Handmaids, Anne and the Americanization of Canada

Slick U.S. TV adaptations of two Canadian classics strip away any trace of this country.

By Shannon Rupp 19 May 2017 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

As the debate over cultural appropriation rages this month, I’ve been surprised that no one has brought up how the Americans have hijacked two of Canada’s most beloved books.

I’m talking about L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, which has been reinvented as a co-production between CBC and Netflix, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter was produced by the streaming service Hulu, but it is airing in Canada on Bravo and will later be posted to CraveTV.

Both shows are beautifully made and feature some exceptional performances, but they are also so American as to feel unrecognizable to Canadians.

I’ve noticed this creeping Americanization for some time now. Just consider Prime Minister Selfie and that undignified spread in Vogue magazine. He behaves like America’s actor-politicians who treat governing as just another kind entertainment.

Have you noticed how many of your friends signed up for that Washington Post subscription deal — $19 for six months? I realize they’re sick of reading the local papers stuffed with native advertising and all of its promotional cousins. But don’t think that a steady diet of foreign reporting isn’t going to change our outlook and our values.

Still, when it comes to sliding into that deep, rich pool of American culture, I’m as guilty as anyone, particularly when it comes to TV. So I’m ashamed to say that I was delighted when I saw the big-budget producers to the south were picking up a couple of quintessentially Canadian books for that prestige-TV treatment.

What I didn’t realize was that while American TV about Americans can be great, American TV about us can never be about us.

In the case of Anne with an E, they hired a Canadian writer with an American resumé to reimagine the optimistic story about a well-read orphan in P.E.I. as something from a cheesy American soap.

Moira Walley-Beckett’s professional claim-to-fame was that she had written for the brilliant Breaking Bad, which turns out to be exactly the wrong influence for adapting a comic Canadian novel. Everything about Anne with an E feels foreign, right down to the grating dialogue, which includes gawdawful contemporary American expressions like “reaching out” to people to indicate you want to contact them.

It’s not just the clumsy anachronisms that make the dialogue so irritating. The characters don’t seem Canadian in all sorts of little ways. For example, they talk about being liberals and conservatives, when in the book they’re Tories and Grits.

The writers don’t seem to understand that Anne was raised by books. So they have taken her whimsical way of speaking, gleaned from Walter Scott and Tennyson, and turned it into bizarre, artificial speechifying and weird imaginings. She looks less like a charmingly precocious child than a disturbingly unhinged one.

Walley-Beckett seems to have conceived of Anne as an early Victorian orphan in the Dickensian mould. But the book was published in 1908 and Montgomery’s characters reflect the hopefulness of the socially progressive Edwardian period. That sense of optimism that things were getting better was strongly felt here. As Wilfrid Laurier said in 1904, “The 20th century belongs to Canada.”

He was wrong of course, but an adaptation ought to reflect the novel’s time and place. Instead, Walley-Beckett has opted to give Anne a backstory that is so ridiculously over the top it would make even HBO producers blush. In one of the many invented scenes, Anne’s former foster father dies of a heart attack while beating her.

As Oscar Wilde said of Dickens’ pathetic Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have to have a heart of stone to read of the death... and not start laughing.”

And laugh I did. When I wasn’t bored with the relentless melodrama. But I’ll give it this: it’s prestigious in the American TV sense of the word, which means watching repulsive characters suffering through depressing situations.

By that definition there are few shows as prestigious as The Handmaid’s Tale, which also includes women being tortured. It’s set in a dystopian world that used to be New England before it fell under the theocratic rule of fundamentalist Christians.

Due to some environmental catastrophe most people are sterile. The few women who have working ovaries are enslaved as Handmaids to provide the new world leaders, the Commanders, with children. A Handmaid lives with the Commander and his wife and the three act out a twisted sexual ritual every month, in the hopes a Handmaid will conceive.

When it was published in 1985, the novel was a very Canadian criticism of American society. Atwood was writing in the Reagan era when televangelists made millions and doctors were shot for having the audacity to provide women with health care. In Canada we were all talking about how to prevent those ugly American values from creeping north. The plan for stopping the barbarians at the border included universal health care, gun control, and arts funding to reinforce the Canadian national identity.

It all sounds so quaint now. And I’d forgotten about it until The Handmaid’s Tale made its TV debut as a vehicle for American liberals to criticize American conservatives. Since they’re talking about themselves, they’ve softened Atwood’s barbs.

So instead of her idea that theocratic Gilead would would be overtly racist and segregate people of colour — “the children of Ham” — in another region, this TV adaptation is about a supposedly post-racial society

Showrunner Bruce Miller offers a rationale for side-stepping his nation’s unending racial conflicts and casting black actors. “In a book, it’s easy to say they’ve sent off all the people of colour,” Miller told Variety. “But on a TV show seeing it all the time it’s harder. Honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?”

Of course, Miller has no such scruple when it comes to making a show about misogynists that is also a misogynist show. The Handmaid’s Tale celebrates Hollywood’s love of beautiful people engaged in sexual violence, but it feels like the production wallows in the sadism rather than criticizing it. There are far too many gorgeously lit scenes of beautiful young women being whipped or zapped with cattle prods or ritually raped by handsome young actors — who look nothing like the greying old zealots in the book.

When it comes to stylish barbarism, The Handmaid’s Tale could give HBO darling Game of Thrones a run for its Emmys. And it’s just as beautifully produced. But add it all up and it is no longer the story I loved, which offered a Canadian look at the nation next door.

In keeping with this Americanization, it also seems to be morphing into one of those revolutionary tales they adore. The show just got a green light for season two, which will imagine the wider world of Gilead beyond the lives of the Handmaids. The producers have hinted at there being rebel outposts. So I’m expecting a kind of Star Wars saga with nun’s habits instead of pilot’s jumpsuits. By season three, I anticipate a call to arms as they overthrow the totalitarian bastards, which will no doubt give Democrats a ray of hope in Trump’s America.

Bully for them. But I’m sorry to see two significant Canadian literary works adapted to American sensibilities, not least because it ends their chances of a fresh take for at least a decade.

Well, maybe by then the steady drip, drip, drip of mass global entertainment will have relieved me of all my old-fashioned notions about nations and ensured that we all think the same way about everything.  [Tyee]

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