Christopher Koch, an Australian author whose 1978 novel “The Year of Living Dangerously” was the basis of the atmospheric, award-winning film about intrigue in Indonesia, died Sept. 23 in Hobart, Tasmania. He was 81.
He had cancer, according to Australian news reports. His agent, Margaret Connolly, confirmed his death to news agencies.
Koch published two novels and worked in radio before embarking on “The Year of Living Dangerously.” The novel, which takes place during a political uprising in Indonesia in 1965, was well received when it was published. But “The Year of Living Dangerously” captured international attention only after it was made into a film by Australian director Peter Weir in 1982.
The memorable title, first uttered by Indonesian leader Sukarno in the 1960s, became a catchphrase denoting any prolonged period of danger, intrigue or personal risk.
The book and film trace the experiences of Guy Hamilton, an Australian foreign correspondent (played onscreen by Mel Gibson), as he tries to understand the mysterious forces at work in Indonesia when a rebellion threatens to remove Sukarno from power. Hamilton’s character was drawn from the experiences of Koch’s brother, Philip Koch, a foreign correspondent based in Jakarta in the 1960s.
Hamilton has a romance with a woman working for the British military (played in the movie by Sigourney Weaver) and is guided through the intricacies of the local culture by a Chinese-Australian television cameraman.
“There’s a definite point where a city, like a man, can be seen to have become insane,” Koch wrote in the novel. “This had finally happened to Jakarta.”
When the novel was published, it was compared favorably to the fiction of Graham Greene. Novelist Anthony Burgess wrote in the Times Literary Supplement of Britain that the book was “intelligent, compassionate, flavoursome, convincing, and well constructed.”
Nonetheless, Koch — who published seven other novels — had mixed feelings about being identified so strongly with just one of them.
“If a book is made into a film, they hang it around your neck forever,” he told the Weekend Australian newspaper last year. “I’ve written other books since that I think might be better, but people always come back to that one and it’s because it was a film. That’s how much film dominates our culture.”
Koch was credited as a co-writer of the film’s screenplay, but he had a dispute with Weir during the making of the movie.
“All I could tell him was that I was going to attempt to make this into a good film,” Weir told The New York Times in 1983. “He took that for doubt or uncertainty on my part, whereas it was really just being honest.”
Their sharpest disagreement, however, came over what turned out to be one of Weir’s most inspired choices. The movie was weeks away from production before Weir discovered the 4-foot-9 American actress Linda Hunt. He cast her in the pivotal role of Kwan, the diminutive half-Asian cameraman.
“My feeling was that it was worth a gamble,” Weir told the Times. “But can you imagine how horrified Chris Koch must have been to hear that a woman was going to play his precious creation?”
Movie audiences gasped when they saw the closing credits and realized a woman had played Kwan. Hunt won an Academy Award for best supporting actress.
“The engrossing mystery of Billy’s character can’t be confined within the limits of the movie itself,” Washington Post film critic Gary Arnold wrote in 1983. “It’s unlikely that anyone who sees ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ will ever forget Hunt’s performance or Weir’s orchestration of a foreboding atmosphere.”
Christopher John Koch was born July 16, 1932, in Hobart, Australia. His father was an accountant, and mother attended high school on Tasmania with the future film star Errol Flynn.
Koch recalled that Flynn’s initials were carved in a desk at the school, from which both he and Flynn were expelled. Koch went to work at a bookstore but was fired for spending too much time reading. He then found a job in the art department of a newspaper before graduating in 1954 from the University of Tasmania.
He lived in India and England in the mid-1950s, published his first novel in 1958, then studied writing at Stanford University alongside the American writers Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry.
From 1963 to 1972, Koch worked as a radio producer for what is now the Australian Broadcasting Corp. He spent two months in Indonesia in 1968, helping set up an educational broadcast network.
As a novelist, Koch drew on Australia’s proximity to Asia and was praised for his evocative depictions of Tasmania. He won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s highest prize for writers, for “The Doublemen” (1985) and “Highways to a War” (1995).
Many critics praised “Highways to a War,” about an Australian war photographer who disappears in Cambodia in the 1970s, as perhaps his finest novel.
“Vietnam in the sixties was the peak of their youth,” Koch wrote in the book. “Middle age and the war in Cambodia were scarcely visible on the horizon, and laughter was like breathing. But Vietnam was also the place where their youth casually vanished.”
His final novel, “Lost Voices,” was published in 2012.
His marriage to Irene Vilnonis ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Robin Whyte-Butler; a son from his first marriage, classical guitarist Gareth Koch; a brother; a sister; and two grandchildren.
In spite of his misgivings about how his best-known book was filmed, Koch recognized its importance to his career.
“I staked everything on ‘The Year of Living Dangerously,’ ” he said last year. “And in the end it was the book that saved me from sinking into obscurity.”