Books·How I Wrote It

How Anita Doron took The Breadwinner and turned it into a Canadian Screen Award-winning screenplay

The story centres on 11-year-old Parvana, who must disguise herself as a boy to work in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after her father is inexplicably taken to prison.
The Breadwinner, adapted from Deborah Ellis's novel by Canadian screenwriter Anita Doron, is nominated for an Academy Award. (Courtesy of Anita Doron/Elevation Pictures)

Since it was published in 2000, the YA novel The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis has resonated with readers around the world. The story centres on 11-year-old Parvana, who must disguise herself as a boy to work in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after her father is inexplicably taken to prison. The Breadwinner was recently adapted into an animated film, which was produced by Angelina Jolie. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature and won the Canadian Screen Award for adapted screenplay.

Canadian writer Anita Doron was tapped to write the screenplay. The Breadwinner isn't Doron's first time adapting an acclaimed novel — she also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Richard Van Camp's novel The Lesser Blessed.

In her own words, Doron shares the creative process behind bringing the beloved book to the big screen.

Reading The Breadwinner

"I felt pained and enchanted at the same time. Pain because I knew that Deborah based the story on real people and real events and I knew that there are many Parvanas out there living lives like this. Enchanted because, despite the circumstances, all those Parvanas are able to find magic and creativity and laughter and love."

The protagonist of The Breadwinner is 11-year-old Parvana, who must disguise herself as a boy so she can work in the Taliban-controlled Kabul. (Elevation Pictures)

An immersive writing process

"My approach is usually to soak in the story and get lost in it. I make no plans at first. I just make note of things that resonate. What is the heart here? What is it really about or what is it really saying about the world? It's an organic intuitive process for me.

"Then I start researching. I spend a long time researching everything related to the story. What kind of music would a girl like Parvana have come across? What kind of food would she eat? What kind of fabric would she touch? What building materials would she see? I want to get a visceral sense of Parvana's life, surroundings and her family. I tend to enter the feelings and the world of the main character and just write from there, write from a place of empathy and identification."

In the film, Parvana's father (centre) is taken by the Taliban. (Elevation Pictures)

Connecting with kids

"One of my favourite moments was at the Rome Film Festival. We screened the film for about 1,000 tweens, the same age as Parvana. As Parvana was doing more and more heroic acts, they were cheering for her as if it were a soccer game. This would repeat in different parts of the world — kids would completely identify with her. Kids have incredible emotional intelligence. They can get lost in the character so easily and feel  for her. I love seeing that."

Anita Doron's comments have been edited and condensed.

Watch the trailer for The Breadwinner


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