With ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Alias Grace,’ Margaret Atwood’s Works Find a TV Renaissance

Margaret Atwood Handmaids Tale
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Margaret Atwood is having a moment.

To be fair, the 77-year-old author has been having one for quite some time, what with more than a dozen bestsellers to her name. But as she stood on the stage of the Microsoft Theater last month, clutching an Emmy Award — and, charmingly, her purse — one thing was clear: Hollywood was embracing its new literary darling.

The critically acclaimed adaptation of her 30-year-old novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now in production on its second season; up next is yet another adaptation of her work, the six-episode limited series “Alias Grace,” which bows on Netflix on Nov. 3. (“Handmaid’s,” which won eight Emmys, is a favorite going into the upcoming Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards.)

With her trademark nonchalance, Atwood dismisses it as “mere coincidence. However, it seems very appropriate, as it turns out, for the times we find ourselves in.”

Indeed, both novels stand as powerful allegories for the current political climate. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was in development long before Donald Trump was even a candidate, but the dystopian drama took on new meaning once he moved into the Oval Office. Similarly, filmmaker Sarah Polley has wanted to adapt “Alias Grace” for years — but the tale questioning the very nature of truth couldn’t be timelier.

“I think she has X-ray vision into not just people but into a particular place and time,” says Polley of Atwood, whose “Alias Grace” — a historical novel set in the 1800s about a servant who may (or may not) have committed a double murder — has long captivated her. “And I think that this is a moment where we’re all looking for some kind of guidance,” Polley adds. “Things are feeling pretty out of control and pretty dire. With ‘Alias Grace,’ she offers us a way of looking back at where we’ve come from. And with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ she’s showing us where we might be going.”

Screenwriters, along with audiences, have rediscovered Atwood because of how farsighted her novels have turned out to be, whether she’s looking to the past or the future. Yet Atwood dismisses any notion of prescience. “All of this stuff was bubbling away for years,” she says. “That’s how come I would write such a book, because I was reading the back pages of the newspapers. What usually happens when one’s rambling appears now is things have moved to the front page. But it’s not that they weren’t there.”

Both projects — which had long, tortured paths to the screen — have also benefited from the Peak TV boom, which rewards complex storytelling and complicated, layered characters.

“Alias Grace” stars Rebecca Liddiard and Sarah Gadon
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

“To really capture the spirit of her books requires a certain amount of bravery,” says Bruce Miller, showrunner of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “I think it’s a very good match — her unflinching storytelling and the ability to put more unflinching things on TV.”

Atwood has endured enough adaptations of her work to know that the process “doesn’t always work out well,” as she puts it ever so politely.

“I have been in and out of the film world over all of these years, and I know how easy it is to have something go off the rails,” she says. “I also know that films are made on the cutting room floor. They’re more like mosaics. But I happen to have been very, very lucky with both of these projects, because the teams involved with them are excellent.”

And, she adds, “the results are stunning.”

She’s not one to give praise lightly. She wasn’t fond of the 1990 film version of “Handmaid’s Tale,” where the director ultimately threw out the voiceover that would make the TV version so powerful. She’s said no, too, to countless offers that failed to capture the essence of the book. “‘Handmaid’s Tale’ could have so easily been a kind of sex-scandal, weirdo, maidens-in-leather type of thing,” she says.

But she embraced Miller’s vision for translating Gilead — as she did Polley’s interpretation of “Alias Grace.” So much so that the award-winning writer let the showrunners take the lead with their scripts. “No, no, no,” she replies when asked if she spent time in the writers’ room. “I read what Sarah had done, but it was so good, why did she need any input from me?”

Though Atwood took a backseat to the production of both series — “She’s busier than you and me combined,” says Miller — she was an active behind-the-scenes consultant, happy to answer questions, offer guidance and, yes, give notes. If she disagreed, and she did sometimes, she would weigh in, but she gave Miller and Polley space to weave their tales, respectful of the creative process that impacts even the best of scripts as they get translated to the screen.

“There has to be a kind of a chemistry magic that happens,” she says. “And I believe it did with both of these shows.”

Atwood had just one rule for each series: For “Grace,” preserve the ambiguity that hovers over the question of whether Grace is guilty. And for “Handmaid’s,” “nothing gets in there that hasn’t happened somewhere at some point in time,” she told Miller and his team. “They’ve been totally faithful to that,” she reports.

That’s not to say she steered clear entirely of the production: Keen-eyed viewers can spot her Hitchcock-like cameos, as an aunt in “Handmaid’s” and in a church scene in “Grace” as Disapproving Woman.

“I just like the idea of her turning around in church and judging her own characters,” says Polley. “It made me really happy to see her disagree with people that she’d invented.” Atwood was less than pleased about having to film in 90-degree temperatures under several layers of petticoats. “No wonder I’m disapproving — I disapprove of being this hot,” she jokes.

What surprises Polley most about Atwood is how misunderstood she often is.

