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Canadian stories get their turn in the spotlight

Novels by Margaret Laurence, Anne Michaels and Matt Cohen endured tortuous journeys from page to screen, writes Liam Lacey

From Monday's Globe and Mail

In what must be a record, three films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival have been adapted from major Canadian novels - the opening-night feature, Fugitive Pieces, The Stone Angel and the festival closer, Emotional Arithmetic. Anyone who has followed the global success of Canadian literature over the past 20 years would have to say it's long overdue.

Yet with few opportunities to exhibit their films except through foreign-controlled distributors, filmmakers and producers here have avoided telling specifically Canadian stories. Last year, however, Sarah Polley's Away from Her, adapted from an Alice Munro story, was a critical hit and proved that international audiences were receptive to Canadian settings and characters.

"There are a lot of reasons why it's slow to happen," says Kari Skogland, who adapted and directed The Stone Angel. "If a Canadian novel hasn't been a box-office success, say, The Republic of Love, then producers are reluctant to try again."

Jeremy Podeswa, who adapted Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces for the screen, says it's not simply a Canadian problem: "It's just really difficult to make a movie - anywhere."

For example, all three adaptations endured plodding and sometimes tortuous journeys from page to screen.

Fugitive Pieces, published in 1996, was Michaels's first novel and follows the life of Jewish-Polish poet Jakob Beer, saved from the Nazis as a child by a Greek archeologist. Densely metaphoric, with two narrators and a mosaic style that blends past and present, the book was a literary triumph and won the prestigious 1997 Orange Prize (one of the top English-language literary prizes for women writers).

Podeswa, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, read the book shortly after its publication and felt an immediate connection to the material. After finishing his second feature, The Five Senses (1999), and with Robert Lantos, now of Serendipity Point Pictures, on board as a producer, Podeswa appeared set to get started on Fugitive Pieces.

Then an unexpected impediment arose: Podeswa became a very hot property in American television. On the strength of The Five Senses, he was invited to direct episodes of a new series, Six Feet Under, which turned into a huge hit. He was then hired to direct episodes of Rome, The Riches, The Tudors and the miniseries Into the West.

Between jobs over five years, he kept working on the Fugitive Pieces script and sending fresh drafts to Lantos. Finally it was ready, and after convincing himself he'd still be employable if he took a year away from television, Podeswa began shooting in 2006.

In hindsight, he's grateful for the film's long gestation. The 38-day shoot, in Canada and Greece, covered at least five time periods and could have been "daunting if I hadn't had the experience I'd had," Podeswa says. "I wasn't ready to make a film like Fugitive Pieces before now."

"Many people said Fugitive Pieces was unfilmable, but I never felt that," he adds. "Underneath the poetic language is a very powerful narrative about one man's life. I always wanted to adapt Anne's book, not find a jumping off to something else."

The "unfilmable" label also followed The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence's Manitoba-set novel written largely as a monologue of a dying old woman. It was a significant milestone in Canadian publishing back in 1964. The former Alliance Communications wanted to do a film version of the book for years, and even made a deal with Laurence shortly before her death in 1987. But no one had come up with a viable script.

Skogland, like so many Canadians, read Laurence's novel in high school and recalls experiencing an epiphany when she realized that older people had lives and passions beyond what she had imagined. A director and writer with a couple of music videos, a couple of feature films (The Size of Watermelons, Men with Guns) and lots of television (Traders, Terminal City) on her résumé, Skogland had thought about filming The Stone Angel for years. Half her friends, she says, wrote their master's theses on the novel.

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