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Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond

Laura Benoit
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Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. ISBN: 978-3030736859.

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1The recent adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Alias Grace (1996) into TV series by platforms Hulu and Netflix have increased the already remarkable influence of Atwood’s work by expanding the modalities of its reception internationally. Their overall success and critical acclaim, although sometimes mitigated, has introduced new iterations of Margaret Atwood’s “protean poetics” (Côté 63) in our collective imagery. It would nevertheless be simplistic to reduce this expansion to these two serial adaptations, as Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Fiona McMahon underline: the wide array of Atwood novels and novellas and the multiple media they have been adapted to constitute the basis of Adapting Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond.

2The book is divided into three parts that tackle adaptation and intertextuality within Atwood’s work (part I), the adaptations that her novels and novellas have given way to (part II), and finally a number of interviews from artistic directors and cinematographers who have undertaken the task of adapting Atwood to the stage or the screen (part III). The variety of novels (Hag-Seed, The Heart Goes Last, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, the MaddAddam trilogy, Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale) and novellas (The Penelopiad) under study in the volume allow for an exhaustive overview of the core themes and structures that characterize Margaret Atwood’s writing. I would argue that the range of media which also benefit from careful scrutiny (novels, operas, movies, TV series, graphic novels and plays) constitutes the distinctive and most appealing characteristic of the present volume as it offers a cohesive yet varied approach to the fictional world of the Canadian author, as well as reflections on contemporary media and audiences.

3It allows readers to grasp the underlying mechanisms of intertextuality, borrowing and rewriting that shape Atwood’s fiction, especially her feminist take on classical myths and references. In turn, this close study of Margaret Atwood’s novels informs the expansion of her fictional world into other media. By spending time on different forms and ways of adapting novels in parts II and III, the whole process of adaptation is unveiled, especially through its tailoring of narrative content to new rhythms and possibilities on the graphic novel page as well as in serial and theatrical spaces. After reading the volume, one realizes that myths and founding texts can always be rewritten and adapted to changing socio-political contexts, even more so when they are linked to gendered perspectives, through the long and multifaceted history of feminist writing and theory. This volume sheds light on the legacy in which Atwood inserts herself, and on the legacy she leaves for others to reinterpret through their perspectives and sensitivities. Articles as well as interviews offer insight into the subversive aspects of literary fiction, and enhance the political necessity of adapting and updating these narratives in the light of contemporary events.

4With contributions from Marta Dvorak, Ruby Niemann, Lena Crucitti, Nicole Côté and Penny Farfan, Part I dives into the protean aspect of the myths, texts and systems of references that structure Atwood’s prose. From Shakespeare to Homer and Susanna Moodie, Atwood is described as an author that skillfully borrows from different genres and traditions in order to build an “architext”-ure (Dvorak 17) around her work, which can lead to spectral traces of characters, myths and legends inhabiting her novels. Indeed, as Ruby Niemann underlines, “adaptations always contain ghostly traces of the previous text, of the cultural reinterpretations of the work, or of the warring interpretations between author and audience” (Niemann 36). Adaptation in this part of the volume is also seen as a necessary political and environmental process that Atwood’s dystopian literature explores. In The Handmaid’s Tale as well as the MaddAddam trilogy, environmental dangers propel adaptation as the only option for characters to survive, be they human or posthuman beings. Lena Crucitti’s contribution even sheds light on the resilient aspect of literature through its adjustment to changing contexts when she describes the need for Atwood’s characters to adapt to the dystopian environment they live in. She states that “a resilient system adapts to the shock and absorbs it in order to continue to exist. A resilient system does not return to the previous state after the shock but evolves into something new” (Crucitti 52), underlining the need for characters as well as arts to take to changing social, political and environmental contexts.

