If you loved the book, this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal classic feminist speculative fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be a treat. Those new to the story may find it eerily similar to the nightly news, but I promise, it really was written thirty years ago. The stellar casting and a few notable striking tableaus are as advertised, and they are strengthened by a well-plotted story, including new material, (mostly) strong music choices, and a few key changes to update the text for 2017.
For the uninitiated, the setup for the novel is that fertility is incredibly low, environmental disasters abound, and North America is at war. Taking place in the not too distant future in the Greater Boston Area, all women are property of the state and classified by their purpose, for example as servants, surrogates, wives, or un-women. Offred, our sometimes-narrator, is a Handmaid, a class of woman designated to act as surrogates for the high-powered Commanders who run the new fundamentalist Christian totalitarian regime that rules the land now known as Gilead.
The biggest challenge facing Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is how to convey the all-consuming paranoia of living within a police state that the book so artfully creates. Anyone could be a member of the secret police, and everyone is incentivised to turn someone else in to save themselves. However, when you’re not in Offred’s head 24/7, you lose some of the boredom, angst, and fear that characterises the book. By jumping to television, we automatically go to a more optimistic place, where happy endings and love interests seem more likely. But this is not that world; this is Gilead.
I was pleased with the way the writers addressed this by pushing and pulling at different storylines, lengthening some and shortening others, to effectively break the season over the course of these first three episodes. Each one felt like it had just the right amount of story, and ended on the right note, whether triumph, terror, or torment. It’s a tall order to introduce a cast of characters, build an intricate world, interest us in the mystery of how this world came to be from our own, and interest us in the present-day storylines of our characters as well, all before the audience loses interest and moves on.
Granted, with such a known quantity there are many fans who will give this show the benefit of the doubt, but for the new viewer or casual fan this is essential. The show mostly succeeded, with a couple of exceptions.
Perhaps the greatest asset of The Handmaid’s Tale, after having Margaret Atwood on board, is their cast. Elisabeth Moss is the lead role who largely carries the show, and Alexis Bledel’s inscrutable nature is perfect for a society in which you never know who you can trust. Ann Dowd is cast perfectly as an Aunt, an instructor of the Handmaids, who is perhaps the only person in Gilead who is truly enjoying herself. Samira Wiley, of course, owns every scene she’s in as Moira, and has now re-written all my memories of the book with her in them. Across the board, the cast has a tall order to display a wide variety of emotions that can be interpreted several ways, all while barely changing their expressions. Yvonne Strahovsky hasn’t had enough room to play yet, but she’s still giving her wife Serena Joy to Offred’s Handmaid as many restrained layers as possible, which the character deserves.
While I enjoyed Strahovsy’s performance, she hasn’t been properly introduced to the audience and I’m starting to worry. I can only hope a spotlight episode is coming, and soon. It doesn’t help that her and Elisabeth Moss’ characters are supposed to be significantly different ages, rather than the exact same age. Joseph Fiennes also feels too young, and while so far he hasn’t had much to do, his story will pick up later on.
Given the subject matter, The Handmaid’s Tale does a surprisingly good job of finding humour, and balancing the abject horror of Gilead with defiance. I will say, though, that episode three is the one most in need of a trigger warning or content note, as far as truly dehumanising a subset of people. If you’re into self-care, you may very well need it after this one, folks.Unlike some other shows (I’m looking at you, Arrow), The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t follow strict rules for flashbacks. Instead, they’re incorporated organically, sparked by a phrase or gesture, and they always add to the story. A birth in the present day reminds Offred of giving birth to her own child, for example. The flashbacks tend to vary in length, sometimes cutting in like brief, intruding thoughts, and other times giving us a longer look at how this situation came to be, and this is to their credit.
The music is a mix of score and soundtrack, including a few great feminist anthems that made me want to bust out my Shirley Chisholm swag, and a haunting cover of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass. Given how vital music has been to activism, and how many musicians got their start in Harvard Square (many of them protest singers) it’s a great fit for the show. But there’s one musical cue that left me yelling at my television, completely perplexed. It was such a tonal shift from everything that came before or after it that I can only hope it’s something they change from the screeners, and you all leave me comments wondering what the hell I’m talking about.
I tend to be forgiving when it comes to voiceover, but it’s uneven at best here. We get it at the beginning of episode one and only sporadically after that. It’s also missing at many key moments when (as a book reader) I know that we are missing information that would make her look less like a psychopath or would otherwise clarify a murky motive.
While there’s no need to read the book before watching Hulu’s television adaptation, I highly recommend you do, because the book experience is quite different. The major differences between the two, other than the lighter tone, are that there’s additional material in the show and the cast has more diversity. On the diversity point, every bit of marketing for this series has rightly touted Samira Wiley as one of the show’s stars, and her performance as Moira has been stellar so far, even in a rather crowded field. In the original text Gilead is rather homogenous by the time the main events start, and while I understand why, I’m thrilled they made this change.
Without getting into spoilers, I’ll just say the material they added to the show truly feels like it comes from the same universe as the book, a testament to the creators and the wisdom of having Margaret Atwood intimately involved in the production. It honestly feels like she dusted off earlier drafts, that’s how seamlessly the new material fits in with the old. I’m hesitant to even characterise it beyond “material,” because I want you to just start watching this show already and enjoy it for yourselves!
A strong cast, impeccable timing, and a devastating story should put The Handmaid’s Tale on many people’s must-watch list, and the new material, surprising levity, and making the most of the new medium will keep it there. If you’re a fan of the book, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re at all troubled by the state of the world today or enjoy dystopian or speculative fiction, you should definitely tune in. If you’re pretty happy with politics right now and are kind of into the idea of women as property… yeah, you are definitely going to hate this show.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.