Since its announcement a few months ago, Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has been greeted, at least in those corners of the pop-culture-junkie Internet I haphazardly frequent, with a lot of excitement. It’s easy to see why. Margaret Atwood’s novel has long been cited as a formative text for the legions of budding feminists who discovered it in high school and college. Trailers for the series promise the mix of striking production values and dramatic resonance that’s been the hallmark of the Peak/Prestige TV era; additionally, the TV format itself naturally allows for a greater degree of complexity, fidelity, and in-depth exploration of character and setting than would be possible in a feature-length film. Star Elisabeth Moss, a fierce and subtle performer of impressive range, is well equipped to capture the simmering interiority of Offred, a woman forced into reproductive slavery in a grim theocratic vision of America-to-be. Not to mention the fact that—as the return of 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale itself to the bestseller lists suggest—our current, nakedly dystopic political moment has prompted a renewed appetite for portrayals of oppressive totalitarian regimes.
I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale since high school, but I’m looking forward to the series for all the above reasons. In this, it joins any number of recent book-to-film adaptations—Whit Stillman’s hilarious Love and Friendship; Best Picture nominee Arrival; SyFy’s The Magicians; BBC’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell1–in which my fondness for the source material has fed hopeful flames of varying intensity, from cautious optimism to urgent, shut-up-and-take-my-money levels of anticipation.Looking ahead, I’m similarly stoked for Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, Bryan Fuller’s take on American Gods, the BBC revamp of the His Dark Materials trilogy, whatever Fox is going to do with The Passage; I could go on2.
This attitude is probably inevitable—why wouldn’t you be excited to see a work of fiction you enjoy and admire brought to life? At the same time, it raises questions for me about our relationship with literature. With so much energy directed towards cinematic interpretations of beloved texts, is our connection to the source material ultimately enriched, or diminished? Do we regard film and TV adaptations as a fun, potentially rewarding bonus, or have we come to prioritize them—whether implicitly or explicitly—as the most valued and desirable artistic realization of a given work? How does this dynamic affect our engagement with new books in the future? Consider this: why is it that when people love a book (at least a certain kind of book), they so often express the desire to see it made into a movie or TV show?
To return to the example of The Handmaid’s Tale, I don’t doubt that the novel (and Atwood’s work as a whole) will see an additional spike in sales as new fans of the series look around for more. Maybe we’ll get an Oryx and Crake adaptation; that could be cool. But for those of us who have already read the book, is Hulu’s series more likely to send us back to the text, or serve as an acceptable substitute and replacement for it? Of course, any thorough answer to this question has to contain something along the lines of it depends: it depends on the reader—how much they love the original work, what they love about it and whether they feel those elements have been honored by the TV series; it depends on the strength of the series, which could theoretically be judged an achievement of parallel or even superior quality to the novel; it depends upon a person’s preference for film or fiction, and the degree to which each artform encourages a certain degree of active vs. passive interaction between a work and its audience.
Speak for yourself and all that, but my past experience shows that I’m personally more likely to substitute, more likely to settle for whatever’s easiest: in this case, a medium that does most of the work for me3. As a reader, writer, and consumer of art-type stuff, I’m constantly aware of this impulse in myself, with its accompanying suggestion of passive inactivity and braindead inertia. At times I indulge it, the way people gorge on sweets; at times I repress it, the way people go on diets for their health. As with many better writers before me, it’s become one of the driving thematic engines of my work over the years.
In a way, this conversation becomes less about literary adaptation or transposition across artistic mediums than it is about the conflicting impulses of fandom and critical evaluation, which occupy (at least in their caricatured forms4) the logical extremes of our possible reactions to and relationships with art. To generalize horribly: the fan embraces; the intellectual scrutinizes. The inner fan relives, uplifts, geeks out; the inner English major qualifies and contextualizes. The academic supports an argument with evidence from the text, and other texts; the fan sees no greater argument than the text itself. As such, it follows that the immersive tools of cinema, in which (ideally) enormous images and sounds work their overwhelming magic on an audience in a dark room, provide ample fuel for critical thought; however, they are even better suited to the ultimate aim of fandom: to disappear completely into the experience of another world.