5The second part of the volume encompasses reflections on the process of adaptation from the written text to the screen, the opera stage or the graphic novel with contributions from Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris, Ingrid Bertrand, David Roche, Elizabeth Mullen, Joyce Goggin and Helmut Reichenbächer. These texts shed light on defining features of the process of adaptation as well as on the opportunities offered by the different media to create innovative versions of Atwood’s world. While Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris tackles the masquerading body and the quilt as visual motifs that are aptly translated from the written version of Alias Grace to the screen, she also underlines the privileged dimension of seriality and serial techniques in translating the unreliability of the narrator on screen. A form of legacy is conveyed through the integration of mythical figures in new media and formats, sparking innovative developments and subversive changes, as Ingrid Bertrand remarks: “from the Bible to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel and then Hulu’s television series, the figure of the maid forced into surrogacy has evolved from complete silence to resistance and even outright rebellion against her objectification” (Bertrand 125). Articles in this section thus comprise valuable theoretical developments, such as in Helmut Reichenbächer’s contribution which reflects on the “multidimensional” abilities of “the critic of opera” (Reichenbächer 202).

6The final section of the volume establishes direct links between the analytical arguments and theoretical proposals that have been developed throughout the book and the testimonies from artistic directors and cinematographers involved in the processes of adapting Atwood’s work for the stage or the screen. The interviews presented by Penny Farfan, Fiona McMahon and Shannon Wells-Lassagne will undoubtedly attract researchers looking for insights on the technical dimensions of adaptation. Shannon Wells-Lassagne’s interview of Colin Watkinson thus highlights the rapidly changing landscape of streaming platforms and serial production by underlining the creative freedom offered by emerging platforms such as Hulu, in opposition to more stable giants such as Netflix: “Hulu encourages creativity as much as possible and you always felt like Hulu had your back; they were encouraging and collaborative. (…) Especially with little things, like when we went to shoot on this particular camera, Netflix wouldn’t allow that camera, because it’s not 4K.” (Colin Watkinson in Wells-Lassagne 246). The final contribution by Linda Hutcheon on adaptation could at first be seen as a surprising choice for the final part of the volume, but in fact it echoes Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Fiona McMahon’s introductory remarks on transformation and adaptation by offering perspective on the multimodal fictional worlds that have been erected through adaptation, helping audiences themselves adapt to Atwood’s relevant and rich literary creations.

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Bibliographie

BERTRAND, Ingrid. “The Figure of the Objectified Servant, from the Silent Biblical Maid to the Twenty-First-Century Web TV Rebel”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 113-125.

CÔTE, Nicole. “Atwood’s Protean Poetics: Adaptation in the Service of Survival”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 63-78.

CRUCITTI, Lena. “Transforming the Human and the Novel: The Utopian Potential of Resilience in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond, op.cit., pp. 49-61.

DVORAK, Marta. “Atwood’s Hag-Seed and The Heart Goes Last, a Generic Romp”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond, op.cit., pp. 15-33.

NIEMANN, Ruby. “’Negotiating with the Dead’: Authorial Ghosts and Other Spectralities in Atwood’s Adaptations”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond, op.cit., pp. 35-48.

REICHENBÄCHER, Helmut. “Offred at the Opera: Dimensions of Adaptation in Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley’s The Handmaid’s Tale”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond, op.cit., pp. 177-209.

WELLS-LASSAGNE, Shannon. Filming The Handmaid’s Tale”. Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond, op.cit., pp. 239-249.

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Laura Benoit, « Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Fiona McMahon (eds.). Adapting Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond »Interfaces [En ligne], 48 | 2022, mis en ligne le 21 décembre 2022, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/5903 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/interfaces.5903

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Auteur

Laura Benoit

Université d’Aix-Marseille, Laboratoire LERMA. Laura Benoit est maîtresse de conférences au Laboratoire LERMA à Aix-Marseille université, où elle fait partie du groupe Women and the F-Word, qui travaille sur les féminismes dans les aires anglophones. Elle a également rejoint un groupe de travail sur la visibilité comme processus esthétique et politique. Elle a récemment organisé avec des collègues de Toulouse Jean Jaurès une journée d’études sur les méthodologies d’analyse féministes des séries télévisées, sujet qui est central à sa recherche depuis son travail de thèse, soutenu en 2020, et qui portait sur la représentation des femmes dans les séries télévisées anglophones.

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