Iconic Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s work is being adapted for the screen once again! CBC Kids has turned her children’s book The Wide World of Wandering Wenda, about a plucky little girl and her friends who travel the world getting in and out of various scrapes with the help of alliterative word play, into an animated series. Wandering Wenda, on which Atwood serves as executive producer and creative consultant, premieres Saturday, April 29. Hulu has adapted Atwood’s legendary dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale into a 10-part miniseries with a star-studded cast, which premieres Wednesday, April 26. And if that’s not enough to get you excited, Atwood told us that Canadian director Sarah Polley is adapting her true crime novel Alias Grace into a six-episode series for CBC, which will air either later this year or early 2018. We spoke to Atwood about what it’s like to have her work on the small screen.
The TV Junkies: What was it like working with the production and animation team to adapt The Wide World of Wandering Wenda for TV?
Margaret Atwood: Well, it was pretty easy for me because they did all the work. I shot a couple of cameos, some personal appearances at the beginning [of the show]. But really it’s not me doing the animation, it’s not me writing those scripts, but the episodes are based on those core ideas and so are the three central characters based on characters in Wandering Wenda.
TTVJ: How do you balance telling stories that are appropriate and understandable for children without talking down to them?
MA: Well I guess I just never really thought about it. If you’re writing alliterative books, you’re going to be using large words some of the time and having been a child reader, you don’t always have to know those words going in, you pick them up from context. Each of these episodes have a moment where they look up a word to see what it means, words like “hogwash.”
TTVJ: Were you looking to inspire children to read when you conceived of this story?
MA: I think that is one of the effects that series like this can have because each one is centred on a letter and learning letters and how they fit into words of course helps children read. But I don’t think it was in my mind anyway. If your primary purpose is didactic, the story will often be boring.
TTVJ: What happens when they run out of letters in the alphabet?
MA: Well I guess that’s just touch luck [laughs]. I think you can start again with the same letters with different stories.
TTVJ: Wandering Wenda is really introducing a new generation to your work. How do you feel about that?
MA: Well, kids that age, they don’t care about authors, they care about characters, so it’s not “my work” they’re interested in, or they’re not interested in it because it’s mine, let’s put it that way.
TTVJ: I also wanted to speak to you about the Hulu adaptation of your book The Handmaid’s Tale. How involved were you in that production?
MA: A reasonable amount, in that Bruce Miller, the head writer and showrunner, and I had a number of conversations and I of course looked particularly at the earlier script to see if there was anything really out of line. I basically was in a consultant position, but of course any author in relation to a project like that, you don’t have final say.
TTVJ: This obviously isn’t the first time The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted for screen, but in this longer format what do you think will be different?
MA: I think the arrival on the scene of multi-episode streamed television series has allowed has allowed a lot of novels to be built out at more length than they could ever built out into 90 minutes. So think of Game of Thrones and putting it into 90 minutes – there’s just no way, it’s too big. Or think of War and Peace — it just doesn’t fit. So having a 10-part series allows us to really go into the characters and allows for a lot of tension, and it allows to follow characters who in the book simply disappear because the main character cannot know what has happened to them.
TTVJ: What are you most excited for people to see in the new production of The Handmaid’s Tale?
MA: What are my choices of exciting things? Let’s rephrase and say, what’s good about? What’s good about it, number one, the acting is very good. Number two the scripts are very good. Number three the direction is very good. Number four the design and number five the production values are very high. So what’s not to like? It is more shocking I think to see things acted out, to see them physically, visually. The series goes beyond the book. It takes us to places that the book might hint at but doesn’t spell out.
TTVJ: Are you surprised by the response this book is getting 32 years after you first wrote it?
MA: It is somewhat surprising but only for about a second and then when you think about the context, it all makes sense. The context is that people are actually afraid of some of these things happening to them, so they’re afraid of seeing their power diminished, they are afraid of seeing a more totalitarian government come in — and that is not just the United States of America. These tendencies are happening here and there, globally.
TTVJ: What do you think is the value of dystopian speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale?
MA: Well, all dystopias are doing a similar thing, if they are reality based. I suppose you could say that Star Wars is a dystopia but it’s on a planet “in a galaxy far far away” and in another time, so we don’t take it personally. But 1984, for instance, was Earth planet based and was really simply moving to England things that were already happening in the Soviet Union. So the value of Earth-based possible dystopias, the value is like the value of a blue print. So here is a possible future house: is this the house you want to live in? And if you don’t want to live in that house, maybe you should start thinking about the house you do want to live in. What world do we wish to inhabit, and if it’s not this one, don’t go down that road.
TTVJ: As an author, what is it like to see your work adapted for the television medium?
MA: For television? So it’s happened before [laughs]. In fact, I used to write for television in the 1970s and I’ve also worked with filmmakers back then, so I know the pitfalls. I understand why people make the decisions they make. It’s because film is a very different medium from words and you can do things on the page very easily that you find it quite hard to do in film, and you can do things on film quite easily that you find it hard to do in words. They work in different ways.
TTVJ: Do you think you would ever get back into writing for television, now that we’re enjoying this sort of renaissance of television content?
MA: There are two different ways of creating anything to do with film and television, or even opera and ballet — it’s always a group project, so it’s never just one person involved. When you’re writing a novel it’s a pretty megalomaniac, total control kind of thing. You then work with an editor, but basically you are the person making it up and film and television, it’s a lot of people. So it depends on how much energy you have [laughs] and also it depends really on how you want to spend your time. It was really a lot of fun when I was doing it, but I was younger.
Which Margaret Atwood adaptation are you most excited for? Let us know in the comments!
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Wednesday, April 26 on Hulu and Sunday, April 30 at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo in Canada. Wandering Wenda premieres Saturday, April 29 at 9:40 a.m. ET on CBC.
Hermione Wilson is a Junkie when it comes to all things Orphan Black, Game of Thrones and Supernatural, the show that introduced her to classic rock. She is a graduate of Humber College's journalism program, a current staff writer at Dovetail Communications, and an avid reader of sci-fi novels.