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For Shows Like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ And ‘American Gods,’ Literary Adaptations are the New Fan Fiction

While Bryan Fuller and Bruce Miller have their authors' permissions, these showrunners may not be much different from teenagers who learned to write using their heroes' story worlds.

The Handmaid's Tale  -- "Offred" -- Episode 101 -- Offred, one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife. Behind the scenes with Margaret Atwood and Reed Morano, shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Margaret Atwood and director Reed Morano on the set of “The Handmaid’s Tale”


<< Page 1: Why “The Handmaid’s Tale” might feel similar to fan fiction

Really, What Is Fan Fiction?

That question is harder to answer than you might think — in fact, media scholar Dr. Henry Jenkins has made a career out of studying it. Currently the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, he began his exploration of fan culture in the early 1990s, looking at things like “Star Trek” slash fiction and the popularity of “Twin Peaks” on the 1990 equivalent of Twitter.

Recently, Jenkins and I discussed “Twin Peaks” in depth, but we also dug into the various definitions of fan fiction, and what they mean in the context of these adaptations.

There are quite a few classic modern novels, such as “The Wind Done Gone” and “Wide Sargasso Sea,” which riff off the worlds of “Gone With the Wind” and “Jane Eyre” by providing new perspectives. And Jenkins believes that these are just the tip of the iceberg: “That means that a sizable chunk of writing around the world and throughout history would be in the same category as fan fiction.”

What did Jenkins mean by that? As Margaret Atwood explained: “It’s a very old thing to have characters and stories take on a life of thier own and generate other stories. Now we call it fan fiction… but it goes to mythology, to the backstories of the Odyssey. There were numerous stories about Penelope. There were numerous stories about Ulysses. And then people wrote more.”

(“The Handmaid’s Tale” actually has an authorized fan fiction promotion happening on Wattpad, a popular publishing platform for original fiction as well as officially approved tie-in properties. Amazon has also been running the Kindle Worlds project for a while, allowing fanfic writers to publish works for various universes including “Wayward Pines,” “Veronica Mars,” and “The Vampire Diaries,” though Kindle Worlds has its issues.)

Here’s a key detail: The involvement of the original author plays a role in these definitions. Jenkins brought up Robert Kirkman’s relationship with “The Walking Dead” the TV series, which is based on the graphic novel he helped create. While not the official showrunner, Kirkman has been actively involved with the show’s writing, and the show at times has rewritten the pre-established narrative from the comic books with his blessing.

Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler, Danai Gurira as Michonne, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes, Jason Douglas as Tobin, Ross Marquand as Aaron, Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa,  - The Walking Dead _ Season 7, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

It’s not a direct adaptation — both properties exist separately. But because Kirkman is actively involved in them both, it’s less about a separate individual reinterpreting the original work and more about the author rewriting himself. Kirkman, Jenkins explained, “explicitly changes the fate of so many characters over the series because he wants to be able to explore his creative options he didn’t take in the original, and wants fans of the original to be surprised consistently by what happens on the series.”

It’s an important distinction from other book-to-TV adaptations. But hundreds of people coming together to make a multiple-episode season of television is a lot different from a text document posted online. “It does some of the same functions as fan fiction, but it can’t be fan fiction by definition,” Jenkins said. “It is not arising from fandom and the modes of production that fans are involved in.”

This is the issue which led to a fascinating debate last year over CBS and Paramount establishing rules for “Star Trek” fan films — the network and studio trying to maintain control over their brand, aiming to ensure that fan productions (which can now be made on a quasi-professsional level) would not be confused with the official films and TV shows.

But what happens if the people making the officially authorized shows have no problem declaring themselves to be fans? Because once you really get into the authorship question, things can get complicated.

When Is a Fan More Than Just a Fan?

The concept of the “fan auteur” is not a new phenomenon. We live in a media age where pop culture junkies-turned-creators now get to make their own homages to the movies and TV shows they grew up with — sometimes indirectly, such as the Duffer Brothers’ “Stranger Things” mashing up Spielberg and Stephen King, and sometimes directly, like Joss Whedon getting to play in both the DC and Marvel sandboxes and J.J. Abrams reviving the “Star Wars” universe.

Atwood said that she originally hoped a female showrunner would take on the “Handmaid” series adaptation, but Miller won her over because “he’s a total fan and he’s been a total fan since he read it in college. And he was such a fan that he kept asking his agents to check if the rights had come up or to see if they were looking for anybody. So when it did come up, he just jumped right in there.” (Miller did make a point of hiring female directors, including auteur Reed Morano, who defined the show’s unforgettable visual style with the first three episodes.)

READ MORE: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: How a Classic Technicolor Technique Made the Color Red A Political Act

Fuller is also a well-known example of the “fan auteur” — he became a social media favorite years ago by embracing fandom, especially as the showrunner of “Hannibal,” which developed a ravenous and obsessed online following.

Fuller’s enthusiasm was a major factor in the production of “American Gods,” because the showrunner sold himself to Neil Gaiman as the right person to work on the project by pushing his fandom of the book.

American Gods Season 1 2017

Unlike, say, George R.R. Martin having writing credits on “Game of Thrones,” both Gaiman and Atwood are just considered to be producers on their respective shows. But anecdotally, the relationship between book author and showrunner was more intense on “American Gods” than “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

While Miller consulted with Atwood during the adaptation of “Handmaid’s Tale,” Gaimain was more hands-on with “Gods,” something he said was inspired by the bad experiences he’s seen fellow authors experience when their works are adapted.

“I have friends who would sell things to TV or to the movies and it tended to be, ‘I have done what I have done, now you go make your television or your movie.’ A lot of the time I would watch them get hurt, sad and upset,” he said. “I decided ‘OK, if something of mine is gonna be made into a movie, I want to be involved. I want to choose the people who make it.’ That’s the most important thing – to find someone you trust to give your ‘baby’ to.”

So, what was the key to Fuller winning him over?

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