Davide Burgio

Panel 5D: Adaptation and/as Transcodification/2
Session 5 – July 3, 11:00 – 13:00

Medial Transposition in The Handmaiden

My paper examines the technical and thematic innovations of The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook’s movie adaptation of Sarah Walters’ novel Fingersmith. This is a particularly interesting case study, because the novel makes systematic use of techniques that are uncommon or not directly available to the cinematic medium: in Fingersmith’s first two parts, the same events are reported by Susan and then by Maud, and the focalisation, except for some retrospective remarks by the two extrahomodiegetic narrators, is internal, providing no access to the other protagonist’s thoughts. The incongruence between the characters’ thoughts and the focaliser’s reconstruction of them is Fingersmith’s fundamental narrative device, and the movie, lacking the immediate insight into the focaliser’s mind of internally focalised written narrative, attempts to reproduce this incongruence through an experimental use of voiceover: this and other forms of intermedial reference (Rajewsky 2005) are a telling example of the challenges that the adaptation of such a peculiar novel presents.

Another innovation is the setting, changed from the original’s Victorian England to the Japancolonised Korea of the 1930s: the antagonist is a Korean collector, obsessed with erotic books and
Japanese culture, who keeps Hideko (Maud in the original) segregated. Portraying his attempt to emulate the culture of Korea’s conquerors, the movie analyses from a new angle a fundamental theme of the original: the key role of imitation in desire. This adds a deeper significance to the movie’s symmetrical visuals, leads to a different plot development (foreshadowed through visual elements that are absent in the novel), and, I argue, has radical interpretive implications on the movie’s portrayal
of its characters and of desire in general.


Davide Burgio (21/01/1994) is a Ph.D. student at Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa, Italy). He attended Scuola Normale Superiore and the University of Pisa as a BA and MA student from 2013 to 2018,
and graduated from University of Pisa in 2018 and from Scuola Normale Superiore in 2019. His research interests include English literature, literary theory, narratology, fictional worlds theory, intermedial studies, reader response criticism, Tolkien, and Wilde.