Television

10 CBC shows based on books

Shows based on books that you can watch on CBC Gem.

Shows based on books that you can watch on CBC Gem.

Some of the most popular TV shows like Game of Thrones or House of Cards are based on books and while TV adaptations are trending all around the world, they don't always hit every note of the book or novel. But when they do, we are glued to the screens. Being able to portray someone's thought process on screen as well as a book can is no easy feat — one of the reasons the original book characters and the story plots tend to be dramatized for TV.

Here is a list of the 10 best CBC shows based on books that are or will soon be available on CBC Gem.

Coroner

Inspired by the best-selling book series by M.R. Hall and named after the first, Coroner is a character-driven drama series created by Morwyn Brebner, the creator of Saving Hope and Rookie Blue

The TV series follows Dr. Jenny Cooper (Serinda Swan), a recently widowed new coroner who investigates suspicious deaths in Toronto. The show reflects Toronto's rich diversity bringing each case into a new area of the city while touching on buzz-worthy themes. As Jenny solves mysterious deaths, she also deals with clinical anxiety and her troubled teenage son who's character has been slightly altered in the television series compared to the books. 

The show is a bit more urban compared to the books with similar plot development and some backstories and character changes or dramatizations. This is inclusive of the main character Jenny Cooper, who in the books is a divorcee from a small village Severn Vale District — effectively mid-western England — while in the show she is a widow from Toronto. All of the cases in the show are inspired by or come from things that have happened in Canada.

"In the book, she's a lawyer, because a coroner is a lawyer there [England], and here, she's a doctor because that's the way it is in Ontario." — Adrienne Mitchell, Director of Coroner

There are seven books in the series with an additional short story prequel to Coroner.

"Sensible, professional people weren't meant to experience the things that Jenny Cooper often did. Sane. Sober. Rational. Those were the sort of words that ought to describe one of Her Majesty's coroners. She held judicial office. Her job was fearlessly to examine the circumstances of unnatural deaths and deliver solid answers. She had become, hard though it was for her to believe, a figure of authority. But in unexpected moments – it could happen as easily during a testy courtroom exchange as in the silence of the night – the membrane between this world and the next became so thin, she felt that if she chose to, she could peer through it like a gauze."The Innocent by M.R. Hall (Short story prequel to Coroner)

Heartland

Heartland is a 26-novel series created by Lauren Brooke which began in 2000 with Coming Home. The story follows Amy Fleming, a girl who lives on a horse ranch called Heartland in Virginia, U.S. and along with her family and friends, heals and helps mistreated or abused horses using psychologically based therapies in place of more traditional training methods. 

The CBC's TV adaptation of Heartland which debuted in 2007 is now in its 13th season — set to premiere on the 22nd of September — making it the longest running show in Canadian television history. The show's storyline veers off from the original novel series with a few main character additions and backstory changes — including the story setting which the show changed to Alberta, Canada. 

However, the heart of the main characters and the world that Lauren Brooke has created in the novels stay the same. In the first season of Heartland, our writers have drawn from some of the story lines found in the first eight books of the series and several episodes use Lauren Brooke's novels as a launching point, but the story ideas mostly come from the imaginations of the writers.

"Do you want to dance?" he asked. Amy looked at him in surprise. "With you?" Ty grinned. "No - with the giant nutcracker in the corner." One Day You'll Know by Lauren Brooke (book #6 from the 26-novel series)

Anne with an E

Anne Shirley, a red-haired and freckle-faced orphan from the 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, is probably one of the most beloved Canadian literary characters. 

CBC reinvented the character in 2017 through Anne with an E, an adaptation by writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett who tonally made her version of Anne a little darker.

Anne with an E is a coming-of-age story following an outsider who fights for her place in the world after an abusive childhood spent in orphanages and the homes of strangers. Anne finally gets adopted by Mathew and Marilla Cuthbert after mistakenly being left at the Avonlea train station on Prince Edward Island. With her unique imaginative spirit and intellect, 13-year-old Anne transforms their lives and eventually the small town in which they live.

While keeping the spirit of Anne faithful to the novel, Walley-Beckett dives deeper into explorations of gender, sexuality, race and prejudice and reveals more of Anne's miserable past in order to be more true to what the struggles and desperation of an orphan were like in the 1890s — which is at odds with the book.

