How I Wrote It

How Sharon Lewis adapted Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring to film

The director of Brown Girl Begins describes how she brought the classic Canadian novel to the big screen.
The Sharon Lewis film, Brown Girl Begins, adapts the Nalo Hopkinson novel for the screen. (Courtesy of Brown Girl Begins/Grand Central Publishing)

Sharon Lewis is a Canadian writer, director and former CBC host. Her debut feature film, Brown Girl Begins is an adaptation-cum-prequel of the 1998 Canadian sci-fi novel Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson.

The dystopian novel, which was a Canada Reads 2008 finalist, is set in Toronto in the year 2049. The economy has collapsed and the wealthy have fled to the suburbs, while the poor must survive in a city core ruled by a criminal warlord. 

Brown Girl Begins is screening in select North American cities in February 2018 and will have a limited release in Toronto in March 2018. Lewis spoke to CBC Books about how she adapted the work for the screen. 

Actor Rachael Crawford in the Sharon Lewis film Brown Girl Begins. (Courtesy of Brown Girl Begins)

Finding focus

"What drew me into the novel was this idea of a community living under oppressed circumstances, yet flourishing. Then out of that dystopian world, there's this young Black teenage girl named Ti-Jeanne who is destined to be a leader. I still haven't seen that in film, so I wanted to show that.

"I started with the protagonist and decided to make a prequel to the book rather than a direct adaptation of the book. Part of that was financial — we just couldn't get a budget that could feature the battle of good and evil with a Star Wars-level of production."

A scene from Brown Girl Begins. (Courtesy of Brown Girl Begins)

Dog-eared development

"You should see my copy of the novel! It is so dog-eared, with sticky notes and underlined passages. My process was to pinpoint what I loved about the book, particularly what spoke to me and what I thought might work visually. The very first thing I did was take away the extraneous things that I wasn't even interested in exploring.

"Then I went through and I charted Ti-Jeanne's character and her growth — where she started from and where she ended up. Then I went through the novel and tracked where she starts as a young, very naive girl to where she ends up being ready to take on the main antagonist. I decided that the novel would stop before she takes on the big bad [criminal warlord] Rudy Sheldon."

Writer-director Sharon Lewis, with actor Measha Brueggergosman. (Courtesy of Brown Girl Begins)

Future-proof

"Back when Nalo wrote this back in 1998 there were no smartphones, iPhones or iPads. Technology obviously has been updated since then. But because we weren't going to focus on the wealthy, a lot of that technology wasn't relevant to the community I was portraying.

"The only thing that we put in that wasn't in the book was the use of a tablet. The characters can access the spirits using one. But since there's not a lot of electricity in the world, there wasn't going to be a lot of technology in the film. In effect, we deviated very little from the kind of world portrayed in the book."

Sharon Lewis' comments have been edited and condensed. 

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