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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.

"It's this daunting, iconic Canadian book, but I knew in my soul how I could tell this story," she says. "Not to write some kind of scholarly report but to tell a very feminine story about a woman's passion. If I tried to pick up all the metaphoric layers that have been examined by scholars, I'd lose sight of what is just a damned fine story."

With a script aimed at an ideal viewer who is "a young woman with a head on her shoulders," Skogland moved the storyline up about 30 years, converted the interior monologue to dramatic events and added four sex scenes. (Whoever imagined a pink young Hagar Shipley skinny-dipping in a pond?)

Four years ago, she approached Michael McMillan, head of Alliance Atlantis, to help her make the movie, but then Alliance Atlantis moved out of film production. So Skogland found another long-time fan of the book, Liz Jarvis of Winnipeg's Buffalo Gals Pictures, to help make the $8.5-million film, and eventually lined up Telefilm Canada and international sales financing herself, although "financing came and went week-to-week."

To play the elder Hagar, Skogland managed to land Oscar-winning American actress Ellen Burstyn. After an exhaustive search, they found 24-year-old Christine Horne, fresh out of theatre school, to play young Hagar. Skogland was afraid the producers would be resistant to an unknown in such a major role, but everyone agreed Horne was a future star. She's undoubtedly more beautiful than Hagar's account of her young self, but also probably more marketable.

Of the three novels, perhaps the most painful to make into a movie was Emotional Arithmetic, based on the late Matt Cohen's 1990 novel about three people who are incarcerated in a Nazi prison camp in the Second World War, and who are reunited in an Ontario farmhouse 35 years later.

For a relatively low-budget ($6.8-million) film, Emotional Arithmetic has an impressively high-powered international cast, including Susan Sarandon as Melanie and Gabriel Byrne as Christopher. Max Von Sydow plays Jakob, the man who saved them and who later was imprisoned in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, emerging as a famous poet. Christopher Plummer plays David, Sarandon's embittered husband, and Roy Dupuis is their son Benjamin.

The actors were attracted by the strong script, although whose script it is has been a matter of dispute. Jefferson Lewis is credited as the sole writer, after winning a Writer's Guild arbitration. Director Paolo Barzman says the decision has left him personally hurt and "deeply puzzled" and he plans to fight it.

Nothing was easy about Cohen's novel, which includes the perspectives of five different characters and takes place over 30 years in various locations in Europe and Canada.

Before his untimely death in 1999, Cohen had been struggling with a screenplay for Anna Stratton, who had acquired the film rights for Toronto's Triptych Media. Cohen's widow, Patsy Aldana, approached Lewis, a close friend of Cohen's, to write the Emotional Arithmetic screenplay. He did so, sticking closely to the novel in a relatively linear retelling of the events. "In some ways," he says, "that was a kind of high point. Patsy wrote me back a note saying this was the screenplay that Matt would have wanted, which was the best thing I could have heard. Later, of course, your role as writer is to find the movie that the director wants to make, and in many ways, your private creative pleasure is over."

There were a number of setbacks for the film en route. One of the producers, Rebecca Yates, died suddenly in 2002 (the film is dedicated to her and to Cohen). At another point British co-producers were brought in, and Lewis recalls tweaking the script to emphasize a love story.

Although Lewis and director Barzman eventually had a falling out, Lewis is quick to give Barzman credit for the idea that would make Emotional Arithmetic an affordable and coherent movie. Barzman recalls that he read an earlier version of the script on a flight to Prague and felt he saw the key to the story. "It had to take place in one afternoon with flashbacks, and the afternoon dinner table would provide a kind of stage," he says.There were more pressures on the screenwriter. Max von Sydow wasn't happy with an early draft in which his character dies (he didn't die in Cohen's book). Sarandon felt that her relationship with her on-screen husband was too unfriendly, and she wanted it softened. The idea struck a chord with Barzman and the script was adjusted accordingly.

In the end, Barzman says that while the script offers the characters a reprieve, "nothing is solved" and that's what he believes makes the film work: "They have this subterranean museum of horrors they are living with, and we can't pretend they can be reconciled with that."

As for the Montreal-based Lewis, he says he's looking forward to the gala Toronto screening on Saturday night, although he also feels some apprehension.

"Afterward," he adds, "I think I want to take a walk over to Matt Cohen Park and sit down on a bench and have a long conversation with my old friend."

A selective history of Canadian literature onscreen

1964: The Luck of Ginger Coffey. Based on Brian Moore's novel, the movie starred Robert Shaw as an irrepressible Irish immigrant to Montreal.

1968: Rachel, Rachel. There were four Oscar nominations for this adaptation of Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God, about a lonely woman who has a brief fling. Paul Newman directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, in the lead role.

1973: Kamouraska. Claude Jutra directed Geneviève Bujold in this lush adaptation of Anne Hébert's novel of repression, murder and madness in early 19th-century Quebec. At the time, this French co-production was the most expensive Canadian movie ever made.

1974: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. A smart, memorable adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel, directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Richard Dreyfuss in the performance of his career.

1986: Dancing in the Dark. Based on Joan Barfoot's novel about a woman driven to murder, the film won three Genies, including best actress for Martha Henry.

1990: The Handmaid's Tale. Volker Schlondorff directed this respectable, if emotionally flat, adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel of future female enslavement, starring Natasha Richardson, which was certainly better than the tepid 1981 version of Atwood's novel Surfacing.

1991: Black Robe. Bruce Beresford's highly regarded historical drama followed Brian Moore's adaptation of his own novel. The story, which depicts a 17th-century Jesuit priest (Lothaire Bluteau) travelling in the harsh Quebec winter with Algonquin guides, is a portrait of Europeans encountering the wilderness and a culture that is beyond their conceptual experience.

1996: Kissed. Lynn Stopkewich's adaptation of Barbara Gowdy's novel about a young woman embalmer who makes love to her corpses was, ultimately, rather tender. Released the same year as David Cronenberg's auto-erotic Crash, it helped earn Canadians an international reputation for delicately realized kink.

1996: The English Patient. Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Second World War novel, starring Ralph Fiennes as a mysterious burn patient being tended by a French-Canadian nurse during the Second World War, won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, and entered into popular culture as an allegory of grand passion.

2003: The Republic of Love. Deepa Mehta (Water) directed this adaptation of a Carol Shields novel about a lonely radio host (Bruce Greenwood) and a curator (Emilia Fox) who find each other. Shields's novel was about the mysteriousness of romance, though too often the movie settles for the cuteness of romance.

2007: Away from Her. Sarah Polley's adaptation of an Alice Munro short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, expands the narrative in a wry story of old age, love and betrayal, with rich performances from Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. Away from Her is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

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