This is My Brain on Fandom
Naturally I have my own long, sometimes unflattering history with fandom, one that variously embodies and complicates the stereotypes listed above. Hereditary Dork-Lord that I am, it’s possible that I’ll never be more excited for a literary adaptation—or new release, or anything at all—than I was for the Lord of the Rings films, especially the December 19, 2001 premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring. I was the right age, the right jumble of smart and dumb, and I had the right history with Tolkien’s books, which I’d reread almost every year since I was nine. I saw Fellowship seven times in theaters, The Two Towers five times, Return of the King six5. I allowed the internet hype machine to fuel my bottomless hunger for all things Lord of the Rings, scouring search engines and fan sites6 and Rotten Tomatoes for interviews, set reports, reviews, essays, impassioned comments, New Zealand travel guides, nerds-only deep dives.
Looking back, two details stand out. First, I did my best not to read anything overly critical (as in, negative-critical) of the films or books. If a review link had a green splat-mark next to it instead of the ripe red piece of fruit (or is it vegetable?) indicating a “positive” take, I usually didn’t read it.
What’s more, despite my sizable daily dosage of LOTR esoterica, I never finished the books again. With so much Lord of the Rings content out there, why actually read The Lord of the Rings? What had previously been selling points now became impossible hurdles: the 1000 -page length; the interminable descriptions of families and landscapes; the archaic diction and invented languages; the songs7. Who had the time?
This is obviously some of the worst of fandom: a habitual, all-consuming zealotry that gradually snuffs out or redirects not just all critical (as in, analytical, reflective, evaluative) thought, but the willingness to do any work at all, to experience the tiniest mental discomfort. At its lowest, this impulse manifests itself—often before fans have even seen the film or product in question—in all kinds of horrific online abuse of “negative” reviewers and critical/feminist/brain-having essayists of all stripes. (See also: GamerGate.) There’s also a natural downtick in the amount of time you spend experiencing new things in life and art.
At least in my case, the point of all this clicking and hype-maintenance wasn’t just to disappear into another world. The goal was to achieve a near-instinctive level of catharsis. I planned to watch these movies a lot—a bunch of times in theaters, and then again on DVD, and then again on DVD when the longer, nerdier Extended Editions came out; there was just so much to look forward to—and while I watched, I intended to wring out every last drop of exhilaration, awe, and pathos. When Strider did something badass with a sword, I wanted it to be a punch-the-air moment every time. When Gandalf’s staff lit the dwarven ruins of Dwarrowdelf, or the Fellowship passed between the ancient statues of the Argonath, I wanted to get goosebumps every time. When the Fellowship staggered out of the mines of Moria after Gandalf’s pseudo-death at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum8; when Boromir redeemed himself by giving his life to defend the Hobbits by the Falls of Rauros, and further redeemed himself by acknowledging Aragorn as King of Gondor with his dying breath9; when Sam refused to let Frodo leave on his own, but then Frodo went back and pulled him into the rowboat and they stared longingly into each other’s eyes10—I wanted to be a blubbering wreck every time.
In order to ensure that my viewing experience went untroubled by nagging questions—for example, Where are all the women?, or Yo, is this racist?—I spent a lot of time blocking out all criticism and doubt. Ironically enough, my endless drive to appreciate everything on the screen led me to a more nuanced understanding of film and art. As I plowed through the special features on the aforementioned extra-nerdy Extended Editions, I learned more about how movies are made, from writing and casting and storyboarding to the post-production work of editing and scoring and digital grading. I learned to distinguish between the contributions of a production designer and a cinematographer, a sound designer and a foley artist. As my Film 101 vocabulary expanded, I was better-equipped to observe how individual details of execution, the efforts of a couple dozen teams working in unison, all contributed to the impact of a single scene. This made it easier to get something out of moments I’d previously enjoyed less: instead of thinking about how Frodo was being a wimp or something, I could focus on framing and composition, a (rare) subtle moment in the score, or how the scene was laying the groundwork for a later moment of payoff.
I also became a more empathetic viewer at the level of character and theme. I got better at watching a particular scene from the perspective of Frodo or Gollum or Eowyn or Treebeard or whomever. When a moment—say, Sam’s tearful speech in war-torn Osgiliath—wasn’t delivering a satisfactory amount of superficial awesomeness, I got better at thinking about the moral implications and the underlying message of that scene and the larger story.
