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Author Lawrence Hill's Book of Negroes won a Commonwealth Prize in 2008.

SIMON HAYTER/SIMON HAYTER

A chance meeting at a Toronto bookstore produced a deal to bring author Lawrence Hill's bestselling novel The Book of Negroes to the screen in an international co-production.

Film director Clement Virgo of Conquering Lion Pictures said he was browsing at This Ain't the Rosedale Library when singer Molly Johnson approached him to demand that he read Hill's acclaimed novel. "She literally followed me around the store," Virgo says, "so I bought the book. Then I found I couldn't put it down."

And he was astonished to discover that no moviemaker had yet snapped up the rights.

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A historical saga with action that spans colonial North America, Europe and Africa, The Book of Negroes (published in the United States as Someone Knows My Name) is narrated by an indomitable heroine who struggles to win her freedom after being sold into slavery as a youth. More than 300,000 copies have been sold in Canada, where it won this year's annual Canada Reads contest. The book also won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2008 and has earned rave reviews internationally.

The scale and setting of the work mark a change for Virgo, whose films so far have been urban and contemporary, most recently Poor Boy's Game , a boxing drama set in 1990s Halifax. "It's a bigger project, but I feel it's timely," he said, comparing the upcoming adaptation to Roots, the seminal slave drama of the 1970s. "It's an opportune moment to take this wonderful book to the screen."

Early anticipation centres on the question of who will play Aminata Diallo, a heroine the Literary Review of Canada called "an amazing literary creation."

"I think there's going to be a brawl for this part," Virgo said, adding that he hopes to secure financing for the project in upcoming meetings at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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