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Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

CritiqueQuotesText • At the movies

Sunshine Sketches of a Little TownFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form

Humour, satire

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 65,000 words

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Greatest Stories (for "The Marine Excursions of the Knights of Pythias")

Canadian Literature

Suinshine Sketches scene
The Mariposa Belle sets out on its fateful cruise in the 2012 TV movie of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Not the town we thought we knew

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (2012): Director Don McBrearty; writer Malcolm MacRury; featuring Jull Hennessy, Gordon Pinsent, Donal Logue, Patrick McKenna, Peter Keleghan, Colin Mochrie, Debra McGrath, Ron James, Kjartan Hewitt, Caroline Rhea, Seán Cullen, Geddy Lee

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town being such an iconic piece of Canadian literature, it's unsurprising Stephen Leacock's gently satirical tales have been adapted twice for the small screen and both times by the CBC.

We know little about the 1952 series and have seen no extant film or video of the production—if indeed it was saved by the Canadian broadcaster. We do know several of the country's accomplished stage, screen and radio actors of the day who took part: John Drainie narrating, Paul Kligman as the hotel proprietor, Robert Christie as the undertaker, Eric House as the reverend, Peggi Loder as the judge's dreamy daughter, William Needles as the banker, and Timothy Findley (yes, the future novelist) as young Peter Pupkin, the bank teller.

It wasn't until the book's hundredth anniversary that another adaptation was made and updated, for better or worse.

Some of Canada's top actors and comics gathered when the public broadcaster took up Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town in 2012.

Would Stephen Leacock appreciate the adaptation of his famous book for the television movie that resulted?

Pinsent and Hennessy
Pinsent and Hennessy are son and mother in Sunshine Sketches.

Unfair question, of course, because we couldn't possibly know the answer. The canny author might realize, as many authors do, that transferring a story into a new medium often requires wholesale changes to get across the sense and spirit of the source material. Or he may feel the changes in this case needlessly destroyed his original intents.

I'm guessing the latter.

Leacock may be particularly appalled at the injection of his own story, showing himself as a boy, living a bullied, impoverished, hardscrabble existence, amid the sunny adventures of the Mariposa townsfolk.

This inserted drama, featuring young Leacock (Owen Best), his mother (Jill Hennessy), his alcoholic and wayward father (Rick Roberts), is entwined with that of hotel owner Josh Smith (Donal Logue), a prominent character in the book.

Otherwise the narrative of this movie is taken mainly from two stories in Sunshine Sketches: "The Marine Excursions of the Knights of Pythias" and "The Hostelry of Mr. Smith", the book's opening story. You'd think these two would offer enough material to fill the entire 90 minutes—and, if not, any of several other stories from the book could be fit in.

One of Canada's most renowned actors, Gordon Pinsent, plays the adult Leacock, appearing on screen and in voice-over to narrate the story. This actually makes sense, as in the books Leacock presents himself as the assumed narrator, and it's well-done here.

In general though, Leacock's gently satirical perspective is replaced by a desperate, sordid kind of humour. Granted there is some darkness in the author's superficially light text and certainly much in his personal life. But here the famously self-deprecating humour that makes the medicine go down is contrived and without subtlety.

Behind the scenes during the making of the 2012 TV movie.

Efforts are made to update the production, with storylines of abuse and vulgarity, with the strong proto-feminist character of Leacock's mother, and with inclusive casting for minor roles at least. The sleepy Anglo-Saxon town of nineteenth-century Ontario, which Leacock satirizes, seems suspended in some limbo between that era and modern times. The sensibilities clash.

The sinking of the Mariposa Belle, taken from the "Marine Excursions" story, is one of the (ironically) driest and funniest episodes of the book but here its humour falls flat. The passengers sing, as the boat goes down, not "Oh Canada", as in the story, but Burton Cumming's "I'm Scared"?

The acting, the filmwork, the special effects—are all expertly accomplished. But they don't hold the show together. The modern, almost post-modern style, of clashing periods and rapidly switching scenes create a flimsy production. It's hard to invest one's interest in the the town beyond that Leacock family material. One can admire Hennessy's performance without caring about the bizarre shenanigans going on with the rest of the townspeople—who were Leacock's real focus in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotesText • At the movies