An obvious side effect here is that an unconditional, warts-and-all embrace of any fictional world can lead to a narrower, more tenuous relationship with reality. (Especially if the thing you’re embracing is, you know, bad11.) If you have to make a case in your head for every weird and clunky moment, your own personal reading becomes an increasingly rickety construction, something cobbled together from disparate sources and unsupported by a solid foundation. Fans build these Jenga-style bridges to nowhere all the time, developing their own headcannon of backstories and character motivations, writing fan and slash-fiction and more. There’s an argument to be made that all this extra work, while motivated in the desire to be closer to a fictional world, also distances you from the larger world in which that story was created. The more convoluted the set of rules and assumptions governing your relationship with a text, the smaller the amount of other texts and people that are going to fit into your resulting worldview.
At the same time, that level of fandom is just an extension in many ways of the creative impulse, a way to interact with and give back to something you love. To the degree that you’re able to connect with others who share your interests—and there’s plenty of creative, intense fan communities out there—there’s also a potentially rewarding social dimension. I never got there myself, but I’m not here to write any of that off. If anything, I would have benefitted from being more engaged in a fan community at the height of my LOTR obsession. When you’re building a rickety bridge to nowhere by yourself, it’s easy to end up—well, nowhere, and without the energy to make your way back.
This was definitely a danger for me. As a high school kid who spent too much of his time anticipating the next cinematic installment of the ongoing Bros in Cloaks saga, I noticed myself becoming a worse, less fluid reader—not just of Tolkien, but of everything. My desire for a deeper relationship with what was in front of me started to flatline. On the internet, I settled into a mindless routine of fandom, browsing articles and essays without wanting to finish any of them. I still needed regular hits of on-brand content, but I wasn’t getting much pleasure from them. It took more effort to sit through books and movies that didn’t deliver the familiar comforts of formulaic genre storytelling, despite the fact that those formulas were no longer all that comforting. In a way, I’ve never really recovered. My engagement with a text will never be fully automatic, the way it seemed to be when I was kid—there’s too much self-awareness in the way. No matter how transported I am by a reading, there’s always some part of me that’s conscious of it as work. All that’s changed is my attitude toward that work. At some point, fearing total boredom-induced paralysis at the age of sixteen, I resolved to keep moving, to try to be better.
Somehow, enough of my old reckless, restless optimism survived to inform my thinking going forward, extending beyond LOTR into fannish relationships with all kinds of books, movies, shows, albums, blogs, infantile internet memes. If I was on board with an author or artist—or, crucially, if I felt that I should be—I began with the proposition that all their work was brilliant, and it was my job to like everything I possibly could about it. If I didn’t understand something, that just meant I needed to reread or rewatch or relisten, to think about it in a different way12. When I could wrangle up the energy to actually do the reading, this philosophy ported over easily to college—it’s basically the premise of being an English major. In the beginning, my readings of the usual literary suspects were filtered heavily through the lens of my own ecstatic priorities: I was interested almost exclusively in mysterious, time-stopping moments of aesthetic wonder—basically, the way I felt watching the Fellowship gape up at the Argonath statues, only now I was looking for it in The Waste Land or Paradise Lost. But over time, I became more willing to meet authors on their own terms. What were they trying to accomplish? What was I overlooking by focusing on my own priorities? What else was there to notice? Where else could I go for more information, and what could I learn from interviews and essays and the internet?
All of which begs the question: is the mindset of the fan actually any easier than the alternative? If anything, I could argue that it’s more work on average. So often, the armchair critic uses analytical distance as an excuse to dismiss a text and walk away. Like the driven academic, the fan sticks around and digs deeper.
Hand-Wringing: A Love Story
We’ve arrived at an obvious, why’d-you-even-write-this-essay-then conclusion here: fandom, or the enthusiastic, informed appreciation of a work of art, doesn’t have to represent any kind of toxic deevolution of the intellect. After all, part of the point of critical thought is to grasp and appreciate, in either greater breadth or depth, an artist’s achievements. The goal of living a rich intellectual life is to derive more enjoyment from the things we study, not less13. Viewed in this light, fandom and criticism are actually two sides of the same coin; when you do it right, there’s room for nuance and a range of emotional and interpretive reactions on each side. The real alternative is something else entirely, something lacking in nuance and understanding and emotion. Ultimately, this is the source of my apprehension about both the knee-jerk dismissal and the passive embrace of stories: when I walk away or let myself be less than fully present, how much am I leaving on the table? What am I settling for: something lesser? Nothing at all?
I imagine other fiction writers and nominally artistic people undergo some form of push and pull between not only their own celebratory and critical instincts, but their natural impulse to engage with or reject the world. When you experience a memorable moment in daily life or someone else’s art, do you look to honor and exalt it? Take it apart and get to the bottom of it? Some combination of the two? Each writer reacts differently to the raw materials of life, with different motivations for doing so, all of which allows for the distinctive timbre of a creative voice.
