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2021 | Book

Adapting Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale and Beyond


About this book

This book engages with Margaret Atwood’s work and its adaptations. Atwood has long been appreciated for her ardent defence of Canadian authors and her genre-bending fiction, essays, and poetry. However, a lesser-studied aspect of her work is Atwood’s role both as adaptor and as source for adaptation in media as varied as opera, television, film, or comic books. Recent critically acclaimed television adaptations of the novels The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Alias Grace (Amazon) have rightfully focused attention on these works, but Atwood’s fiction has long been a source of inspiration for artists of various media, a seeming corollary to Atwood’s own tendency to explore the possibilities of previously undervalued media (graphic novels), genres (science-fiction), and narratives (testimonial and historical modes). This collection hopes to expand on other studies of Atwood’s work or on their adaptations to focus on the interplay between the two, providing an interdisciplinary approach that highlights the protean nature of the author and of adaptation.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Stories of Adaptation—Changing Objects with Margaret Atwood
The motif of metamorphosis envelops Atwood’s corpus, and as such this introduction to Atwood and her adaptations focuses on her protean nature; Atwood’s adherence to the revelatory premise of myth aptly underscores the reflexive frames that permeate her storytelling and her very identity as a novelist, poet, essayist, cartoonist, environmentalist and overall cultural figurehead. Myth provides an entry to explore not only the symbolic stage upon which imaginary landscapes unfold, bringing to the fore the vicissitudes of the psyche; it urges recognition of the lived experience of Atwood’s career as a writer participating in innumerable media and genres (from poetry, novels, biography and criticism, to comic books and apps). Though the prophetic feats expected of Proteus seem merely hypothetical in the postmodern age, as the visionary power of myth struggles to withstand the indefiniteness of experience, Atwood replicates its vital function through her involvement in adaptation. The alchemy of the writing self, a magical and intangible process, combines with that undergone by the medium of literature in the rapidly evolving landscapes of book publishing and more widely, of media production, performance and distribution. This is the same mythic intertext that helped lay the groundwork for the discussions underpinning the chapters in this volume, all of which set out to explore Atwood’s diverse corpus as a laboratory for the increasingly protean nature of adaptation.
Fiona McMahon, Shannon Wells-Lassagne

