The most famous Canadian novels adapted for screen


Anne of Green Gables house

Canada has always shown an enormous amount of variety in its population and its art. This is similarly true of its celebrated literary scene that has seen an increased amount of exposure in recent years. From Anne of Green Gables to The Life of Pi, many of the stories reflect the values that are installed at the heart of Canada. And regardless of whether these were written a century ago, or in the last couple of years, the national identity is strongly resonant throughout the works.

The most recent incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s famous dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been aired this month on Channel 4 while Anne with an E, the latest adaptation of Anne of Green Gables has made it onto Netflix. Both series have caused a stir, with the relevancy of Margaret Atwood’s story causing as much debate as when it was first published, but the latest offering of Montgomery’s stories have a darker twist, causing a divide. In the words of writer Witold Gombrowicz, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.”

Visiting the sites where your favourite author was born or became inspired to write can be a deeply fulfilling experience. A real-life Green Gables has been created on Prince Edward Island for all the lovers of Anne’s home, and if you visit at the right time, you can even see the theatrical version that is performed annually. Meanwhile, British Columbia recently starred as the filming location of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, so anyone embarking on a Rocky Mountaineer holiday can follow in the fascinating literary footsteps of one of Canada’s greatest novelists.

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale cover

This dystopian novel written in 1985 by Ottawa-born novelist Margaret Atwood quickly attained a position of respect amongst the greats of the genre such as 1984 and Fahrenheit-451. The difficult narrative caused a mixed reception when first published, though all literary criticism was positive. Atwood insisted it was based on the puritans but was heavily influenced by the American politics in the 1980’s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

With the current political turmoil in the United States, the Hulu adaptation series that has been picked up by Channel 4 is causing just as much discomfort as the original novel. It is also being used as a rallying point for many feminist movements, with protesters dressing in the iconic red robes and white hoods of the Handmaids to convey their message. The most recent adaptation has had nothing but rave reviews as the fear and turmoil from Atwood’s imagined future is played out in agonising detail. Sam Wollaston from the Guardian says:

“It is a brilliant adaptation – some changes, but loyal in what it says and what it asks. Atwood clearly approves: not only was she a consulting producer, but she’s in it, a Red Centre cameo as a slapping Aunt. And it’s brilliant television; I doubt there will be anything better this year. Resonant now, yes, but it will go on being so, ringing in your ears, and your head.”

The Telegraph has weighed in on the popularity of this risky series. While many feared the subject too political or scare mongering for mainstream television, the Telegraph reports otherwise: “The series has been such a hit in the US that a second series was recently announced. Meanwhile, over here the book has soared to the top of the charts since last Sunday, having had already benefited from a resurgence of interest following Trump’s election, thanks to readers finding stark contemporary resonances in its dystopian story of a world in which women are stripped of their rights, and his presidential policies.”

The most chilling element of both the novel and the series is that Atwood was aiming for speculative fiction as opposed to science fiction. This means everything in the book has its grounding in human history, from dress to punishment to stripping women of their rights until they are merely a womb.

The English Patient

Michael Oondatje

Written in 1992 by Michael Oondatje, a Sri Lankan born Canadian poet, novelist, editor and film maker, The English Patient won the Man Booker prize in 1992 as well as the Governor General’s Award in the same year. The novel was transformed into a film in 1996 starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche and received nine academy awards. Oondatje was also heavily involved in Canada’s literary scene, working on Cpach house Books in Toronto and co-editing Brick, A Literary Journal.

Ginny Burgess from the literary blog, Rhapsody In Words, gave her view on the novel:

“When the Sri Lankan born Canadian poet and novelist, Michael Ondaatje, penned his immortal tale of wartime love and betrayal, The English Patient, he gleaned inspiration from real events and people, furnished eloquently with his unforgettable fictional twists.

“You can see how his interest in geography, geology and history are interwoven as part of the exotic fabric of the tale, elaborating on the very great contribution that Canada and other Commonwealth nations made to the Allied efforts during World War II.

“In a way this story, (as shown so poignantly in what is Anthony Minghella’s finest film), transcends nationality – it makes you feel that all of the characters to a greater or lesser degree were victims of this violent, momentous time in history. It is primarily a human story that uses war to throw into sharp relief the intensity of human emotion at liminal moments in life.

“Canada should be very proud of their adopted literary son! When you think of Canada, epic scenery and unspoilt, vast wilderness springs to mind, as well as cosmopolitan cities and friendly inhabitants; but it also offers a rich cultural seam with the likes of storytelling giants such as Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.”

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

This novel by Vancouver-born Sara Gruen threads a sentimental compassion for a bygone age and pageantry between difficult topics of poverty, ethics, capitalism and an ignominious descent into old age. Despite this, the novel – written in 2006 – gained enormous popularity reaching The New York Times’ best seller list for 12 weeks. The film adaptation was premiered in 2011 with a star-studded cast consisting of Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patterson and Christoph Waltz. Though the film received mixed reactions, the old Hollywood glamour and nostalgic overtones immersed audiences into the fascinating world of the circus.

Julie from Reading Lark reviewed the book after reading it at the recommendation of a friend:

“A friend I recommended this book to a few months ago called it “life changing” – and I absolutely agree with her. I know sometimes a book gets a bunch of hype and I’m guilty of thinking that most of the time that hype is unjustified. But this book isn’t as good as you’ve heard, IT’S BETTER. The story deals with love, family (both blood and found), ethics, character, violence (people and animals, fair warning that there are some difficult-to-stomach scenes), marriage, and honour. And that’s just your basic plot summary.”