In my MFA program, I have a semi-deserved reputation for being the guy who “likes everything”14. If everyone hates a book or a story, I can usually be counted on mount some version of a sincere defense. Anyone else could do this, but I think my brain’s still conditioned to slip into a mode that’s both analytical and nonjudgmental. Not that I don’t naturally prefer some pieces over others, or have positive and negative reactions to stories and characters. It’s just easy for me to slip back into my old teenage assumption that the thing I’m examining was made by smarter, more talented people than me, and it’s my job to do the work required to understand it. Who cares about my thoughts and feelings? I’m an idiot; I don’t know anything about anything. This approach had its origins in rabid fandom, but I’m glad I have it at my disposal now. Once you’ve tabled the question of whether you like something, all that’s left to do is delve into the details. Nine times out of ten15, when you pay attention to how a piece is functioning and what it’s saying, there’s always something to learn about the craft or people or life. But there’s no shortcut—you have to do the work.
If adaptations like The Handmaid’s Tale are naturally exciting for generations of readers raised on visual media, that doesn’t mean they can’t be just as textually rewarding as the books they’re based on. A reader’s relationship with a book of fiction or a film can be equally superficial or profound. What’s important is that we try—that we not let a work of art become an excuse to turn off and shut down.
Whatever I encounter and embrace, I try not to lose sight of that message: do the work. Let’s keep doing the work.
1Casting a slightly wider net, I could point to something like HBO’s Game of Thrones (which I’ve watched grow from a promising and largely faithful take on a gritty, revisionist fantasy series into the cultural juggernaut it is today), or even the Hunger Games series, a semi-guilty pleasure that’s part of a long tradition of books whose skeletal straightforwardness makes it near-impossible not to picture the inevitable blockbuster franchise even as you’re reading.
2A certain strain of reader might note at this point that most of the properties I’ve mentioned can be classified in some way as “genre”-hyphenated works of speculative fiction: fantasy, sci-fi, YA hybrids. I won’t get into straight-up superhero stories here; suffice it to say that genre franchises and adaptations tend to dominate both the box office and the middlebrow, watercooler industry of recaps and reviews. There’s a whole separate-but-related essay to be written on what this implies about high-concept popular narrative, the artistic merits of such work, and what draws us (particularly, me) to it. However, to those readers who assume that the commercial push for flashy genre entertainment inherently limits this particular discussion to a lower class and category of literature, I submit that they can, with respect, go fuck themselves.
3This is not to make a categorical judgment regarding literature vs. cinema. Done well, film and television can sustain any level of critical engagement; unfortunately, my own willingness to substitute seems to be predicated less on a preference for one medium over another and more on straight-up laziness.
4Which okay, yeah: the opposite of fandom isn’t critical thinking. It’s all-inclusive hatred of a work, driven by whatever personal ideology or dogma. However, one might argue that taken to its extreme, the level of deconstruction that’s central to analysis from the Greek root on down becomes a kind of destructive, Humpty-Dumpty toppling force. It’s possible to think something to death.
5I’m a little depressed that these numbers are only semi-confident guesses; if you’d asked me at sixteen, I doubt I could have answered any personal question with a greater bone-deep certainty.
6At one point, my most visited sites were AintItCoolNews.com and TheOneRing.net
7Okay, the songs were always pretty lame.
8Spoilers, I guess.
9Damn, I’m about to tear up right now.
10I’m totally on board with a romantic reading of all this; at the time, though, my heteronormative ass thought it was a moving depiction of, like, loyalty and friendship, man.
11I’d argue that the Lord of the Rings films are pretty worthy entries in the lineage of the Hollywood epic. While there’s plenty to critique, there’s also plenty of stuff to like.
12ncomplete list of stuff I had to work my way up to appreciating around this time: Fugazi, Bjork, lots of bebop, most Joni Mitchell, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Fellini, Bergman, Kieslowski, French New Wave, Flannery O’Connor, Borges, T.S. Eliot, Dickinson, half the books and poems I read for class.
13Of course, there’s also a moral and political dimension to art that means that greater thought and study inevitably reveal the lies and contradictions and (ideally) unintentional noxious messages at the heart of a work. So maybe we’re all doomed.
14Sadly, I don’t always live up to this reputation when I’m reading the fiction slush pile.
15All stats based on rigorous scientific research.