The Shrek and Narnia director changes direction with his new literary adaptation.

Andrew Adamson, whose credits include The Chronicles of Narnia and Shrek, changes gears for an adaptation of the acclaimed Lloyd Jones novel, Mister Pip. Set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea during a civil war in the 1990s, the film follows Matilda (Xzannjah) as she finds escape in Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations.

The film premieres today in Toronto; Focus Features International handles sales with UTA handling US.

You’ve adapted books to film before. Was this process any different?

It was difficult on a few levels. First of all, it’s subtly deeper than it seems on first read and subtly more complex then it seems on first read. Lloyd’s  a very clever writer. He writes in this prose that you so enjoy reading that you don’t often realize how much he’s leaping around in reality and time and monologue and exterior thought. It was only as I started breaking it down that I realized it wasn’t such a straightforward cinematic adaptation as it seemed on first read.

Did you approach Lloyd Jones for guidance on the adaptation?

There’s a point in the story where [the main character, Matilda] has to make a fairly major decision about this book Great Expectations and whether she delves back into it or not. [Jones] had her going one way and I got to the same point of writing the story and my Matilda couldn’t do what his Matilda did. So I said to him, “I can’t get her to pick up the book.” And he said “I completely see that. I can see why you would fee that way.” So he was very supportive of those different decisions.

Why was it important to actually set the film in Bougainville?

For a while I thought the easy way to do this would be to set up an area in northern Australia and build the village there. [We’d be] able to stay in some nice accommodations and make our lives easy, and bring across, of course, the cast we needed to bring across.  The more I looked into the political situation, which I was superficially aware of but not deeply aware of, the more I realized how important the story was to Bougainville. At one stage we were in a classroom and we were looking for kids who could be the main characters and the kids were being 11 and 12 year old kids; they were acting up and being a bit goofy and the teacher got up and started getting very angry with them. She said, “You kids need to show this man what you can do because if not, he’s going to cast a girl from the Solomon Islands and then somebody else will be telling our story. And this is our story and we need to tell our story.” It sort of got to the point where there had to be a really good reason not to make it there.

Some of the cast is made up of Bougainvilleans who lived through the civil war. Was it difficult to direct them through experiences they had actually lived through in the war?

We had the experience of bringing a helicopter into the village just for one day of shooting and the energy changed so much, because the last time a helicopter flew over that village it was striking people. We were dealing with very raw emotions still and people [for whom] these memories were not that distant. Then we were asking them to go through situations where we had Papua New Guineans coming in dressed as soldiers, carrying guns and re-enacting things that had caused huge tragedy. I was worried that it was going to be too emotionally challenging and that people may not be able to stay within the distinctions of fantasy and reality. And I was really worried that it might have serious psychological consequences. So we went into it very gently and tentatively and talked about it a lot. With a lot of the scenes we ended up doing it almost documentary-style because we didn’t know what was going to happen.

Newcomer Xzannjah stars alongside veteran actor Hugh Laurie. What was the casting process like and how did the actors interact?

It was a fairly exhaustive casting process. [Casting director] Nikki Barrett was literally backpacking around the South Pacific for months. When she came upon Xzannjah… there was just something about her. I looked at her on tape and she was smart, confident and imaginative. There was so much about her that’s in my Matilda. And Hugh [Laurie] saw within her, I think, a real kindred spirit. The first time I put them together and rehearsed a scene, just the way they were looking at each other and sizing each other up and fascinated by each other, it was like at that point I knew that core element, that core relationship, would actually really work, because of how they related to each other.

The film seems to be darker than some of your previous work. Was Mr. Pip a departure for you?

In some ways, when I think about it, it’s kind of like the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. [That] was a story about a little girl’s journey, it went to quite a dark place (Aslan is dragged off and killed), it came out sort of uplifting and there are elements of fantasy. From that point of view, I could say in some ways this is the same thing. It’s the story of a young girl finding her voice, it goes to a dark place, but it’s ultimately inspiring and uplifting. Thematically, it has some of the same things. That being said, the story itself, and the texture and everything is much more real and authentic and gritty.  It’s based on certain real events. So from that point of view it was different.