As a bibliophile, the news that one of my favorite books is becoming a movie fills me with dread. There’s no way to get an author’s true vision portrayed in two hours. Margaret Atwood’s (Oryx and Crake 2004) dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books, and the 1990 movie with the lovely Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall left much to be desired. So, when I heard Hulu was making it into a series, I was stoked but guarded. Writer Bruce Miller (Eureka TV series) along with Atwood herself have kept the story in all its twisted glory but with an updated spin.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood imagines a terrifying world where women are enslaved, stripped of their most basic human rights (including their names and identities), corralled into social classes, forbidden to read, and casually raped, mutilated and executed. Those who “transgress” – gay people, for instance, or doctors who perform abortions – are either banished to the colonies, where they’re doomed to a slow, painful death processing toxic waste, or hanged, and put on display at a wall in the city square.
Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have decimated female fertility and drastically reduced the birthrate, so women still capable of bearing children are forced to become handmaids – breeding stock – whose sole purpose is to bear children for the barren wives of their ruling male masters. Clothed in long red, dresses and white bonnets that hide their faces, the handmaids spend their days in their sparsely decorated rooms, venturing out only to run errands. On “ceremonial nights,” a handmaid’s job is to lie passive and emotionless, her head resting in her mistress’s lap, mechanically copulating with the masters. It’s rape as a grotesque parody of lovemaking.
As present day America lurches ever deeper into conservatism and repression, Atwood’s cautionary tale of a future ruled by Old Testament inspired religious and social fanaticism has taken on a frightening new relevance.
So this magnificent new adaptation couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. I see it succeeding fantastically on every level.
One of the problems in adapting The Handmaid’s Tale is that long stretches of it are the interior monologue of handmaid Offred (literally means “Of Fred,” the name of her master), played here by Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men TV series), who is just terrific. The series gets around this by the simple expedient of a voice-over, an old, often misused device that in this case works brilliantly, serving to fill us in on everyday life in Gilead, where the mundane, such as trips to the market to buy groceries, sits side-by-side with the horrific – the claustrophobic coupling scene involving Offred, her master (Joseph Fiennes: Shakespeare in Love 1998) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski: Dexter TV series).
Drenched in sunshine, this particular part of Gilead could be just another affluent New England suburb where families live in elegant, gated houses, except here armed guards known as “Eyes” patrol the streets in vans, monitoring the handmaids, who must walk to the market in twos.
Offred’s constant companion on these trips is Ofglen (Alexis Bledel: Gilmore Girls TV series), who talks in pious platitudes. Fear, paranoia, and betrayal are everywhere, nobody is to be trusted, so every conversation between the two crackles with tension. Information about how society came to be this way is parcelled out in flashbacks. We get glimpses of Offred’s old life, when she reveals to a friend that she is pregnant, and to the harrowing moment when she loses her husband (OT Fagbenle: Breaking and Entering 2006) and daughter as they made a break for the Canadian border. The ending of Atwood’s novel is ambiguous, so The Handmaid’s Tale will, with the author’s blessing, extend to several seasons. If what’s to come is as good as this magnificent first episode, we’re set for something very special.