Quill and Quire


« Back to

Q&A: author John Vaillant and filmmaker Sasha Snow on adapting each other’s work

John Vaillant

John Vaillant

When Governor General Literary Award–winning Vancouver author John Vaillant saw Sasha Snow’s documentary, Conflict Tiger, he knew that he had to transform it into a book. Vaillant didn’t expect that Snow would read his 2005 non-fiction tour de force The Golden Spruce (Knopf Canada) about the life of logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin, and feel the same pull. This week, Hadwin’s Judgment, Snow’s adaptation of The Golden Spruce, debuted at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival.

Q&Q spoke with Snow and Vaillant about the art of retelling, narrative ownership, and what it’s like to be a character in your own story.

You’ve both drawn inspiration from one another’s projects. How did that come about? Sasha Snow: I’d just finished Conflict Tiger when this strange American man rings me up and says, ‘Would you mind if I wrote a book about your film?’ I was flattered someone considered it worthy of retelling. He said, ‘Oh, by the way, there are some uncanny similarities between your film and the book I just finished.’ A week later he sent me The Golden Spruce. It dropped onto my doormat – the story literally fell onto me. I started reading initially out of respect for John, and within 10 pages, I was hooked.

John Vaillant: This sense of recognition – across ocean, across continent, across media – was so sudden and clear. When I saw Conflict Tiger I had no prior knowledge of the film, but within 15 minutes, I thought, ‘This is an incredible story. It would be an amazing book.’ I remember saying, ‘This is The Golden Spruce with stripes.’ Sasha’s sensibility feels so harmonically consistent with mine. His openness, and the way we tell stories, the way we see scenes and characters, are so aesthetically sympathetic.

What were the challenges in adapting the book? SS: It was a much bigger story in many ways. The book follows the protagonist Grand Hadwin for virtually his entire life, from when he was a young boy to the time of his disappearance. Which was, what, 40 odd years? And over a huge geographical area. How do you compress that? How do you tell a man’s life in 90 minutes? You can’t. So the first thing I did, having read the book, was write the script. I imagined the documentary characters. Some are kinds of archetypes, some are based on the people in the book, and some I just invented just to convince myself it was possible.

Did you differ on your thoughts of who Grant was? The book spends more time questioning his sanity, while the documentary gives a more romanticized view. SS: It was [a matter of] distilling him to the person I recognized when I read the book. He had a history of mental illness, and clearly with that history, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong work – but his reaction to that, to me, was quite sane. So I chose to get rid of the white noise and tell the pure story. I think it’s a simplification but it is trying to get to the truth of who I felt he was.

JV: I often have the feeling that handling him is a little like handling a radioactive isotope. There’s so much energy coming off him, and not all of it is good. So how do you mediate that and filter that so that the audience sees the kind of most useful – maybe the healthiest – parts?

How do you take a story that’s already been told and apply your own narrative vision? SS: Obviously you don’t want to just replicate someone’s work, and you can’t because the form is completely different. I had to find elements of the story that could progress it beyond what John had done – to some new place. It took a long time to find those pieces and people who, in a way, John hadn’t found. I needed new people that would bring a different life to the narrative.

JV: The question of, ‘How do you tell the same story but differently?’ is important, I think, to any artist who has an ego and has integrity. They don’t want to do the same thing the person just did, and yet they admire it enormously. It’s almost a contradiction. I spent a month in Russia, just to satisfy myself that there was enough more and different in the story that I wouldn’t be telling Conflict Tiger again.

We’ve created the complementary documents-slash-documentaries that are different refractions of the same stories. It’s not that we have differing theories of what happened – it’s just the narratives are so rich that they can withstand the pressure of two in-depth renderings. Sasha paid me this very high compliment when he read The Tiger. He said, ‘Wow, I’m meeting people I thought I knew really well for the first time.’

What was it like to go from telling the story of The Golden Spruce to being on camera as a source? SS: I had to make a decision about who was going to appear in the film. If there had been any sense of competitive ego, there’s no way I would have John as a main narrator. If you want to separate yourself from the book, why would you choose to have the author as one of the main narrators? But for me it was never a question. It was an obvious thing to do because John’s very gifted at speaking and tells a great story. But also his knowledge of my main character was better than anybody else. He reflects Grant’s voice.

But as far as what that’s going to feel like for John to see his face on the big screen and hear his voice, I don’t know. For me that would be excruciating.

JV: You know I’ve been interviewed a few times on radio and TV and I don’t watch them, I don’t listen to them. I’ve seen clips of it and my hair’s all weird – you see things that nobody else is going to see, right? So, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the movie.

This interview has been edited and condensed.