Essex County is comics phenom Jeff Lemire's toughest adaptation yet
Acclaimed graphic novel by one of the industry's most successful writers premieres today
Jeff Lemire may be the most famous man you've never heard of.
Then again, if you know a thing or two about comics it's unlikely you've managed to miss his name. The superhero-stories golden boy racked up credits at all the major publishers in the first decade of his career — on projects that would eventually find themselves in the industrial cinematic juggernauts of both the Marvel and DC TV and film universes.
For fans of those, it may be Marvel's Moon Knight, Old Man Logan and Hawkeye, or D.C.'s Justice League, Green Arrow and Superboy that his name brings to mind; all huge names that found their way to the screen — as well as comics runs that, for a time, were under Lemire's creative direction.
If you're more inclined to keep up with original stories, you might be patiently waiting for the planned Black Hammer adaptation (Lemire's Twilight Zone-esque take on the genre) or the second season of Sweet Tooth (the post-apocalyptic, deer-boy drama produced by Robert Downey Jr.)
For the English lit crowd, it would likely be his books Roughneck, the Gord Downie collaboration Secret Path, the twin Descender and Ascender series or The Underwater Welder that stand out. But for Lemire himself, it's a much earlier story he holds apart from the rest.
To him, it's Essex County: the book about his hometown, and that truly launched him into the industry — and helped him define who he was.
"That was the book, I think, where I found my voice as a creator," Lemire told CBC News. "I feel it's my first project and the closest to my life…. It's based on where I grew up, and a lot of the people I grew up with."
Today, that story of — among other things — growing up in Ontario becomes the latest of his works to jump to TV, as it premieres on CBC Gem. And while it may not have been his first book, and it's far from the first to find its way to another medium, it may be the most genuine Lemire-adaptation yet.
Look to any review of Essex and you'll likely stumble upon one word: quiet.
The graphic novel is actually a compendium of three separate volumes, the loosely connected stories of 10-year-old Lester (sent to live with his reclusive uncle after his mother's death), brothers Lou and Vince Lebeuf (as an elderly Lou reminisces over an abortive hockey career) and local nurse Anne (struggling to serve and care for others while balancing an ongoing family crisis).
All these stories are told as sparingly and delicately as possible in what adaptation co-writer Eilis Kirwan described as "evocative, quite minimalist imagery" — it's a style that intentionally leaves more unsaid, more suggested and large page spreads without any dialogue at all.
Kirwan and Lemire (who, unlike with Sweet Tooth, gets a credit of one of the lead writers of the show itself) worked to keep that feeling. The effort, for the most part, works — Essex County operates and feels more like a stretched out film than TV writing, even in the streaming era's miniseries-heavy present.
But there were also the necessary changes. To make the story work, Lester (played here by 11-year-old Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, whose mother is coincidentally from Essex County herself) takes more of a backseat. The stories of Lou (Nova Scotia's Stephen McHattie), Anne (B.C.'s Molly Parker, likely the series' most well-known star) take up equal space here, while Ken (Brian J. Smith, Essex County's sole non-Canadian lead) whose character Lemire says was composed of "almost sketches in the book" is fleshed out.
At the same time, instead of being shown sequentially like in the book, the series has all the storylines happen simultaneously. That may have led to a cramped story with so many complex small town relationships and dramas I need a spreadsheet to keep track of them all, but it's something Lemire said the adaptation needed.
"For me it was just realizing early that I'd already done the book exactly how I wanted to do it. I didn't need to do it again," he said. "[I decided] I was doing something else and I was working in a different medium — and I needed to embrace that."
- My Life in BooksEssex County star Molly Parker recommends 3 books that have had a lasting impact on her life
The changes don't end there. Instead of taking place in the Essex County of Lemire's youth, it is firmly, and perhaps a bit awkwardly at times, in the present; here, Lester has a cellphone, and at one point blows a cloud of dust off of an old cassette tape — only for it to play Broken Social Scene's Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl.
Also novel is Lemire's decision to both adapt something so unabashedly Canadian, and rest it on the performances of Canadians. Virtually the entire cast is from Canada — including Tamara Podemski (sister to film producer and actor Jennifer Podemski), Rossif Sutherland (son of iconic Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, and half-brother to Kiefer Sutherland) as well as the clear standout performance: Thunder Bay's Kevin Durand as Jimmy.
The reasoning was intentional. After failed attempts working with an American studio to make the show, Lemire said he learned for this story to be told, it had to be told here.
"I knew that if I was gonna do this book, it would have to be done here," he said. "Because there is just something inherent about it — there is a Canadianness to it that you just wouldn't get if you weren't from here, you know?"
But even though it's a conscious choice, that effort speaks to whether Essex County will ultimately sink or swim. While Essex County ultimately exhibits the singular voice and tone of Lemire, the show takes more than a moment to draw you in — initial episodes are (understandably) slow, while it flickers in and out of self-seriousness and an overwrought tone the graphic novel was so deftly able to avoid.
Meanwhile, a wave of shows like Sort Of, Letterkenny and Schitt's Creek have proven the world has an appetite for Canadian content — specifically comedy. Aiming to deliver a decidedly more serious story — that succeeded largely because of its original medium — while still keeping it firmly of this country could be a losing game, or a turning point for TV.
- An earlier version of this article stated that Jeff Lemire grew up in Northern Ontario. While he did spend time in the region, in fact he was raised in Southwestern Ontario. The article has been corrected to reflect this.Mar 19, 2023 11:41 AM ET
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