Margaret Atwood has attended countless book-world events during her literary career, but last week she brought her star power to a fête for the film world – the annual gala of the Toronto Film Critics Association. The reason: Two of her most acclaimed novels, The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace, will soon appear as TV miniseries. Both will have their premieres this year after being filmed in Toronto. And each will include Atwood in a cameo role.
Atwood's official job at the gala was to present the award for best first feature to director Robert Eggers, who won for The Witch. She was accompanied by writer Rebecca Mead, who had flown to Toronto from New York to spend time with Atwood for a profile to be published in the New Yorker in April. Together, they had walked around the city, including a visit to the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library to examine Atwood's manuscript for The Handmaid's Tale.
"Rebecca has been accompanying me to things that were on my schedule anyway – so I brought her to the dinner," Atwood explained. That also gave Mead a chance to talk to Canadian actor-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley, who wrote and produced the Alias Grace miniseries, which stars Sarah Gadon.
Atwood – who on Tuesday was the first Canadian to win the National Book Critics Circle's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award – drew the attention of just about everyone in the room, including Eggers and, from the podium, wisecracking co-host Mary Walsh and writer/actor Don McKellar. When I visited her table, after dinner was served, the author happily gave me some details about the impending Atwood marathon on the small screen. And she described what it was like to do her cameo for Alias Grace, during a hot-weather spell last summer.
"I stewed like a prune in my layers of petticoats, chemise, corset, wool skirt, wool jacket, shawl and bonnet," she said. "I was supposed to look disapproving, and in all that heat I had no difficulty doing that."
But when I inquired about which characters she was playing in the two series, she became guarded. "I am not allowed to talk yet about what actually happens in the cameo roles," she said.
Another mystery she mentioned concerns the screen rights to The Handmaid's Tale, and whether Canadian viewers will get to see it.
The rights were bought by MGM Television and producer Daniel Wilson, who made the 10-part series in partnership with Hulu, a live-streaming company which operates only in the United States and Japan; production on Handmaid wraps in mid-February, with a U.S. launch date of April 26. For it to be shown on this side of the border, Hulu must sell the rights to a Canadian broadcaster or distributor.
There is no such problem in the case of Alias Grace, because the CBC teamed up with Netflix to green-light the six-part series, likely to be telecast in September. It is based on Atwood's 1996 novel, which is set in Upper Canada of the 1840s. Atwood started with a true story about the notorious 1843 murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper. Two domestic servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were convicted of murder. He was hanged and she was jailed for 30 years but eventually pardoned. Atwood added to the mix a fictional doctor who researches the case. The novel won the Giller Prize at home and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in Britain.
As for The Handmaid's Tale, published in 1985, it's a work of speculative fiction set in Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the U.S. government. It's about a nightmare future in a place where living conditions are horrible, and where everyone fears the secret police, known as the Eyes. The book won the Governor-General's Award in Canada; internationally it was nominated for the Booker.
The Handmaid's Tale has been on screen once before, in a 1990 film directed by Volker Schlondorff and starring Natasha Richardson in the title role of Kate/Offred, one of the white women brainwashed into bearing babies for a new, pure generation. The cast featured Robert Duvall as the Commander whom she fends off, as well as Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth McGovern, and the script was by renowned playwright Harold Pinter. But despite all those starry names, most of the reviews were far from glowing. (Two of Atwood's other novels have also been filmed: Surfacing in 1981 and The Robber Bride in 2007.)
The advance buzz for the Handmaid TV series has been excellent. It stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred and Joseph Fiennes as the Commander.
The mini-trailer had almost three million views in its first six days on YouTube, Atwood says.
For those Canadians who like to get their literary culture on TV, it would be an absurdity to be deprived of the chance to watch this series – produced in Canada and based on a key book by our most celebrated novelist – on our side of the border.
"Never fear," Atwood told me. "It will appear in Canada."
Hulu and MGM have assured her of that, she says.
"That was as of last week. They will tell me as soon as it's finalized, but nobody likes to release such news until it is final."