The Handmaiden: How a Victorian-set novel became the Korea-set film
Sarah Waters writes English novels. The distinction applies not just to where she sets her books but also their spirit. All six of her novels to date, beginning with Tipping the Velvet in 1998 and most recently with 2014’s The Paying Guests, explore the seedy alleys of Victorian London or acutely observe the struggles in an unforgiving class system.
Fingersmith, the Wales-born writer’s third novel is no exception. The Dickensian caper follows a pickpocket posing as a lady’s maid in order to rob her mistress of a fortune, before beginning a love affair with her intended target. For the book — originally published in 2002 and adapted in a BBC miniseries starring Sally Hawkins in 2005 — Waters found inspiration in “sensational novels,” 19th-century, English books from writers like Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White) that, as she explains, “uncovered violence in the home, marital violence and bigamy, or women on the verge of madness.” She wanted to explore the country’s obsession with class and the deception involved with impersonating someone above one’s station.
So, naturally, the novel became a movie directed by a Korean filmmaker whose most famous effort involves a man eating a live octopus and unknowingly having sex with his own daughter.
Over the past two decades, Park Chan-wook has developed a well earned reputation among cineastes worldwide for his provocative, thrilling, and visually stunning films — 2003’s Oldboy most notable among them. Park’s extreme aesthetic may not make sense as a match for Waters on paper, but The Handmaiden, Park’s adaptation of Fingersmith, is undeniable. Currently sitting at 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s the director’s best reviewed film to date, and Waters counts herself among the film’s fans. “I’ve seen it three times now,” Waters told EW over the phone, calling from her home in London. “It has been a real treat because there’s so much in the film that in the first viewing, it’s quite overwhelming in a way.”
For Waters, The Handmaiden‘s journey from page to screen was a new experience. While the author’s work has been previously adapted four times, she was less involved than ever. “It’s interesting for me because unlike the other adaptations I’ve had, this was all done at a bit of a distance from me,” Waters said. When Waters sold the Fingersmith rights for BBC’s adaptation, they transferred to that miniseries’ production company, Sally Head Productions, who then sold the rights again to make Park’s film.
“I remember hearing a few years ago that there was interest in making a Korean-language adaptation of Fingersmith,” Waters said. “I didn’t know at that point who the director was, and it just seemed unlikely but intriguing. At that point, I just thought it would be quite a small project, and it went quiet for a while. Then it resurfaced, and it was at that point that I realized it was Park Chan-wook.”
The filmmaker was someone Waters knew less from his work and more by his reputation, which tends to be too easily reduced to gorgeously shot shock cinema. Intrigued to know more about the man handling a story that Waters admits she’s still fond of, she watched number of his movies, including Oldboy. Yes, everything she had heard about was there, but Waters found a kinship with Park in an unexpected way. “It didn’t seem like an obvious match with Fingersmith, given the super-violence of Oldboy,” Waters said. “But at the same time and the more I thought about the lushness of his film and the melodrama, I thought maybe it’s not such an unlikely match.”
Waters’ intuition about Park’s take on Fingersmith ended up being spot on, but the result was also pleasantly surprising. In shifting the setting from Victorian London to Japanese-occupied Korea, Park — in his signature style — explored the themes of Fingersmith in a way that was entirely unexpected for Waters. When asked about the octopus cameo in the film — which, suffice it to say, wasn’t in the book — Waters saw a strong connection to one of Fingersmith‘s core themes.
“What I like about the octopus is that it links back to the pornography,” she said. “It links back to those pornographic images of women having sex with octopuses. Women and pornography and the relationship between them — whether they’re being exploited for pornography or whether they’re able to reappropriate pornography for their own end — was very much at the heart of Fingersmith, and I think that remains at the heart of The Handmaiden. That was probably the most important thing for me, that feminist essence. So it’s amazing; you can bring in an octopus actually, and it doesn’t change.”
In the end, the movie that Waters had no say over became a new way for her to enjoy a story that she loved writing. “I never wanted to be too precious about the adaptations being too true to the book,” she said. “I want to know that they’re not going to misrepresent the novel. That’s the most important thing for me, that they’re not going to monkey around with the heart of the novel too much.”
“Typically when I give a go ahead to an adaptation, I need to feel reassured that they’re not going to do something crazy,” Waters said, before reconsidering. “Then again, this is a bit crazy, isn’t it?”