Atwood Adapts

“Atwood’s Hag-Seed and The Heart Goes Last, a Generic Romp”
This chapter addresses the hypertextual engagements with authoritative hypotexts which Atwood signals in the subtitle of her novel-cum-play, Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold. These range from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Aimé Césaire’s previous race-oriented adaptation of the play irrigated in turn by Arthur Miller’s class-based Death of a Salesman to Thomas More’s Utopia and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, cornerstones of her dialogic The Heart Goes Last. Hands-on micro-analyses of the writer’s recent story collections, Moral Disorder and the inventively derivative Stone Mattress nourish the discussion, which investigates how Atwood refracts the discourse not only of individual works, but also—on a higher plane—of architexts (Genette) or whole incorporated genres and modes. These range from the (meta)utopia, tragedy, comedy, epic, parody, and pastiche to grotesque realism and the burlesque. The chapter examines Atwood’s desire to play with generic boundaries and the strategies she deploys to expand them. The micro-analyses grounded in rhetoric and narratology demonstrate throughout how Atwood’s work operates, and to what extent her intertextual and metatextual rethinking is transformational, lighting up grand narratives to a modern audience.
Marta Dvořák
“Negotiating with the Dead”: Authorial Ghosts and Other Spectralities in Atwood’s Adaptations
From Susanna Moodie to Shakespeare, Atwood has revisited and revised the lives and works of iconic authors in her own style since the beginning of her career. This chapter looks at the connections between three of these adaptations—The Journals of Susanna Moodie, The Penelopiad, and Hag-Seed—and in particular the ghostly figures and fingerprints these three works carry. Drawing on the field of hauntology, particularly the work of Esther Peeren and Maria del Pilar Blanco, this chapter explores the role of ghosts in retellings of classic and iconic texts in regard to the haunting presence of the author. How do Atwood’s ghosts interact with the indelible mark left by great writers? Furthermore, this chapter looks at the gendering of Atwood’s ghosts. What power is there in speaking from beyond the grave, especially for women who may not have had the right to a voice in life? The unique subjectivity and agency of the spectral figures woven throughout Atwood’s adaptations offers a tantalizing glimpse at how these retellings can be viewed as both adaptations and reappropriations of powerful meta-narratives surrounding authorship and the ownership of culture.
Concepts of time, gender, authorship, and adaptation will be explored through a spectral lens as this chapter follows the ghostly trails left throughout Atwood’s works.
Ruby Niemann
Transforming the Human and the Novel: The Utopian Potential of Resilience in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy
“Think of an adaptation, any adaptation, and some animal somewhere will have thought of it first” (Atwood, Oryx and Crake, 194). In the MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which the last human beings have to coexist with Crakers, technologically enhanced beings created by a hubristic scientist who endowed them with animal characteristics enabling them to survive the Plague that decimated humankind. As I will argue, this fascinating vision of the posthuman being as a blending of the best characteristics that nature and technology can offer opens the way for a broadening of the definition of what it means to be human. Based on Dominique Lestel’s theory of monstrosity as being an inherent part of humanity, I will show that these novels put forward a vision of the human as “un monster qui a réussi” [a successful monster] from a Darwinian perspective and suggest that evolving means “assimiler l’autre en soi”  [integrating the other into onself]  (Desblache, Écrire l’Animal Aujourd’hui, 8).
Interestingly, the form of the three novels evokes the same complexity that characterizes the Crakers. At different formal levels, the trilogy is far from corresponding to an organic whole: it includes fragments coming from many different genres (songs, homilies, hymns, etc.) and a considerable diversity of narrative voices. Virginia Woolf describes the novel as “this most pliable of all forms” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 77). I will show that Atwood renews the genre of the novel by taking this “pliability” to the extreme. In the MaddAddam trilogy, the novel has to become “monstrous” to adequately address the new condition of humankind.
Lena Crucitti
Atwood’s Protean Poetics: Adaptation in the Service of Survival
Survival has been, from the beginning, a fundamental theme in Atwood’s work. In her famous essay Survival (1972), Atwood shows Canadian literature then preoccupied with nature as Monster, infringing upon man’s freedom, and as a result creating a garrison mentality.
In her MaddAddam Trilogy, though, Atwood reverses the equation, showing how human beings can mess with the environment and become the monster. In Oryx and Crake, published (2003) perhaps a full decade before the term anthropocene became common, she shows the instrumentalizing system that brought civilization and nature to the brink of collapse, just before a mysterious world pandemic hit. The Year of the Flood, keeping more or less the same temporal frame, the same plot, and characters, changes the lens or the angle. Suddenly, we see the events unfolding through a sect whose members had been presented as eco-extremists. Where, earlier two boys-wizards from rich compounds had been at the center of action, now various women, from all ages and social, racial backgrounds, become our reliable narrators. And, as usual with Atwood, we have to reconsider what we thought was reality. Though the last book presents yet another social organization, a postapocalyptic one, it is truly the world-making and shaking of the two first books which I would like to explore, to show the various levels on which the trilogy works, inventing worlds with evocative, musical language (poetic), making fun of the human folly (ironic, anatomical), and suggesting possible ways of creating a culture (material, symbolic) from scratch (performative).
Nicole Côté
Feminist Adaptations/Adaptations of Feminism: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad
In Women & Power (2017), Mary Beard identifies Penelope’s dismissal by her son Telemachus in Homer’s The Odyssey as the “first recorded instance of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public.” For Beard, Penelope exemplifies “how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them […] from the centres of power.” Beard’s Penelope is not Margaret Atwood’s, however. In her 2005 novella The Penelopiad, Atwood revisits The Odyssey by way of the female figures at the margins of the heroic male-centered epic, giving “the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids.” In giving voice to the maids, Atwood drew inspiration from the use of the chorus in ancient Greek drama, but in her subsequent adaptation of the novella for the stage, The Penelopiad took shape as a tragedy, with Penelope narrating her story from the underworld where she is eternally haunted by the maids and her role in their rapes and murders. While Atwood’s play accords with Aristotelian elements of tragic form—reversal, recognition, suffering—it does so via modern revisions of the intersection of gender and tragedy, so that her protagonist’s reversal of fortune is not the result of her incursion into the male-dominated public sphere, but, rather, of her failure to speak. Described by Atwood as “an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo,” The Penelopiad thus stages the tragedy of Penelope’s tactics as learned from her water naiad mother and her silent compliance as wife. Moreover, given Beard’s invocation of a silenced Penelope as the foundational example of women’s historic and continuing exclusion from power, The Penelopiad continues to echo, particularly in relation to the recent television adaptation of Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). This series generated high praise in its first season (2017) for its dystopic vision of women’s disempowerment and victimization not only by men but by other women, yet generated significant controversy in its second season (2018)—inspired by but not drawn from Atwood’s novel—which some critics argued veers into “torture porn” in its relentless depiction of extreme violence against women and which fetishized women’s bodies and reproductive functions while at the same time intending to resist such fetishization in the era of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement. Similarly featuring a wife and her maids, The Penelopiad suggests the critical potential of feminist writing for the stage as distinct from this extended television series that claims to be feminist while also functioning as popular entertainment for a mass audience.
Penny Farfan