"I had to approach it from a point of emotional reality. Anne is a damaged person. She is a wounded person … I felt that it was extremely important to honour what it was like to be an orphan back then when you were viewed as a delinquent and unlovable and ungodly. There was great prejudice and great harm done." — Moira Walley-Beckett, Creator of Anne with an E

Walley-Beckett also introduced an entirely new character, Bash, to reflect the racial diversity present in Charlottetown at the time of the novel, which was absent from previous adaptations. "Bash is the vehicle to explore intolerance and inequality, even more when he goes to The Bog, when he learns that other black people live there," Walley-Beckett explains, "The Bog is the community that's just outside of Charlottetown, where people of colour were marginalized and had their own community there."

"To Anne, this was as the end of all things. It was bad enough to be singled out for punishment from among a dozen equally guilty ones [students]; it was worse still to be sent to sit with a boy, but that that boy should be Gilbert Blythe was heaping insult on injury to a degree utterly unbearable. Anne felt that she could not bear it and it would be of no use to try. Her whole being seethed with shame and anger and humiliation." Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Murdoch Mysteries

Set in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century, Murdoch Mysteries is a one-hour drama series, based on the Detective Murdoch eight book series by Maureen Jennings, who also wrote a few scripts for the CBC series and appeared once as an extra on the set. The first book, Except The Dying, was published in 1997.

"I played a cook and modelled myself on Mrs Bridges from Upstairs Downstairs, with extra padding," said Maureen Jennings about her cameo on the show.

The TV series explores the intriguing world of William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), a methodical and handsome detective who pioneers innovative forensic techniques to solve some of the city's most gruesome murders. Each episode includes a crime and its solution. While the show keeps the character's essence as close to the books as possible, in order to make for good television the series had to expand on the cases to dramatize the stories and according to Maureen Jennings, it did keep the look and feel just right. 

The development of the original William Murdoch character was inspired by a combination of real life people, "the first great detective of the Ontario Provincial Police," John Wilson Murray who was appointed in 1875, as well as a priest that Jennings knew in University. The character of Tyler was also inspired by a real life person, actor Thomas Craig, who plays Inspector Brackenreid. 

"With Murdoch, I set out to create a character that I'd like to meet. He's a combination of real people, including a priest I knew at university who I was insanely in love with!" — Maureen Jennings, Writer of Detective Murdoch book series

"William Murdoch had recently been promoted from acting to full detective and given a raise in wages of three dollars a month. But his new status was not reflected by a better office, and from his desk he was contemplating the same old furnishings of a battered metal filing cabinet and a visitor's chair that the rag-­and-­bones man would have rejected ... He needed a new lamp, or at least some better oil, as the one on his desk was smoking badly."Vices of My Blood by Maureen Jennings (6th book out of the 8 in the Detective Murdoch series)

Jekyll and Hyde

There have been a number of adaptations of the 1886 gothic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson — including over 120 stage and film versions. The story follows Gabriel John Utterson, a lawyer from London and his friend and scientist Dr. Jekyll, who is trying to separate his good side from his bad by creating a potion which backfires and transforms him into a violent man without a conscience.

Based loosely on this novella is the TV series Jekyll and Hyde, a continuation of the story in a form of a 10 part gothic drama series about Dr. Robert Jekyll, the grandson of the original character Dr. Henry Jekyll. Set in 1930s London, the show follows Dr. Robert Jekyll's who has inherited his grandfather's curse of split personality with a violent alter-ego as he embarks on a quest to discover his real identity and the true nature of his family's curse. 

"On this night however, as soon as the cloth was taken away, he [Gabriel John Utterson] took up a candle and went into his business room. There he opened his safe, took from the most private part of it a document endorsed on the envelope as Dr. Jekyll's Will and sat down with a clouded brow to study its contents." — Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

According to the actor Tom Bateman, who plays Mr. Hyde, his rendition of the character was inspired by Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight and the "ultra-violent droogs" from Stanley Kubrick's film, A Clockwork Orange.

Alias Grace

CBC's Alias Grace is a six hour miniseries written by Sarah Polley, based on Margaret Atwood's 1996 best selling novel of the same name. The novel is a historical fiction, of the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and lover Nancy Montgomery, but inspired by true events. 

Although based on factual events, Atwood constructs a story arc with a fictional character, Dr. Simon Jordan who researches the case and in doing so becomes personally involved in the story of the accused Grace Marks — a domestic servant of the murdered Thomas Kinnear who claims to be innocent — as he seeks to reconcile his perception of the young, mild-mannered Irish woman he sees with the murder of which she has been convicted. 