“The pieces I’ve read about Margaret are all about how brutally honest and slightly terrifying and intimidating she is,” she says. “She has a clarity that can be startling. But she also has an enormous amount of compassion and empathy and tenderness. I think she’s extremely nurturing with young artists, writers and filmmakers.”

Count Polley among them.

She fell in love with “Alias Grace” when she was 18, but it took until she was in her 30s to finally secure the rights — and the courage to sit down with the author herself. At that first meeting, which lasted five hours, Polley dared ask the question: Was Grace guilty or not?

Atwood wouldn’t tell — and as for whether Polley has an answer of her own, “I feel like I can’t even say that,” she says after a long pause.

But what so intrigued Polley about the book would make the adaptation a challenge. “Ambiguity is the most contentious thing you can have in a script; it’s the thing people most want to argue or pull apart,” she says. “So to have her voice in the back of my mind really helped me to protect that.”

Polley contrasts the experience to working with Alice Munro, whose short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” she adapted into the film “Away From Her.” The entirety of her interaction with Munro was two “really nice voicemail messages” — one after she read the scripts and the other after Polley wrote a foreword to her book.

“It was such a different experience to have such access to the writer,” says Polley of Atwood. “I didn’t just learn about the books she wrote — I learned a tremendous amount about life.”

Polley approached “Grace” first as a film, but sensing the tidal wave, turned the script into a limited series, with Atwood’s approval. “There are many different ways of telling stories and presenting narratives,” says the author. “This happens to be a new one, but when well done it’s extremely successful.”

“I think it’s a very good match — her unflinching storytelling and the ability to put more unflinching things on TV.”

So much so, Atwood reports, “it gave me nightmares,” in a way that “Handmaid’s” didn’t. Whereas in “Handmaid’s” the horror is shared, she explains — “there’s a kind of community, although it’s not one you’d wish to belong to; ‘Alias Grace’ is personal, up close, individual. It’s the difference between ‘1984’ and ‘Turn of the Screw.’”

The success of “Handmaid’s” has certainly intensified the scrutiny of “Alias Grace,” a byproduct of which Polley is keenly aware.

“On the one hand, we were in our own bubble because we’re making a period piece in the 1800s, which has very little to do with ‘Handmaid’s’,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s fantastic because the show was [so] good that I [felt] like suddenly there’s even more of an appetite for Margaret Atwood out there. I think it’s brought us a lot of interest that may not have been there before.”

Like Polley, Miller has longed to adapt Atwood’s novel since he was a teenager.

But he had to make a case for himself. “The pressure was to have a female producer,” says Atwood, a desire that wasn’t lost on Miller. He ultimately won the job thanks to his acute insight into the material — and he’s finally confident enough to joke about his gender. Says Atwood, “He now introduces himself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Bruce Miller; I’m the showrunner from “Handmaid’s Tale,” and I’ve got one penis too many.’”

Miller admits he was concerned about meeting Atwood, but she quickly put him at ease. “She has more experience having this particular piece of literature adapted than I have experience adapting things,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a strange skill.”

The most surprising thing about her, says Miller, is that everybody in Toronto knows her. “I don’t know many authors who can walk through the world being recognized all the time,” he says. “On the street, in the restaurant — every single person knew who she was. But she’s incredibly down-to-earth. Frighteningly intelligent, but also generous.”

Atwood’s advice to Miller was for him to follow his instincts and to feel comfortable expanding the world of “Handmaid’s Tale.” “Whenever we make a change from the book, I always try to really think it through, and then talk to Margaret about it,” he says. “She didn’t make those decisions willy-nilly, so I’m not going to either.”

But they did disagree on some things, he admits — especially when it came to his decision to alter the ages of the Commander and Serena Joy, as well as to integrate the races in Gilead. “We had long discussions,” he says. “But she was never strident about holding on to the way it was in the book.”

Those discussions have continued as they plot season two, which will diverge even further from the novel.

“It has taken on a life of its own,” says Atwood. “This is the moment when the Frankenstein monster breaks out of the lab — and comes back.”

Miller assures he’ll be true to the promises he originally made. “We are going beyond the book, but we’re not going beyond Margaret’s world,” he says.

And they’re trying to ignore the pressure to live up to the Emmy win. “I was not expecting it, honestly — this [series] is not everyone’s cup of tea, to say the least,” says Atwood with her usual blunt honesty. “There will be great expectations, but I think there would have been, anyway. You top the high jump, and then people say, ‘Higher.’ But this is a very talented bunch. And I am betting on them as we head into the unknown.”

There’s yet more to come from Atwood’s oeuvre, though she’s mum on the details. “You jinx things if you say stuff like that,” she teases. “Time will tell.”

But she acknowledges that the success of “Handmaid’s” — and hopefully “Alias Grace” — has sparked interest in works that might not have been considered before.

“Feature films went really in the direction of blockbuster, superhero sci-fi epics, and the literary novels were not getting such a look,” she says. “But now the limited series is something people have turned to and embraced. And now that we have a number of different companies doing them, there’s competition. I think it’s been good for novelists in general, wouldn’t you say?”