Exalted by readers, TV fans and activists, can ‘Handmaid’s’ sequel satisfy everyone?


TORONTO — Since hitting the shelves 34 years ago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has taken on a life of its own.

Over the decades, the dystopian novel has revved up the imaginations of millions of readers and been reimagined in a myriad of adaptations, most notably a hit TV series that has deviated from canon to become its own cultural sensation.

In recent years, the 1985 novel has also been hailed as political prophecy, with women’s rights protesters around the world taking to the streets in the handmaids’ crimson cloaks and white bonnets.

As this assemblage of readers, TV watchers and activists eagerly awaits the sequel’s release Tuesday, the question becomes: How can “The Testaments” live up to so many competing expectations?

In an age of adaptations, reboots and ever-proliferating series, many fans have found that more is not always better when it comes to their favourite cultural touchstones.

The president of the Margaret Atwood Society, a scholarly association devoted to the Toronto-based writer, said with a text as treasured as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the prospect of a followup can arouse a mix of excitement and dread.

Karma Waltonen can trace her professional trajectory back to when she first read “The Handmaid’s Tale” in high school in the 1990s, so she can’t wait to see where “The Testaments” takes her next.

“I can’t go back and have that first experience of reading this again. It lives inside of me,” said Waltonen, a senior lecturer in the writing program at University of California, Davis.

“It almost feels like that could happen again. I get to go back there anew, and see another glimpse of this world.”

The consensus among cultural tastemakers seems to back up Waltonen’s optimism. “The Testaments” is up for awards in Canada and abroad — making the Giller Prize long list and Man Booker Prize short list, respectively — and has received positive reviews.

But for purists of the original novel, Atwood must meet an entirely different standard: How does the sequel compare to the story inside their heads?

“There are going to be some people who are unhappy, because they’ve imagined what happened, and she might write something different, so they’ll sort of be wrong,” said Waltonen.

“There is that idea that it could taint that memory… That somehow, you’re going to look back and see ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as lesser in that way.”

Waltonen said many literary loyalists have felt this disappointment as the TV series has strayed away from its source material in its second and third seasons, coinciding with a drop-off in critical esteem.

She said readers and viewers have been introduced to complementary, but often conflicting, versions of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In some ways, however, this line has blurred as readers have tuned in to the TV show, which in turn has driven the book to the top of bestseller lists.

Hannah McGregor, an assistant professor of publishing at Simon Fraser University, said “The Testaments” gives Atwood a chance to capitalize on this cross-pollination, while asserting control over the story in both mediums.

“Releasing a sequel while there’s an ongoing TV series means that the TV series becomes promotion for the book,” said McGregor.

“People have been like, ‘The later seasons of the Handmaid’s Tale maybe aren’t as good.’ So here’s Atwood now correcting them and telling us what really happens next.”

In this respect, Atwood seems to have succeeded in light of news that Hulu and MGM are looking to develop “The Testaments” for the screen.

While it remains to be seen how the project will reconcile contradictions between the story’s textual and TV incarnations, an English professor at University of British Columbia says in a sense, the cultural impact of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has transcended them both.

“This is both a sequel and a brand new book … that responds to a situation that’s radically changed,” Eva-Marie Kroller said. “The circumstances (are) worse than ever.”

Kroller noted that Atwood’s literary interests often overlap with her political causes, including gender equity and protecting the environment.

This is in part why activists have taken up “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a portent of where they believe society is headed in light of the rollback of reproductive rights and inertia on climate change, said Kroller.

She said Atwood has participated in this movement through social media, letters of support and by standing in solidarity with handmaid-garbed protesters.

Now, Kroller said, Atwood gets to have her say in her chosen medium: the written word.

“I think she possibly wants to add to the discussion that’s already going on, her own quite considerable (two) cents’ worth,” said Kroller.

“She wants to participate as an equal partner in it, because after all, she’s created it to begin with.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press


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