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Reading Your Way to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival: Part One, Fiction

As summer winds down, the world of film is gearing up for the excitement and buzz of the Toronto International Film Festival. The festival, which takes place from September 7th-17th, is one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the world. It is expected to attract over 350,000 film buffs, who will vote for the festival’s only prize, the People’s Choice Award.

This year’s lineup of almost 400 films, includes a fantastic number of book-to-screen adaptations. I’ve sifted through this prodigious lineup to create a reading list of the many books behind this year’s TIFF films. It’s been a great year for adaptations with an enormous range of genre, style, and topic, from Angelina Jolie’s highly anticipated film First They Killed My Father based on the memoirs of Louise Ung, to Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry, a modern Shakespeare retelling set in New Delhi.

Indeed, so vast was the number of adaptations, that I divided the list in two. This first part will focus on the works of fiction, whether novel, short story, or play, that have served as a basis for films in this year’s TIFF lineup, while the second part, which you can read here, will look at the works of nonfiction that were adapted. In the run up to the festival more films are expected to be added to the schedule, so while I attempted to be comprehensive in this list, there may be some that I have missed. If you spot any omissions please do let me know in the comments below.

Alias Grace

This first entry on the list is not, in fact, being made into a film, but it's premiering as part of the festival’s Primetime programme, which spotlights the best of upcoming television series. Alias Grace is based on Margaret Atwood’s Giller Prize-winning novel of the same name. With the enormous success this year of the TV adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s easy to see there being a lot of excitement about this release. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace explores the ways society restricts women’s roles and choices, but in this case it is through the lens of historical fiction. Atwood was inspired by the real story of Grace Marks, a young Irish servant who was accused of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper. The resulting story elegantly interweaves perspectives and narratives to present an unsettling mystery that remains tantalisingly ambiguous.

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Hillary Jordan’s simmering novel centres on the racial tension of a small community living on the Mississippi Delta post World War II. Jordan explores the uncomfortable change of people moving from wartime to peace, and the shifting societal norms that come with that. Director Dee Rees’ adaptation includes an impressive ensemble cast, well-chosen for this intense and emotional portrayal of a turbulent time in American history.

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On Chesil Beach

This is a big year for adaptations of Ian McEwan’s work; this is the first of two entries on this list. Previously, McEwan’s work found incredible success with the adaptation of Atonement. Like that story, his novella On Chesil Beach centres on characters who must live with the consequences and missed opportunities that a single moment of misunderstanding can bring. The story focuses on a couple on their wedding night, as they try to consummate their relationship. The story has a sense of horror to it, as the young couple watch their cherished relationship crumble, and their expectations for life alter dramatically.

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The Leisure Seeker

Michael Zadoorian’s joyous, yet bittersweet novel, follows an elderly couple who set out on one last road trip, as cancer and Alzheimer's loom on their horizon. This is the English language debut for Italian director Paolo Virzì with his film of Zadoorian’s novel. Acting stalwarts Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play the lovable and loving couple, who, like the characters in the novel, overflow with humour and warmth.

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For his directorial debut, actor Simon Baker has taken on the novel Breath, by Tim Winton, one of Australia’s most beloved authors. Breath is set in a small Western Australian village where two adolescent boys find themselves inexorably drawn to the thrill of danger on the ocean waves. Throughout the book, Winton deftly conjures up the crystalised moments of joy and terror in his descriptions of surfing. These are key to the book’s core, which explores the desire to escape the fear of living by embracing the fear of dying. 

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Journey's End

Amidst the many anniversaries of the First World War, it is a poignant and fitting time for a film adaptation of R. C. Sherriff’s iconic play, Journey’s End. Giving the audience a glimpse into the lives of soldiers in the trenches, Sherriff’s play is famous for unrelenting tension. The story is set over four days in March 1918, in the run-up to the real-life events of Operation Michael, a failed operation which led soldiers back over the wilderness the Somme. George Bernard Shaw hailed the play as 'useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war,’ and it remains a classic of anti-war storytelling.

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The Breadwinner

Cartoon Saloon, the highly acclaimed Irish animation studio, has garnered much praise for their distinctive and stunning style of hand-drawn animation. Their previous two animated features, The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea, both earned Academy Award nominations. Now, for their third feature film, they have adapted Deborah Ellis’ award-winning children’s novel The Breadwinner, which follows a young Afghan girl, Parvana, who must disguise herself as a boy in order to provide for her family. A blend political commentary and heartfelt narrative, The Breadwinner is a thoroughly captivating story.

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Naomi Alderman’s novel Disobedience tackles a range of controversial topics without ever descending to mere culture-war drama. It follows Ronit, a wisecracking, non-practicing Orthodox Jew who must return home for the funeral of her father, a revered rabbi. While home, Ronit begins an affair with her cousin’s wife. Alderman carefully balances respect for personal liberty and religious conviction. The film adaptation is headed by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, making it the second of two films of his to make this year’s lineup, the first being A Fantastic Woman.

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A Private Affair

Regarded as one of the greatest works of 20th-century Italian literature, Beppe Fenoglio’s World War II novel, A Private Affair, is about Milton, a young man who joins the partisan militia after the Italian invasion of the Wehrmacht. When he returns home after the war, he looks for his sweetheart Fulvia and his friend, Giorgio, also a partisan. The film, which is titled Rainbow - A Private Affair and only loosely based on Fenoglio’s novel, is potentially the final film of the Taviani brothers, two of Italy’s most illustrious filmmakers.


It seems incredible that there has not yet been an English translation of Christophe Ono-dit-Biot’s highly acclaimed novel, Plonger, (to Dive) which won the 2013 Grand prix du roman de l'Académie française. For the sake of comprehensiveness and for those interested, we’ve included the French language edition here of Plonger. This story, in both the novel and the film, takes a variety of perspectives on the main character Paz, as she leaves her family to find herself.

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Sadly there were some books that we were not able to include in this list, due to their scarce availability. We will, however, list them here:

Calin Peter Netzer’s film Ana, mon amour, is based on the book by Romanian author Cezar Paul-Badescu titled Luminita, mon amour, which explores the rise and fall of a relationship under the shadow of mental illness.

Japanese crime writer Mahokaru Numata’s novel Birds Without Names provides the basis for the film of the same name. This thriller centres on Towako a young woman pining for her old boyfriend who nearly beat her to death. When Towako finds out that he has been missing in the eight years since their violent encounter she is draw into the dark mystery. If you want to discover this author you could look at another of his novels, Nan-core. This story also deals with a protagonist who finds themselves with close ties to a dark crime.

Legendary action film director John Woo's newest film, Manhunt, is based on Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare by Juko Nishimura, which had previously seen a successful film adaptation in 1976. The story is about Du Qiu, a highly successful lawyer, who is framed for murder directly after his retirement party. Desperate to evade the police and demonstrate his innocence, Qiu's journey is a breathless and fast-paced one, filled with violence, corruption, and elusive secrets. Another of Nishimura’s novels, Lost Souls, Sacred Creatures, is more widely available but is in a very different style and tone, in this case focussing on the heart-warming relationships between humans and animals.

As mentioned above, if there are any book-to-film adaptations missing from the list do let me know. 


Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.


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