Few writers have the facility for world-building possessed by Margaret Atwood. Over a long and lauded career, her great gift has been the sense of plausibility she brings to even her most outlandish creations; of a tangible reality only slightly out of synch with our own. This has been demonstrated recently in The Handmaid’s Tale and another adaptation, of her speculative historical novel Alias Grace, is shortly to air on Netflix. With appreciation for the brilliant Canadian scorching the cultural sphere, surely there are other gems among her canon that could be mined for the screen?
The obvious choices are a trilogy of her recent work that appear tailor-made for adaptation. Oryx & Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013) compose a dystopian trilogy dealing with the aftermath of a man-made global pandemic designed to strip humanity from the earth. These accessible, yet thematically dense works paint a vivid portrait of a broken future that is tantalising fodder for those with a love of intelligent science fiction (though Atwood herself rather balks at that term). The success of The Handmaid’s Tale has also shown that there is an audience with the constitution for a pessimistic assessment of where we may be headed as a species.
Another benefit of bringing this world to the screen is that, for the first two novels at least, they have their own self-contained story. While characters and situations may converge, like a post-apocalyptic Three Colors.., they tell separate tales. This may appeal to commissioning executives wary of green lighting an entire trilogy.
Oryx & Crake is about Snowman, a survivor (possibly the last human) of a devastating plague created by his childhood friend Crake. Surrounded by the Crakers, genetically-engineered humanoids designed to replace homo sapiens, he tells the story of his friendship with Crake and the eventual obliteration of mankind.
It’s almost surprising that Oryx & Crake hasn’t been adapted before, especially now the effects technology exists to depict the wild and wonderful genetically modified creations convincingly; such as the pigoons, monster pig and human hybrids originally designed to be sources of replacement organs. The structure of the novel would also lend itself to a satisfying cinematic experience. As the flashback sequences injected brief moments of love and light into the bleakness of The Handmaid’s Tale, the same device in Oryx & Crake would surely save any adaptation from being too crushingly nihilistic. You also can’t go wrong with an updating of the old Frankenstein story, and the examination of the ethical limits of technology will be lapped up by anyone who enjoyed Westworld.
The Year of the Flood is a continuation of this world rather than a direct sequel. It offers the female perspective we’re used to from Atwood and switches the focus to the God’s Gardeners; a religious sect that blends Biblical and scientific practice. Among their pantheon of saints, Jesus and Francis of Assisi mingle with Gandhi, Dian Fossey and Jacques Cousteau. The plot follows two women, Toby and Ren, their time in the sect, and their traumatic pasts at the hands of the men in their life. As it focuses on the effect the catastrophe has on the populace (or ‘pleebs’ in Atwood’s parlance), The Year of the Flood would work as a series completely independent of its predecessor. The world it depicts is even richer than that of Oryx and Crake, and is once again utterly convincing as a plausible alternate reality.
MaddAddam is a direct continuation of the previous two books and marries the narratives together. While this wouldn’t work as a standalone story, the success or otherwise of the series would have been established by now, and Atwood ties up the various threads in satisfying fashion, leaving a trace of hope for the future. With the philosophical concerns of the series already firmly established, MaddAddam is much more of an adventure tale, as the protagonists fight for survival against the PainBallers; former criminals who have survived a brutal Running Man-style game show. It’s also unexpectedly funny, as the framing device sees Snowman reviving the old oral traditions of storytelling and being hamstrung in his effortless by the relentlessly literal Crakers. Think an entire race of Drax the Destroyers and you’re just about there.
In all honesty, there isn’t much of Atwood’s output that couldn’t be adapted. Even the multiple stories nestled within in each other like matryoshka dolls in The Blind Assassin could be teased into a coherent vision by a deft screenwriter. In the current cultural climate though, for their relevance as much as their storytelling, this dystopian trilogy is the obvious choice. Apparently, a certain D. Aronofsky has the rights. Watch this space.
Alias Grace is now streaming on Netflix. Let us know what you think.