When author Susan Swan approached Hannah Cheesman and Mackenzie Donaldson of Toronto’s Aberrant Pictures about producing the film adaptation of her 2012 novel, The Western Light (Cormorant Books), the three women immediately clicked.
“Everybody really felt on [the same] page with one another,” says Cheesman. “And eager to work together and to work on this particular piece.”
Swan initially found the two filmmakers through their monthly Globe and Mail column, which details their experiences as professional women in the Canadian film industry. While neither had read the novel before Swan approached them, they both saw its potential.
The Western Light, a prequel to Swan’s 1993 novel The Wives of Bath (Knopf Canada), is a coming-of-age story narrated by 12-year-old Mary (Mouse) Bradford, who walks with a limp after surviving polio. Mouse’s mother died when Mouse was a child, and her father, the local doctor, is preoccupied with his patients. Enter John Pilkie, an ex-NHL player who was sent to a nearby psychiatric hospital after allegedly murdering his family. Pilkie strikes up an unlikely friendship with the young girl, who mistakenly interprets his attentions as romantic.
Cheesman, who will write the screenplay, is particularly excited about the story’s complex characters, especially Mouse’s aunt, “Little Louie,” whom Cheesman might play in the film. Donaldson found herself attracted to the Georgian Bay setting, which evoked her own childhood summers.
Swan’s daughter, Samantha Haywood of the Transatlantic Agency, is acting as agent on the project alongside Kim Witherspoon of Inkwell Management Literary Agency. Haywood, who has been focusing more of her own business on screen adaptations, says The Western Light is “extremely cinematic. I knew when I read it that it would make a great film.”
In 2001, The Wives of Bath was adapted into the film Lost and Delirious, starring Jessica Paré, Piper Perabo, and Mischa Barton. Initially, its screenwriter, Judith Thompson, and director, Léa Pool, had expressed interest in adapting The Western Light. While their involvement hasn’t been ruled out, Swan was impressed with Cheesman and Donaldson and has decided to let them take the reins.
“They have a magic something,” Swan says. “They’re a perfect fit.”