Adapting a beloved book series into a television show that doesn’t lose the author’s carefully crafted nuance is a tough job. Doing so while expanding upon that world and elevating the original work is an even more challenging task.
Yet “Three Pines” does both with aplomb.
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“Three Pines” is based on Louise Penny’s award-winning mystery novels, which feature an array of quirky French Canadian locals who are constantly embroiled in another whodunnit.
At the heart of these stories is Inspector Armand Gamache — a crime-solving gentleman who is to fiction-loving Canadians what Poirot or Holmes are to the Brits (and perhaps what Benoit Blanc is becoming to Americans). Casting the inspector was key, but Alfred Molina captures his gentle essence with kind eyes and an observational stillness from the moment he appears onscreen.
The fictional town is inspired by Penny’s hometown of Knowlton, Que., a tourist hotspot where locals now offer tours for hundreds of dollars a day. To capture the unique cinematography, the Prime Video Canada adaption filmed in Montreal and in the Quebec Eastern Townships in a village called Saint-Armand, which is about 45 minutes from Knowlton.
There, each of the first season’s four standalone murder mysteries span two episodes, beginning with an adaptation of Penny’s second book, “A Fatal Grace.” Those first two episodes are the weakest of the bunch as the show works to establish its characters and tone. It’s a slow start featuring an unlikeable victim whose disdain for everyone makes for an uncompelling case. Luckily, an overarching, season-long mystery saves the day.
And that’s where the real genius of this adaptation lies. As Gamache attempts to solve that first murder in Three Pines, he also begins investigating the disappearance of an Indigenous girl named Blue Two-Rivers (Anna Lambe), whom the Sûreté du Québec have dismissed as a runaway, despite insistence from her family that she’d never leave them or her young daughter behind.
It’s a storyline that’s not present in the novels, and serves as the entry point into a broader conversation in Canada right now, where there is a long history of police ignoring or closing the book on missing Indigenous women. As the rest of the season unravels, it’s just one touchstone into the Indigenous communities, as the adaptation makes other changes to further those conversations.
Gamache’s team, for example, consists of two seasoned and skilled detectives: Jean-Guy Beauvoir (Rosif Sutherland) and Isabelle Lacoste, who is played by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers — a member of the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe, Blackfoot Confederacy) as well as Sámi from Norway. In the series, Lacoste has a deep connection with the Blue case, but she also represents an entire community of adopted Indigenous people who go unclaimed and unsure of their heritage.
Rounding out that team is local officer Yvette Nichol (Sarah Booth), whose eager rookie disposition and blunt delivery adds comedic relief, particularly in any scenes with Sutherland. It’s another key departure from the novels, where Nichol becomes a serious liability.
Another significant change involves Three Pines resident Bea Mayer (Tantoo Cardinal), whose Be Calm Centre shifts from a yoga and meditation center in the books to an ever-changing, Indigenous arts space in the series.
By Episodes 3 and 4, the show’s commitment to exploring those Indigenous stories in a meaningful way is clear, as the next murder goes down in an old residential school — a take on the haunted house featured in Penny’s third novel, “The Cruelest Month.” The storyline was conceptualized before mass graves of Indigenous children from residential schools were discovered and reported on in Canada, and so creatives enlisted Mohawk filmmaker and show consultant Tracey Deer to direct.
The result is a weighted and authentic story that highlights these communities with respect and sensitivity, with imagery that goes beyond Blue Jay feathers and Lacrosse sticks (although those are present throughout the series as well).
Those essential stories are woven into the broader series and mysteries of the week seamlessly, as the show also takes a deep dive into the French Canadian culture. Characters flip between French and English throughout, there are plenty of “tabernacs” thrown in for good measure, and the ongoing tension between French and English communities always simmers beneath the surface.
No, Gamache doesn’t order his signature double-double (presumably Tim Hortons passed on what could have been a key sponsorship), but the series does manage to capture the laissez-faire attitude of the French through good food, a local gathering spot, and a sense of community.
Speaking of Quebec culture, Episodes 5 and 6 are also a mini-nod to French Canadian series, “19-2,” as it reunites actors Laurence Leboeuf (a major player in the Quebec star system) and Mylène Dinh-Robic from the English remake. In “The Murder Stone” they play sisters-in-law for a whodunnit that takes place in a sweeping hotel, which is also a nod to those grand, drawing-room murder mysteries. The fifth episode is notably directed by French Canadian “19-2” alum Daniel Grou, who also goes by Podz.
By the time the show tackles Penny’s short, “The Hangman,” in Episodes 7 and 8, you’re hooked on this picturesque town and the danger that resides underneath all that beauty. It’s impossible not to root for the trio of detectives whose bond goes beyond the job, especially when the episodes travel home with them to unravel more clues to their personalities.
Gamache’s relationship with his wife, Reine-Marie (Marie-France Lambert), is particularly moving. Gamache’s job often takes him away from home for stretches at a time, but rather than go the embittered route like so many other relationships on television, these characters function as fully formed individuals who compliment and respect each other with love and compassion. That becomes particularly relevant as Gamache deals with recurring nightmares from his childhood, which explain his drive to find the missing.
As for the town of Three Pines, there are many more secrets to uncover with these characters should the series return for a second helping. For now, this short-but-sweet adaptation offers a sweeping cinematic taste of cultures and stories that are deserving of the global platform Prime Video offers, all while doing justice to the best-selling novels on which they’re based.
“Three Pines” debuts Dec. 2 on Prime Video. Two episodes stream weekly until the first-season finale on Dec. 23.
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