The Life of Pi

Bengal Tiger

Yann Martel has lived all across Canada, from Victoria to Ottawa to Saskatchewan. He struggled to get this incredible novel published, receiving rejections from at least five London publishing houses before success with Knopf Canada, releasing the book in 2001. On the face of this novel, it deals with how humanity processes difficult situations, but you can easily look deeper to discover religious undertones that allow the reader to decide which story to read and believe. This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002.

Often quoted as being ‘unfilmable’, that title was not only taken into question but proved utterly wrong by Ang Lee’s 2011 adaptation of this bestseller. With a subtle touch and incredible technology at her disposal, fears that the beauty of this story would be lost were unfounded, as became clear when it scooped four Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and two BAFTAs.

Curled up has nothing but glowing reviews of the novel: “Life of Pi isn’t just a simple adventure story. The book’s final pages include a revelation that brings the rest of Pi’s fantastic story into question. But instead of seeming silly and fraudulent, as such twists often do, the ending makes the rest of the story that much more meaningful. At its core, the book is about man’s relationship to animals, and his relationship to God (Pi, as the book explains in some detail, is Hindu, Muslim and Christian). Most importantly, the book is about faith – about how believing something sincerely can make it, if not completely real, at least close.”

“Life of Pi is a simply extraordinary book that actually has something to say about life, yet it’s not preachy or overbearing. It’s just a strange, fascinating and remarkable tale that may even, as its prologue predicts, make you believe in God…”

Never Cry Wolf

Never Cry Wolf

Farley Mowat’s conservationist book brought about a U-turn in the way arctic wolves were perceived and bred an enormous amount of empathy for animals that are central to Canadian culture.  First published in 1963, this first-person account looks to explore the demonisation of a species and how as humans we often project our own fears and flaws onto innocent creatures. Arctic wolves, thought responsible for the reduction of the Caribou population, were facing an uncertain future. However in response to this book, there were many outcries against the treatment and possible culling of these creatures.

The reception to the book was very mixed, with a lot of political undertones tainting the reception. While Karen Jones has decreed Never Cry Wolf as an “important chapter in the history of Canadian environmentalism” others have called into question the validity of the evidence.

The 1983 film was the first to be released under an alternative Disney label and the success is thought to have been the founding for Touchstone Pictures which was established the following year. The critical response to the film was mostly positive.
Mowat sadly passed away in 2014, and his resting place in Port Hope, Ontario is regularly visited by admirers of his work.

The Piano Man’s Daughter

Timothy Findley on Canada's walk of fame

Timothy Findley’s delicate handling of mental illness is testament to the Toronto-born author’s own experience, with the character of Lilly thought to be based on his aunt. Though on the surface, the 1995 book deals with a reversal of the parent-child relationship, the tropes of this narrative are beautifully complex from exploring what actually connects a family to the different types of strength a person can display.

Jules Book Reviews gives the novel a 10/10 score, saying: “One of the best books I’ve read all year, it’s one of those books that I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to read – this is probably one of the author’s best work – a very intriguing and haunting story.

“The writing is just one of the many things I loved about the book. Timothy Findley was truly one of Canada’s greatest talents, he has an ability to pull you in with an elegant and flowing narration that grasps onto you, until you close the book – this book is no exception to that. I was lost in the words alone, even if the story hadn’t been as strong (which it was), I’d still have enjoyed it, based on the writing alone.”


Emma Donoghue

The darkness of the 2010 novel by Irish-Canadian writer, Emma Donoghue, is tempered by the narrator being a five year old. The narrative was conceived after hearing about real life events, and the novel received much critical acclaim, winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Orange Prize. Quill and Quire adored the novel that deals with such a difficult subject:

“As a narrator, five-year-old Jack is tremendously enticing. His mother, kidnapped seven years earlier while walking through her college campus at age 19, has created a world for her son that is rich in play and learning, all the while anticipating the day they might make their “great escape.” This environment has provided Jack with an impressive vocabulary, though his advanced learning is juxtaposed with the natural innocence and bewilderment of a small child. The result is a story told through a child’s eyes, but in language that is endearing rather than tiresome.

The pace and plot of the story are both pitch perfect, though after the climax midway through the book, the reader may wonder what could be left to say. A great deal, it turns out, as Jack faces a whole new world of unfamiliarity and fear. Earnest and bright, he is remarkably adaptable, and provides commentary that is lushly intricate.”

The 2015 film was met with similar acclaim, with Brie Larson winning multiple accolades including an Academy, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.

Anne of Green Gables

Green Gables House

Written in 1908, L M Montgomery’s novel has long been cemented into the Canadian psyche as a popular piece of children’s literature that embodies adaptability, pluck and individualism. When first published, the book became an instant classic, with Anne of Green Gables being the Canadian answer to Alice in Wonderland.  It has also gained a place in hearts all over the world, but most especially Japan, where an anime has been produced and much of the Canadian ideals mirror their own.

There have been many film adaptations of this timeless story, however the 1985 version is probably the most beloved response to the novel. Not only is this film close to the novel’s narrative but it also captures the spirit of the piece.

The latest addition to the Anne of Green Gables cannon is the Netflix series, Anne with an E. The darker representation of a quintessential story has received mixed reviews, some people feeling it adds depth while others believe the story should not need a gritty element.

Today, millions of people from around the world visit the Anne of Green Gables Museum on Prince Edward Island to explore the history of this famous Canadian tale.

Image Credit: Tulane Public Relations, Daniel X O’neil, Chris Phutully, Chris Drumm, Chris Drumm, Katrina Afonso, Smudge 9000

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