This is a guest post from Michelle Hart. Michelle received her M.F.A. from Rutgers University-Newark, where she currently teaches Writing Composition and Contemporary American Literature.
In the second episode of Amazon’s I Love Dick, Chris (Kathryn Hahn) asks Devon, the woman fixing Chris’s fridge who is herself an aspiring artist, whether she’s ever heard of Maya Deren. When Devon says she hasn’t, Chris, frantically, says, “She’s supposed to be the most important female filmmaker, and, you know, to be—God’s honest truth—I think she’s boring as shit. It’s like impenetrable.”
Chris Kraus’s “novel,” I Love Dick, is considered a seminal book by a female artist. Undoubtedly, it’s an incisive exploration of female desire and female ambition. But it works better as a philosophical treatise or an essay than it does a novel. What hampers it as a form of entertainment is also what makes the book unique: its epistolary nature. That it’s written as a series of letters, broken up by the occasional bits of connective narrative tissue, allows Kraus to expound, stream-of-consciously, the difficulties of being a female artist, of being a woman with a voracious desire both for sex and for experience. The novel is essentially a 200-page essay. God’s honest truth? It’s impenetrable.
Amazon’s adaptation of the novel, helmed by Jill Soloway, externalizes the ideas present in the novel and is thus more successful, ultimately, in living up to the novel’s ambitions. This is certainly due in large part to Kathryn Hahn, whose frequent oscillation between mania and considered thoughtfulness animate Chris’s personality in a way the novel never quite could. But even on a scene level, the immediacy of television allows the audience to really see the effects Dick (Kevin Bacon) has on Chris and her husband Sylvere. The second episode of the show opens with a wild sex scene, one that mixes fantasy and reality, reveling and indulging in the characters’ ecstasy. Kraus’s novel is an intellectual tour-de-force of female desire; Soloway’s adaptation is a visceral one. While Kraus seeks to tell the story of her mind, Soloway seeks to tell the story of Chris’s body. In the book, Chris observes and tells; in the show, Chris does.
Also in the aforementioned conversation with Devon, Chris admits that she prefers Spielberg and Scorsese to Deren. There’s something to be said for story-driven work, works that take big ideas and allow them to breathe in the context of narratives. This is also why, contrary to popular belief, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds over its source material. In Atwood’s novel, Offred mostly observes. She is a witness, a fly on the wall. Of course this maybe one of its points: that women are confined to watching their lives, discouraged from being active participants in those lives. And some of the best scenes in Hulu’s adaptation involve Offred (Elizabeth Moss) receiving information about her new nightmarish world. Yet, because of the conventions of a story-driven medium like television, Moss’s Offred must not only receive but must also transmit.
Because these books have become television series, their narratives have grown to include more characters—not just more bodies, but more personalities. Both novels feel to some degree myopic; they include only one woman’s view of the world. The television series I Love Dick devotes an entire episode to the desires of other women. It’s no coincidence that both stories have been expanded to include queer women. In stories about female desire, thwarted or otherwise, the presence of queer women is essential—not just as concepts but as flesh-and-blood characters.
Atwood’s novel feels like an idea in much the same way Kraus’s novel feels like an idea. And to be clear, they are both astounding ideas. Kraus’s book is so indelible because it dares to show women’s creative and sexual ambitions in both flattering and unflattering light. Atwood’s conception of America as a world built by and for female oppression is particularly astute given what the political landscape in 2017 looks like. No doubt, I Love Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale are books anchored by incredible ideas. But the television adaptations of I Love Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale are anchored by incredible stories.