Away From Her, Barney's Version, Maïna and other great CanLit film adaptations

8 Canadian novel-to-movie adaptations currently streaming on CBC Gem.

8 Canadian novel-to-movie adaptations currently streaming on CBC Gem.

(All artwork by @iikawache (IG).)

Literature can play a crucial role in our lives, representing and interpreting the voices and experiences which make us better understand or contest social and cultural constructs — and how to respond. 

These stories, shared or foreign, open our eyes to possibilities or opportunities to be enlightened. They may instigate critical thinking and perhaps change our status-quo or question unconsciously engrained views about the world, or ourselves.

Canadian literature basks in the same sun thanks to the prominent authors such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Hill, Alice Munro, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and many, many others. 

Some CanLit masterpieces have been made into acclaimed films and here are a few you can now stream on CBC Gem.

Away From Her

Away from Her is a moving love story that walks down a path of age, disability and a long marriage. Away from Her is the lyrical screenplay adaptation of celebrated author Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," from her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

The story follows a man coping with the institutionalization of his wife due to Alzheimer's disease. He faces an epiphany when she loses all her memory and shifts her affections to another nursing home resident, Aubrey — a man in a wheelchair who is also mute.

This critically acclaimed film was written and directed by Sarah Polley, starring high-profile leads including Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, and supporting cast: Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Wendy Crewson, Alberta Watson, and Kristen Thomson. 

Away From Her was Sarah Polley's feature film directorial debut and had critics praising not only the performances in the film but also Polley's screenplay and direction. 

"Rarely has love at any age been depicted so honestly on screen. For such a fully realized portrait to be created by a 28-year-old first-time director is even more remarkable." — Ann Hornaday, Washington Post.

The film received two nominations at the 80th Academy Awards: for Best Actress (Julie Christie) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sarah Polley). It also won seven Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture.


Michel Poulette's Maïna is a sensual coming-of-age story of a young Innu woman's spiritual journey and a tale of cultural conflict, set around 600 years ago in the Canadian wilderness, before the European invasion.

The film, based on Dominique Demers' book of the same name, sees Maïna travel all the way to the Great North to save her young friend. And when her rescue mission fails, the Inuit travellers — who've held her friend captive — take her too. Along their arduous adventure to the Arctic, Maïna ends up falling in love with a man in the enemy tribe. 

Maïna received multiple awards and an impressive six Canadian Screen Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography.

In this interview with CBC's All in a Weekend, director Michel Poulette said that he was absolutely absorbed in the book from start to finish and decided to make it a picture. 

He explained that the book was set 3,500 years ago but after talking to Innu and Inuit people and in doing the research they decided it was better to make the timeline closer to today, making it the 18th century instead. He added that this was the first time Innu people could see themselves represented on the big screen but also could hear themselves, as the languages spoken in the film are Innu and Inuit.

And to add icing on the cake, "I think [people] will [take away from] this movie a new knowledge about these two civilisations," says Pulette. The film is also filled with wild animals such as polar bears, caribou, wolves, ducks and more. 

Barney's Version

Barney's Version is a film that follows a picaresque and touching story of the politically incorrect, impulsive, irascible and fearlessly blunt 67-year-old Barney Panofsky — who believes only two things: that no one will ever understand anyone else and that life is absurd. 

When a series of events propels Barney to write his memoirs, what unfolds is a funny, frank and surprisingly touching portrait of one of CanLit's most iconic characters. A raunchy yet tender account of his life that includes plenty of bad behaviour.

The film is based on Mordecai Richler's 1997 book of the same name which is written from a first person point of view — while the movie is told from a third person's point of view.

The book won the 1997 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a Canada Reads 2004 finalist, defended by Canadian author and journalist, Zsuzsi Gartner.

Not only was the book written by one of Canada's most celebrated authors, who also briefly worked at the CBC in Montreal, but the film version boasts Hollywood celebrity mega stars: Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti (Billions, Cinderella Man) and two-time Oscar winner, Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Rain Man), in the lead roles.

The film was nominated for a number of awards including an Academy Award for best makeup and won many Genies plus a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes)

Biidaaban is a short animated film based on stories and poems by acclaimed Anishinaabe writer/musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

In this mesmerizing stop-motion short directed by Amanda Strong, Indigenous youths are on a mission to reclaim the ceremonial harvesting of sap from maple trees in suburban Ontario (somewhere in Peterborough) — like their Indigenous ancestors did for generations. 

Unlike those who came before them, titular Biidaaban joined by a 10,000-year-old shapeshifter, Sabe, are forced to sneak out in the middle of the night because the trees that once belonged to the forest now grow on private property. The duo, however, is guided by spirits of animals who used to roam there, a ghost caribou and ghost wolf, to do the work.

"In this story, we wanted to create a dialogue around who owns land and what is owned property — especially when you have trees and root systems that have existed in those spaces since time immemorial," said Strong to CBC Arts in their interview about the film's many breathtaking moments.  

The Lesser Blessed

The Lesser Blessed is a film about a First Nations teenager's struggle for identity, healing, and a quest to find his place in the modern world — starring Benjamin Bratt, Kiowa Gordon and Joel Evans.

The film was adapted in 2012 by Ukranian filmmaker, Anita Doron, from Canadian writer Richard Van Camp's novel of the same name — which won the German Youth Literature Prize in 2001 — and garnered a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Canadian Screen Awards.

"The Lesser Blessed inspired me to keep writing my own stories about young Anishinaabeg. The diverse, compelling characters are humanised in a way that was largely unseen in mainstream media and literature at the time this short but very potent book was published, two decades ago," said journalist and author, Waubgeshig Rice, about the book to CBC Books.

"Van Camp showed me that it's okay to go to dark places and write about harsh truths when depicting the young Indigenous experience in fiction, all the while ensuring hope and joy have space to triumph."

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner is a 2017 animated film executive produced by Angelina Jolie and Mimi Polk Gitlin, and directed by Nora Twomey, about a headstrong young girl in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family and become the titular breadwinner.

Based on the best-selling children's novel of the same name — also known as Parvana — by Deborah Ellis, the film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2018 Academy Awards, and won a CSA for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The book was released in 2000 after the author spent months interviewing women and girls in refugee camps in Pakistan for research. Ellis used these interviews as the basis of her depiction of life in Afghanistan.

An Audience of Chairs

A beautiful, gifted but mentally ill woman loses custody of her two young children when caught up in a manic episode that makes her leave them unattended on an island near her summer home.

This adaptation of Joan Clark's novel of the same name also delves into survival, overcoming obstacles and mending familial fences. The author said An Audience of Chairs is based on her cousin, who is bipolar and has had a hard life because of it.

"Like beauty, madness altered perception, but instead of offering illusion, it offered delusion. Moranna learned the tricks madness played on perception the hard way as experience showed her how persuasively madness distorted reality. Experience also showed her that if she hung on long enough, the panic would subside and the delusions would pass." — Excerpt from the book An Audience of Chairs (p. 286)

Down to the Dirt

Based on Newfoundland author Joel Thomas Hynes' first novel of the same name, the film follows the story of Keith and Natasha's relationship that turns rotten. When Natasha runs away to Halifax, Keith makes it his mission to track her down, only to learn things about himself that he never realized before.

The film received two awards at the Atlantic Film Festival for best feature film and best original screenplay.

Author Joel Thomas Hynes, known for recurring characters on Republic of Doyle, Orphan Black, Mary Kills People and Frontier, plays the lead in the film. He also created and starred in Little Dog and will be seen in the upcoming CBC Gem series based on a bookThe Trickster.

You can stream these novel-to-screen adaptations on CBC Gem.

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at and or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.