Exploring Alice Munro, but not through her books

Munro’s stories have inspired some extraordinary works of cinema—and some made-for-TV duds
Kristen Wiig stars in the Munro adaptation Hateship Loveship (TIFF)

After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday morning, Alice Munro can now be rightly called the most famous Canadian author in history. Yet for some Canadians, Munro may only be a half-remembered name from their high-school or university days, lost in the fog of CanLit syllabuses.

So, how to get up to speed with the writer everyone will be talking about for the rest of the year? You could always read her 14 excellent collections of short stories…or you could take the easy way out, and download (or “rent,” if that’s still a thing) the half-dozen or so films adapted from her work. But a word of warning: Although the 82-year-old author’s stories have inspired some extraordinary works of cinema, they’ve also spawned some made-for-TV duds. A quick, chronological run-down:

The Ottawa Valley (1974): This 30-minute TV special aired as part of CBC’s Sunday evening Performance block of programming, though it’s mostly now forgotten. Munro’s original short meta-ish story, in which the narrator tries in vain to write a portrait of her mother’s family, was brought to life by director Janine Manatis, and starred Karen Austin. Good luck finding it anywhere aside from the CBC archives, though.

The Newcomers (1977): The CBC miniseries is an oddity for Munro, as it wasn’t adapted from her original work, but was instead one of her few screen credits. The seven hour-long episodes were penned by both Munro and Timothy Findley, and explored Canada’s legacy as a beacon for immigrants.Starring a wealth of the country’s top acting talent at the time—including R.H. Thomson and Kenneth Welsh—the series was acclaimed at the time, but has since faded from memory.

Boys and Girls (1983): Megan Follows starred in this Canadian-made short film based on Munro’s short story, in which gender roles play an integral part. Again, the film made little lasting impressions, though at least it kick-started director Don McBrearty’s career, leading him to a long and still-strong career in television.

Lives of Girls & Women (1994): This made-for-TV movie has a more curious than critically strong legacy, having been completed in 1994, but failing to make it to air until two years later. Based on Munro’s series of short stories—collected together and released as a novel—the film revolves around the life and loves of Del Jordan (played here by CanCon mainstay Tanya Allen). While the original book is likely the best introduction to Munro’s work, the same cannot be said of the adaptation.

Edge of Madness (2002): This murder-mystery drama is Munro’s first proper big-screen adaptation…in a sense. Based on her short story “A Wilderness Station,” it was released in theatres overseas (Norway and Thailand, for some reason), but went straight-to-DVD in her home country. This despite a solid cast of up-and-comers (Brendan Fehr, Jonas Chernick) and generally compelling direction from Anne Wheeler.

Away from Her (2006): It took Sarah Polley—the Canadian art scene’s renaissance woman—to finally bring true depth and warmth to a Munro adaptation, scoring a massive made-in-Canada hit in the process. Based on Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the drama is a compelling emotional dissection of a couple’s decades-long relationship, and earned Oscar nominations for Polley’s screenplay and star Julie Christie. Oh, and a boatload of Genie Awards (remember those?).

Hateship Loveship (2013): Picking up where Polley left off, director Liza Johnson’s film proves Munro’s stories are more than worthy of the big-screen. The graciously paced drama, which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, stars Kristen Wiig as a lonely housekeeper and caregiver who gets a new start in life with the most unlikely of men (Guy Pearce). After reading Munro’s original story collection titled Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Johnson found herself falling in love with the author’s uniquely introspective voice, despite having never read much of her work before. “It was only after I read the screenplay that I picked up Alice’s story, and it’s just so beautiful,” Johnson told Maclean’s during TIFF. “There are just those flashes of illumination that happen through each character that makes her work so compelling.”

Runaway (2014?): Although casting has yet to begin—and the last proper industry update was a few years ago—acclaimed director Jane Campion (The Piano) was set to helm this adaptation of Munro’s Giller Prize-winning short story collection. The film (if it gets made) will follow a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, thus fitting snugly in both Campion and Munro’s wheelhouse. Here’s hoping it will be as entertaining (though maybe not as gonzo-bonkers) as Campion’s recent television miniseries, Top of the Lake.