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Analyzing Quebec's stage-to-screen synergy

This weekend, Évelyne de la Chenelière faces a question that few Canadian playwrights have ever had to answer: What are you wearing to the Oscars?

Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau's Oscar-nominated film about an Algerian refugee who becomes a schoolteacher, is based on a charming 2003 one-man play by de la Chenelière called Bashir Lazhar.

Though the movie is very different – it has about a dozen more characters, for starters – Falardeau obviously feels a great debt to the Montreal playwright, since he's bringing her along to the ceremony in Los Angeles.

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This is, somewhat astonishingly, the second year in a row that a Quebec film inspired by a Quebec play has made it all the way to the Oscars. Last time, it was Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, based on Wajdi Mouawad's scorching play of the same name.

It is cause for celebration in Quebec's feisty theatre scene, but also leads to a question for the rest of Canada: With all the success French-Canadian filmmakers are having adapting French-Canadian plays, why aren't filmmakers in English Canada having the same success tapping our theatre? Here are a few ideas.

1. Our best filmmakers are without borders

While there's a lot of back and forth between stage and screen in linguistically isolated Quebec, there's simply not as much crossover between English Canada's globe-trotting filmmakers and its hyper-local theatre scenes. David Cronenberg can take a Canadian book on the plane to Los Angeles, but he's not likely to see a Canadian play there.

It's not that there haven't been English-Canadian movies based on English-Canadian plays. In 2002 alone, Barbara Willis Sweete's film of playwright Judith Thompson's Perfect Pie earned a Genie nomination for Rachel McAdams (before she was a Hollywood star), while director Wiebke von Carolsfeld brought Daniel MacIvor's play Marion Bridge to the screen, starring Molly Parker.

But English Canada's star directors have, for the most part, ignored Canadian plays as a source.

When they've turned to plays for inspiration, they've tended to be American or European. Cronenberg adapted American playwright David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning play M Butterfly into a movie in 1993, while Atom Egoyan brought Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape to the screen in 2000. Back in the 1970s, as Canada's theatre scene exploded, Norman Jewison was directing movie musicals Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar one after the other.

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2. Québécois filmmakers get to some of the best English-language plays first

Quebec cinema has embraced theatre as a source of inspiration for a long time. Indeed, Denys Arcand's first film to take him to the Academy Awards, 1989's Jesus of Montreal, was inspired by seeing a performance of a Passion Play at St. Joseph's Oratory.

That theatrical connection has remained when Quebec directors make English-language films. Arcand brought Brad Fraser's Love and Human Remains to the screen in 1993, while the multidisciplinary Robert Lepage's only movie in English is based on John Mighton's Governor General's Award-winning mindbender Possible Worlds.

The exception that proves the rule here is John Greyson's 1996 movie Lilies – which was based on French-Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard's Les Feluettes. A Genie winner for best motion picture, it remains one of the Rest of Canada's best stage-to-screen adaptations.

3. Quebec filmmakers are more willing to take the play - and show the playwright the door

La Belle Province's recent stage-to-screen successes may come down, paradoxically, to the fact that, in the ROC, the writer is treated with greater respect.

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With both Monsieur Lazhar and Incendies, the filmmakers departed radically from the original plays – essentially rewriting the scripts from scratch.

Recent film adaptations in English Canada, however – Willis-Sweete's 2011 film of Billy Bishop Goes to War or Chris Abraham's 2004 movie of Kristen Thomson's solo show I, Claudia – have barely deviated from the original play and sometimes even staging.

In those cases, it's been about preserving great live performances rather than creating an entirely new screen work. But on projects like George F. Walker adaptations Niagara Motel (2006) and Better Living (1998), film directors have been loyal to the original playwrights by hiring them to write or co-write the screenplays.

De la Chenelière, meanwhile, consulted on the script for Monsieur Lazhar (and took on a small role in the movie), but otherwise stayed out of the way. And that may be, ironically, why she has a ticket to the Oscars this weekend.


The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey

Who should direct? Atom Egoyan

The film division of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company optioned Healey's 1999 play as a vehicle for John Mahoney, but it never came to fruition. Now that the rights are again available, Egoyan should take charge, having previously tackled secrets and lies in a small Canadian town in The Sweet Hereafter.

The Clockmaker by Stephen Massicotte

Who should direct? Guy Maddin

This metaphysical mystery and romance sits somewhere between Franz Kafka and Frank Capra. It would be great see what Maddin would do with the title character's ingenious clocks.

A Brimful of Asha by Asha and Ravi Jain

Who should direct? Deepa Mehta

In the play, Ravi Jain and his mother Asha tell the true story of a trip to India where she kept trying to arrange a marriage for him. With her knowledge of East-meets-West territory, Mehta could turn this Canadian story into a beautiful travelogue. (As suggested by Albert Schultz, artistic director of Soulpepper.)

Léo by Rosa Laborde.

Who should direct? Xavier Dolan

Laborde's love triangle is set around the coup that put Pinochet in power. Dolan tackled similar young lust in Heartbeats, so he'd be able to bring this play to vivid life on screen, provided he could also tap into its political passion.

True Love Lies by Brad Fraser

Who should direct? Jean-Marc Vallée

In this dark comedy, a nuclear family is rocked from its secure mooring when Dad's male ex-lover returns to the scene. Having told the story of a son coming out to his father in C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée could make this a fitting followup.

And two more being turned into films:

Hannah Moscovitch is working on the screenplay for East of Berlin, her romance between the son of a Nazi and a daughter of the Holocaust; being developed with Paul Fox, director of Everything's Gone Green.

The Drowsy Chaperone. Don McKellar and Bob Martin's Tony-winning musical is in development as a film, with Fred Schepisi set to direct and Geoffrey Rush on board as the main musical-mad character, Man in Chair.

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