen. It's nice to see Peter Temple getting a television guernsey with Guy Pearce as Jack Irish, just as it was when David Wenham played Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan - but why are we so tentative about this sort of thing?

Temple's Truth and The Broken Shore are major examples of crime writing that any other nation would rush to film.

But the nearly absolute separation from books (and even plays) in this country is crazy.

We need our lightest and brightest writing - a detective story here, a Joanna Murray-Smith comedy there - as well as every viable attempt at art or zesty trash wending their ways onto our screens.

It's only out of this concerted attempt to write Australia and see it that we'll get a culture we can recognise with pride.