Atwood Adapted

The Unreliable Female (Narrator) in Mary Harron’s Miniseries Alias Grace
Part of the reason why Mary Harron’s miniseries Alias Grace holds such a fascination for the viewer has to do the way in which the narrative unfolds, never fully reaching either a definitive truth or any form of closure. In the literal sense then, it is rather a mystery about murders and the hermetic personality of the “celebrated murderess” Susanna Moodie alluded to in Life in the Clearings than a formulaic murder mystery.
Grace’s baffling and enigmatic figure takes center stage in this intricate web of open-ended narratives, but her figure also observes from a distance the complex structure of these multi-layered tales and their sometimes contradictory strands. As the original core of all the narratives, Grace is therefore framed as the mistress-weaver who toys with concealed, superimposed discourses only partly revealing “[herself] behind [herself] concealed” (E. Dickinson, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted”).
The manipulative autobiographical pact she makes with Doctor Jordan unfolds as some ongoing game in which actress Sarah Gadon’s masquerading body and narrative quilt forever reformat the truth—if there is any.
Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris
The Figure of the Objectified Servant, from the Silent Biblical Maid to the Twenty-First-Century Web TV Rebel
As one of its epigraphs indicates, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale revisits the silent biblical character of the maid Bilhah, whom the sterile matriarch Rachel gives to Jacob so that she can bear a child in her stead. Transposing this ancient story of forced surrogate motherhood to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, respectively in the form of a dystopian novel (1985) and a Hulu series (2017–), The Handmaid’s Tale challenges the silencing of this female figure. I will show that, from the Bible to the novel and then the series, the silencing of the protagonist progressively recedes thanks to, among others, the surrogate mother’s growing rejection of her objectification. To illustrate this, I will focus on the plaything imagery used in both the dystopia and the series. In Atwood’s novel, Offred often compares herself to a doll to convey her sense of being manipulated by Gilead. The Hulu series expands on the novel’s toy imagery by adding a new motif: a musical box. Through its dancing ballerina, the box revealingly links plaything imagery to another recurring motif of female oppression in Atwood’s dystopia: amputation. Defined by Molly Hite as “a tenet at the heart of [many] cultural myths” according to which, for women, “getting one thing always involves giving up another” (138), the motif is found in the 1948 film The Red Shoes—inspired by Andersen’s tale of the same name—depicting a ballerina whose conflicting desires for love and a career lead to her downfall. In the web series, Offred immediately voices her refusal to identify with her toy double, which becomes closely associated with the heroine’s fight to reclaim her humanity.
Ingrid Bertrand
Shallow Focus Composition and the Poetics of Blur in The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017–)
This chapter analyzes one of the most salient devices of the Hulu series’ poetics: the use of shallow focus and more generally blurry images. If the series’ aesthetics takes many of its cues from Atwood’s novel, I would like to assess how dynamic the use of shallow focus is. Is it utilized according to a consistent formula? Does it interact with other devices? Do specific scenes and episodes play on and even disrupt the formula? How does this poetics contribute to the production of sensation and meaning? And does it have political implications? Finally, what does the series’ use of shallow focus teach us about the poetics of a series and, more generally, about the status of the blur in an audiovisual medium? I hope to answer these questions following a typological analysis of the functions of shallow focus that will be organized from the most common to the less frequent, and that will be divided into three parts devoted to the (de)construction of cinematic space, of memory, and of self.
David Roche
Feminism, Facts, and Fear: The Protean Reception of The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood 1985, Miller 2017–)
When Margaret Atwood’s visceral dystopia first appeared in 1985, Mary McCarthy of the New York Times criticized the book for its implausibility, unfavorably comparing it to the more convincing horrors of Huxley, Orwell, and Burgess. McCarthy’s main argument was that the “extreme feminism” of Atwood’s tale posited a world so far removed (in 1986) from the realm of the possible that it could spark no real sense of fear in the reasonable reader.
Bruce Miller’s 2017 television adaptation of Atwood’s novel received no such censure. From the start, Miller’s Handmaid’s Tale has been lauded for its eerie resemblance to present-day America—to such an extent that protestors dressed in Handmaid costumes have demonstrated in front of the Texas State Capitol, the US Capitol, and Mar-a-Lago.
This chapter will examine the transmedial interplay between fiction and fact, feminism and fear in Atwood’s and Miller’s works on both an aesthetic and a cultural level, focusing particularly on the ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale has adapted (and been adapted) to a Trumpian post-factual media landscape.
Elizabeth Mullen
You Are Here: The Handmaid’s Tale as Graphic Novel
Since the publication of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, this narrative, described in terms ranging from provocative, startling, and prophetic to simply terrifying, has spread from text to film to television and now to graphic novel. In this chapter I discuss artist Renée Nault’s graphic adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (2018) and the various strategies she uses in order to bring “the terrifying reality of Gilead to vivid life like never before” (Amazon.​com). Part of my analysis will also involve looking at the intersection between the spread of Atwood’s work of speculative fiction and the varying degrees of “real-ness” or “reality” between text and activists who now dress like handmaids in political protest, thereby invoking the progression of adaptations of the disturbing tale and its integration into everyday lives.
Joyce Goggin
Offred at the Opera: Dimensions of Adaptation in Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley adapted Margaret Atwood’s novel into their synonymous opera The Handmaid’s Tale. Since its world premiere in 2000, their work has been performed by five different opera companies in Copenhagen, London, Minnesota, Toronto, and Boston. Given this persistent interest in the opera, it has become important to review its critical reception and investigate the elements that made the text succeed in this new genre. While adaptation studies often focus on the relationship between source text and adaptation (comparative studies), this analysis investigates the semiotic dimensions of the adaptation processi. As an opera, The Handmaid’s Tale delivers many of the genre’s typical characteristics, such as a focus on the fate of a central character that offers opportunities for moments of introspection and expression of innermost feelings (aria) as well as the action and ritual that lends itself to staging in dramatic ensemble scenes. In each instance, it is the expressive power of music that effectively ties these elements together. Through the analysis of Ruders’ music and Bentley’s text, my contribution addresses not only the mechanisms of adaptation but also its effectiveness.
Helmut Reichenbächer