With some augmentation for length, the show stays pretty true not only to the characters and the plot but to the tone and structure of the book — accompanied by the crucial role in the series which is played by the narration.

"The visitors wear afternoon dresses with rows of buttons up their fronts, and stiff wire crinolines beneath. It's a wonder they can sit down at all, and when they walk, nothing touches their legs under the billowing skirts, except their shifts and stockings. They are like swans, drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour near our house, when I was little, before I ever made the long sad journey across the ocean. They were bell-shaped and ruffled, gracefully waving and lovely under the sea; but if they washed up on the beach and dried out in the sun, there was nothing left of them. And that is what the ladies are like: mostly water." — Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

When Calls the Heart

When Calls the Heart is a drama series set in the 1900s based on Janette Oke's 1983 book, of the same name, from her book series titled Canadian West. It tells the story of an independent and strong-minded Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a young teacher from a wealthy family who moves to a small coal mining town for a teaching position, as she tries to navigate and learn the ways of the Canadian frontier.

"There seemed to be so many things that I needed, but I held myself in check and purchased only essentials - with the exception of one extravagance. I had determined that I would drink my tea like a lady, even in a log house; so I purchased a teapot and two cups and saucers of fine china. I felt somehow Mama's mind would be much more at ease about me if she knew that I was having my tea in the proper fashion. After all, civilization could not be too far away from Pine Springs if I had such amenities!"When Calls the Heart by Janette Oke

The Book of Negroes

Canadian writer Lawrence Hill's award winning novel The Book of Negroes which is based on a real document of the same name was turned into a six-part miniseries recounting the harrowing journey of Aminata Diallo and her return home after being abducted from her village in West Africa and forced into slavery at eleven years old. She endures an arduous ocean crossing to South Carolina plantation where she has to keep the attentions of her jealous slave master at bay. 

Diallo makes herself useful by using midwifery skills that she learned at a young age from her mother and excels at learning different languages which ends up saving her life. Soon after she re-encounters Chekura, a fellow slave from West Africa who captured her and later submitted himself into slavery in order to find her. The show is a true representation of the book and though some characters are fictional, the story is based on historical research.

"I stood up to take some air outside. The stars were brilliant that night, and the cicadas were crying in endless song. If the sky was so perfect, why was the earth all wrong?" ― The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

In the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the novel was published under a different title, Someone Knows My Name.

Unspeakable

It began as a disease in the early 1980s and became a scandal. Unspeakable is an eight-episode drama series, created and written by Robert C. Cooper, that chronicles the emergence of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C in the Canadian Red Cross's blood banks. 

It's a dramatization of the tragedy in which contaminated blood and blood products infected thousands of Canadian patients, including the show creator with hepatitis C.

Told from the perspectives of two families caught in a tragic decade long battle that could have been prevented, the storyline is based on the books Bad Blood: The Tragedy of the Canadian Tainted Blood Scandal by Vic Parsons and The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada's Tainted-blood Tragedy by Andre Picard as well as personal accounts and the public inquiry launched in 1993 that was led by Justice Horace Krever.

"There will never be another story that I can tell that will be as important to me as this one," says Robert C. Cooper.

"In the 1980s, Canada's blood collection and distribution system, once considered a model for the world, went off the rails. What occurred was a disastrous chain of events — or non events — that reverberates to this day fort the tens of thousands whose lives were changed forever by the system failure"The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada's Tainted-blood Tragedy by Andre Picard

The Trickster

Set to premiere on CBC in 2020, this family drama / supernatural thriller is based on a novel Son of a Trickster — part of a planned trilogy by an award-winning Canadian writer Eden Robinson.

Described as the "darkly humorous coming-of-age story," The Trickster follows Jared, an Indigenous teen who struggles to keep his family above water when a stranger named Wade shows up in town. 

What begins as a daunting slow progression of strange events in Jared's already difficult life, turns into an epic clash of magic, monsters and madness. And then there are talking ravens, the black outs and his grandmother's suspicion that he is not human, but the son of a trickster. 

Making things worse is the fact that his only source of love and support, his flatulent pit bull called Baby, has to be euthanized.

"Jared hadn't realized he loved his dog until they decided to put her down. His mom and the vet agreed on a time, like her euthanasia was just a regular appointment. While he went to school, Baby would stay at the vet's, sedated … Her face looked like it had been flattened by a shovel. She farted constantly from a diet of cheap dog food and a tendency to eat whatever landed on the floor. She had once shat marbles. Baby wheezed like a hardened smoker and then coughed." — Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

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