When Groundwood Books published The Breadwinner—Deborah Ellis’s novel about an 11-year-old girl in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan—the author had one particular aspiration in mind: “I had hoped it would raise $3,000 CAD for Canadian Women For Women in Afghanistan,” a nonprofit organization devoted to Afghan women’s welfare. The book has far surpassed that initial goal: since its publication in 2000, The Breadwinner and its sequels have raised $2 million CAD for the organization. Now, Ellis’s story is making the jump from novel to animated feature film, scheduled for U.S. release on November 17. The film is by the Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon, is directed by Nora Twomey (Puffin Rock), and stars Saara Chaudry (Dino Dana) as protagonist Parvana, as well as Laara Sadiq and Shaista Latif.
A film adaptation of The Breadwinner was initially set in motion in 2009 when Barbara Howson, v-p of sales and licensing at Groundwood and Anansi, met with Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen of Aircraft Pictures. In 2013, Aircraft negotiated an agreement with Cartoon Saloon for co-production, and the project was reimagined as an animated movie. In 2015, Angelina Jolie signed on as executive producer. “It was a long road to get to this spot, but the result is absolutely fantastic, and Deb and Groundwood couldn’t be happier,” said Howson.
The story behind Ellis’s writing of The Breadwinner goes back quite a bit further—specifically, to September 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul. “As a feminist and anti-war activist, I wanted to do something to be of use to the women in Afghanistan,” Ellis said. Taking a lead from one of her heroes, Studs Terkel, who famously recorded American oral histories, Ellis traveled to Pakistan to speak with women in refugee camps about their experiences. She also traveled to Moscow, where she interviewed Afghan refugees and Russian women who had been with the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Those interviews were published in her book, Women of the Afghan War (Praeger, 2000). While speaking to the young women and girls, she heard several stories about individuals who had disguised themselves as boys in order to provide for their families; an idea for a fictionalized story began to emerge.
The Breadwinner developed into a trilogy, with the publication of Parvana’s Journey (2002) and Mud City (2003), which focuses on Parvana’s best friend, who aspires to leave Afghanistan for France. A fourth book, My Name is Parvana, released in 2012.
Ellis wrote the first draft of the screenplay for the film, while screenwriter Anita Doron worked on subsequent drafts. Though Ellis said some material was necessarily left out or altered for the film (“some of the characters are not there, and Parvana’s relationship with her mother is less antagonistic than in the book”), she is delighted with the result. “It all works really well,” she said. “The essence of the story, that war wreaks havoc on people’s lives, is absolutely there, as well as the courage and kindness of the Afghan people.”
The story has clearly had an impact on readers. One reader in particular would end up with a starring role in the film adaptation. In a recent interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, 13-year-old actress Chaudry—who plays Parvana—spoke about how she first read The Breadwinner with her mother when she was nine. She later met Ellis when she visited her school and Chaudry asked her if there was any possibility of a film adaptation. Not long after that, Chaudry learned of an audition for The Breadwinner and got the part. Of her character, Chaudry said: “[Parvana] is such a determined, headstrong girl with so much positivity. She’s in a war-torn country, her family is barely getting by and barely surviving, but she approaches life in such a positive way. It’s so inspirational.”
While significant time has passed since Ellis first interviewed the girls and women whose lives were uprooted by war, the story of The Breadwinner is still very relevant today. Though she’s pleased that readers are still discovering her novels and finding them timely, this also speaks to a deeper, troubling truth. “We continue to use war as a tool of our foreign policy,” she said, “and as long as we think it is okay to bomb people in other countries, we will continue to have Taliban-like governments rise up. We humans have enough to do just dealing with natural disasters. We don’t need to create artificial ones.”