Atwood in the World: Atwood Adaptation Practitioners

Staging The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood’s only play, The Penelopiad (2007), was adapted from her novella of the same name (2005), which revisits the myth of Odysseus from the perspectives of his wife Penelope and her twelve maids. The script was developed in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in July 2007 in a co-production with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where it had its Canadian premiere in September 2007. The play subsequently went on to receive acclaimed productions by leading theatre companies across Canada, including Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, and Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver. In interviews about their productions of the play, directors Kelly Thornton and Vanessa Porteous reflect on the challenges and opportunities The Penelopiad presented as a stage adaptation of a non-dramatic text and on their productions as adaptations in their own right—further echoes in the reverberating chain embedded in Atwood’s adaptation of a myth that has been adapted repeatedly over time, taking on new resonances in traversing millennia.
Penny Farfan
Filming Alias Grace
Alias Grace as a story, as a novel, is captivating for many reasons. The Victorian setting and the Southern Ontario Gothic style developed by Margaret Atwood heighten the mystery surrounding the circumstances of murder, while bringing elements of a horror story to the narrative. A variety of threads are interwoven in Atwood’s novel, since the novel is comprised of first-person retrospective narration, interior monologue, dreams, dialogue, Doctor Jordan’s correspondence and flashbacks. Writer Sarah Polley’s riveting adaptation brought to the screen by director Mary Harron offers up a portrait of Grace Marks that intriguingly withholds the full spectrum of the character’s experience and desires. The decision to use the confessional, autobiographical mode in the screenplay demonstrates a particular kind of narrative control, as does the reliance on flashback. Grace Mark’s voice is a controlling one, but as she tells her own story, she is inevitably an unreliable narrator. The photography of cinematographer Brendan Steacy plays its part in the slow reveal of this complex character, the psychology of both presumed perpetrator and victim Grace Marks. On October 23, 2019, Brendan Steacy was interviewed by Fiona McMahon about his work on the Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s Alias Grace (2017), exploring the efforts to depict both the historical setting realistically and the complex nature of the narration. Steacy is a celebrated cinematographer, well-known for his work both in television (Titans, Alias Grace) and in film (Backstabbing for Beginners, Stockholm, Lucky Day).
Fiona McMahon
Filming The Handmaid’s Tale
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–) has been a breakout success, receiving Golden Globes, BAFTAs, a Peabody award, and eight Emmy awards (including “Outstanding Drama Series”) in its freshman season alone. Among those Emmys is Colin Watkinson’s for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series. His work on the series has been crucial in creating the visual aesthetic that several of our chapters discuss in detail, and he spoke with Shannon Wells-Lassagne on November 15, 2019, to discuss this adaptation.
Shannon Wells-Lassagne
Adapting Margaret Atwood
Shannon Wells-Lassagne
Fiona McMahon
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