Canadian Books on the Big Screen

For authors and publishers, it's an exciting event when a book is optioned for film or TV, and even more thrilling if it’s made into an acclaimed movie. It can also be tough, artistically speaking, because it often requires the author to step back and separate as much as possible from the book to allow the film or TV series to establish its own life and energy. Michael Ondaatje (interviewed by Willem Defoe) said of his decision to not write the film script for The English Patient:

“I spent six years writing the book, the last two years of which were spent creating the only structure I thought it could have. So to turn around and dismantle that structure and put the head where the tail was ... There’s no way I could have been objective and known what should go, what should stay.”

Ondaatje ended up being very pleased with the film, perhaps because of the distance he maintained from its production.

As of this writing, there are currently several Canadian books that have recently been optioned for film* or are in production. They include (and publishers, authors, and agents, please write us with additions!):

*Some options may have lapsed.

Short stories make for fantastic screen adaptations: director and actress Sarah Polley’s Away From Her is based on a story in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage as is the 2013 Kristen Wiig movie, Hateship Loveship.

Later this year 49th Shelf will release a new platform that will serve as a meeting ground for publishers and authors, agents, and publishers: Books to Screen. As we put the finishing touches on Books to Screen, we thought we’d provide a sneak peek of what the Canadian screen producers we spoke with for the project had to say about what they look for in an adaptation.

Understanding of the Medium

  • “For TV pitches, we consider whether or not the premise has legs—we’re looking for a premise that can be stretched over multiple episodes over multiple seasons. This is why mystery novels work so well, as a crime of the week engine is such an easy way to drive stories. A story about a man who dies in 24 hours doesn’t work as well for TV producers (unless it’s a Movie of the Week).”

Strong Characters

Producers are also looking for great characters they can imagine casting, characters the audience will love or hate:

  • “Does the book have a character or characters that will last through a series? Who are we being asked to spend 100 hours with?”


Producers are looking for something somewhat paradoxical: something that hasn’t been done before but that (generally) is not such a break with familiar ground that it’s overly risky:

  • “Virtually every screen advice writer says the same: what broadcasters and distributors are looking for are works that are different but the same—Lost is a riff on Robinson Crusoe. Castle is updated Murder She Wrote.”
  • “I have to read a ton of books/scripts/pitches, so tell me why your project is different from the 50 other things I have to read.


  • “The best kind of pitch usually begins like this: “It’s about a woman who…” as in “It’s about a man who was obsessed with catching a whale” or “It’s about a prince who believes his uncle killed his father to grab the throne and marry his mother” or “It’s about a man who goes to a shrink after he inherits the family business—and by the way—the family business is the Mob.”

We’ll release a complete Pitch Guide in coordination with the launch of Books to Screen. In the meantime, we leave you with four trailers for great movies based on Canadian books. But before we do, which Canadian books would you like to see made into movies or TV series? Tweet us, chat with us on Facebook, or leave a comment.

Barney's Version Trailer (adapted from Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version)




Incendies Trailer (adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play Incendies)




Away From Her Trailer (adapted from "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage)




Pontypool (adapted from Tony Burgess's Pontypool Changes Everything)


March 18, 2014
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