Entertainment

Cultivating the Margaret Atwood brand

How CanLit stalwart Margaret Atwood went from the Women's Studies syllabus to one of the most name-dropped writers in Hollywood.

Margaret Atwood

Liz Beddall/For Metro

Margaret Atwood

GREAT ADAPTATIONS

Karma Waltonen, editor of the journal Margaret Atwood Studies and teacher of a popular undergrad seminar on the author at the University of California Davis, sees the current wave of Atwood-love as long overdue.

Until recently, she said, if the 77-year-old author was taught at all in the U.S., it was as part of a Women’s Studies class, or even American Studies, since some of her most popular books are set stateside.

But “now the interest in her is definitely growing, and that’s thanks to these adaptations,” Waltonen said. The Handmaid's Tale, the Hulu show based on Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name, piled up eight Emmys at Sunday's ceremony. A slick series based on her 1996 novel Alias Grace debuts on CBC Sept. 25.

These works are truly prestige TV, unlike past adaptations such as the 2007 made-for-TV incarnation of The Robber Bride. That was so unwatchable, Waltonen said, it required “a lot of wine” to get through.

But streaming opens her up to massive new audiences: “Even people who aren’t readers can enter these worlds.”

CAUSTIC WIT

Atwood’s 1.74 million Twitter followers hang on to her every word on topics ranging from Toronto condos to ocean pollution.

“Being present in these new formats has definitely been good for her,” Waltonen said. “She is a celebrity in a way that is really different.”  

Part of that is pure charisma: Unlike other writers, whose talents are restricted to the page, Atwood can hold an audience with her caustic wit, Waltonen said.

The Internet went mad for Atwood’s grandma-like attachment to her oversized black purse at the Emmys. She even brought it with her on stage, prompting InStyle magazine to declare her handbag “the breakout star of the Emmys.”

Good natured online mocking of this kind is a sign you’ve truly made it, said Cherrie Woods, a Canadian PR consultant who works with U.S. authors and arts organizations.

“She’s had the ultimate in terms of interest,” Woods said. "Once you’ve become a meme, you’re in it. You’re relevant and so 'now.' In the literary world that’s unusual, particularly for an author who’s been around this long.”

A LIGHT IN UNCERTAIN TIMES

There's a sense that Atwood possesses prescience, Waltonen said. "Her novels foresee something.”  

The author’s 2007 non-fiction work, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, appeared to call the financial crisis the year before it happened, Waltonen said. In the 2003 dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, Atwood's characters snack on futuristic, genetically engineered chicken nuggets called ChickieNobs.

“There cannot be an article about lab-grown meat without (a reference to) the scientific things that she foresaw in Oryx and Crake,” she added. “Atwood said it first!”

The political context has certainly helped Atwood's work feel fresh. The “move toward Christian fundamentalism” depicted in the Handmaid’s Tale and some of Atwood's other books “feels really immediate” in Trump's America, Waltonen said.

Meanwhile, Americans are looking to Canadians like Atwood and Drake as cultural lights in uncertain times, Woods said. “People are looking for something else, and Canada has become, in many ways, an escape, even if just mentally."

AN ICONIC NAME

Calling Atwood's name a "brand," really doesn't cut it, said publishing coach Christina Katz: She's an icon.

But from a PR perspective, an author’s brand and ability to speak to the current moment is as important as their actual work, Woods said.

Atwood literally wrote the book on CanLit (It’s called Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature). But her current stature in mainstream pop culture is unequalled among authors except perhaps by the likes of J.K Rowling, Woods said.

Waltonen echoed these sentiments: “I tell my students, ‘Do you know how you know when the author is really famous?' When their name on the book is bigger than the title. She definitely reached that point. Everywhere, not just in Canada, her name can sell something.”

All three experts said they expect producers to go through Atwood's ample archive in search of more classic stories to adapt for the screen.

In a word, Atwood’s brand is synonymous with longevity, Woods said — her name, like that of McDonald's or Google, may go through a few reinventions over the years, but the underlying business remains solid.

Contrast that with a hit like 50 Shades of Grey — studios would be lucky to squeeze three movies out of the source material, Woods said. “People got excited but it dies down. They’ve done all they can.

“The basis of a great brand is still a well-written book."

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