CBC’s “Essex County” Adaptation Surpasses Expectations

The Essex County Trilogy was the first of Jeff Lemire’s prolific collection of Graphic novels [Sweet Tooth, Black Hammer, Moon Knight, and many more]; Canadian independent Top Shelf Productions published it in 2011. Essex County is a truly Canadian novel through and through, from its setting to the heritage of its characters and the dynamic use of Hockey in the plot. However, its topics of family, grief and belonging made it a universal work connecting to readers across the globe.

Essex County
Description: Finlay Wojtak-Hissong as Lester in Essex County. Photographer: Elly Dassas Copyright: © 2023 Essex Season 1 (FGM) Inc.

The original work Essex County Trilogy contains three short stories, and a few extras, centring around three main characters whose lives intersect in fabulous ways in Essex County, Ontario. There is the young boy, Lester, who moved in with his Uncle Ken after his mother died; the old man with Alzheimer’s disease, Lou, struggling with his fate and discerning from past and present; and the nurse, Anne, whose intersections with the other characters’ lives grounds us in reality; both Lester and Lou’s stories have elements of magical realism whereas the nurse is ever present in her melancholy. It’s a slow and sorrowful read but ever beautiful in its execution.

Essex County
Description: Molly Parker as Anne and Matia Jackett as Maggie. Photographer: Peter H Stranks Copyright: © 2023 Essex Season 1 (FGM) Inc.

The adaptation coming to CBC over a decade later, spearheaded by Jeff Lemire himself, is much the same; however, with the addition of co-showrunner Eilis Kirwan [Whistleblower, Nurses], certain characters are given more room to shine and a life of their own.

So, why, after all this time, is Essex County finally being adapted?

Jeff Lemire:
It was a long process. We started talking to the producer, Christina [Piovesan], in 2015 or 16. — A couple of my books, like Essex County and a few others, are so personal to me that I wasn’t just going to option them, just to option them. I was very protective, but when Christina approached me, it felt like if I was going to do Essex County, doing it in Canada with a Canadian producer was the right way to do it because it’s just a specifically Canadian story. And I also knew that by doing it here, I’d probably have more creative control than I would if I did in Hollywood. So, all those things appealed to me. And then it was a really long development process with the CBC; originally, another showrunner and writer was attached, and I was just taking a secondary role. But it just became almost painful to see anyone else writing my characters because this book, in particular, is so personal that I felt like if I was going to do this one, this was the time to take the plunge and probably do it myself. So, I came on as the showrunner and just really tried to stay true to the book.

Description: Stephen McHattie as Lou. Photographer: Peter H Stranks Copyright: © 2023 Essex Season 1 (FGM) Inc.

Although Christina had mentioned the project to Eilis in the beginning, seven years ago, Eilis was busy doing her own thing. Still, as time went on and Jeff continued developing Essex County, eventually, it became serendipitous that Eilis joined the writers’ room when she did. Despite Eilis’s Irish background, she deeply connected with the essence of the graphic novel’s narrative at the right time in her life when she truly connected with Anne, the nurse, which brought us to the question of what makes Essex County uniquely Canadian and what makes it so universally beloved.

You know what’s funny? People keep mentioning the fact that it’s uniquely Canadian. And I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m so not Canadian that I don’t really see that as much. I know it has hockey, and that’s mainly it, right? But I guess how I view the material — it was so much about these very specific ordinary, struggling people who had crossroads in their lives and then had the beautiful magic realism. And I was very invested in the landscape, I guess, of it and the cinematic nature of the story. And all of that was exciting to work on with Jeff. But I don’t know; I guess I never felt daunted.

Essex County
Description: Brian J. Smith as Ken. Photographer: Peter H Stranks Copyright: © 2023 Essex Season 1 (FGM) Inc.

Its true, although the setting and the history of Essex County’s publication are very Canadian, the heart of the story, written between the lines and buried in the imagery, is this profound tale about the human experience and complexity in our life choices that lead us to what we call home.

Aside from the brilliant writing of Jeff Lemire and Eilis Kirwan, Essex County, the five-episode limited series on CBC is beautifully executed and perfectly cast. Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, who plays Lester, delivers a breakout performance. Brian J. Smith shines in a whole new way as Lester’s Uncle Ken. Molly Parker’s Anne is phenomenal, bringing a whole new life to the character. It’s truly an event to watch.

Catch up on the first episode of Essex County on CBC Gem and watch it when the next episode airs on CBC TV at 9 pm ET.



About Isobel Grieve 45 Articles
Isobel is a bisexual Toronto-based writer. She has a B.A.H. in English and Media & Cinema Studies from the University of Guelph and a Postgraduate Certificate from the Humber College Television Writing and Producing program. Isobel writes about Arts and Culture; you can follow her @IsobelGrieve on Twitter.