Margaret Atwood (pictured), the 72-year-old doyenne of Canadian literature, has teamed up with director Jennifer Baichwal to adapt the author’s bestselling 2008 non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, into a feature documentary.
The resulting film, Payback, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and launches theatrically in Canada today (March 16). Atwood appears in and narrates the doc, and here she talks to realscreen about making the leap from page to screen.
Is this the first time one of your non-fiction works has been adapted for the screen?
Yes, although it’s not the first time I have been in a documentary – there are two other documentaries made about me, and a third one made by Ron Mann about the musical, dramatic and ecological book launch that we did with Year of the Flood, called In the Wake of the Flood. But it’s the first time that a non-fiction book of mine has been made into a documentary film.
How did the adaptation come about?
I had thought as I was writing it that somebody might do a TV series on this, but that would have been a very different project. But when Ravida Din [producer at the National Film Board of Canada] approached me, I thought, “Well, that sounds pretty good,” and we talked about who we might approach to be the director. She had several possibilities, and Jennifer was the one that we settled on.
However, when Ravida first approached her, Jennifer said, “No, I don’t want to make a film about money” – although she hadn’t read the book at that point or listened to the lectures. She then looked into it and realized that it wasn’t about money, except tangentially, and that money debt is only a small part of the human debt credits that we’re constantly exchanging. She saw there were a lot of other possibilities, and it took her a year or so to figure out how to approach it.
How much involvement did you have in the making of the film?
Considerable involvement, but not in the way you might think. I’m the thread holding the beads together. We had a lengthy discussion at the beginning in which we talked about all sorts of possibilities, and then [Baichwal] went away to sift through them, and it was she who found the stories. We then did some filming, and she was able to draw on some footage that existed – namely my Massey Lectures.
You’ve written in a lot of different forms – would you ever consider writing non-fiction directly for the screen?
No [laughs]. I’m too old. You can’t just suddenly acquire a skill that has taken people years of apprenticeship and years of professional work to acquire. These are professionals – they really have a lot of work that they’ve done, and I could not get up to speed on that in a short period of time.
What role do you think documentaries play in society today?
First of all they impart knowledge in a way that you might not get otherwise – on TV and online we often get little bits, clips and sound bites. But documentary allows you to really go into a subject and explore it.
Are adaptations a mixed blessing for authors?
It depends who does them. If it’s really bad, it will just disappear, that’ll be the end of it. But if it’s really good it’s a plus. So what you can do as an author is choose good people. If you choose good people, the results are at least going to be interesting, and in the best of all worlds they’re going to be brilliant. But it is another forum – a film is not the same as a book. A film is not a text.