This weekend you could turn on your TV to watch a totalitarian regime use self-serving but ostensibly biblical rationale to oppress women, the LGBT community, intellectuals and others – or you could turn the news off, flip over to Hulu and watch the first five episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. We suggest the latter.
If you aren’t familiar with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, you won’t need to know much before you watch the Hulu series. Creator Bruce Miller wonderfully establishes the setting and reveals information at a pace that will answer all your questions in time. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts life in Gilead, a quasi-biblical military dictatorship established in the former United States after the constitution was suspended sometime in the near future. With the birth rate drastically low, low-status fertile women are assigned to Commanders as “Handmaids” to bear their children if the commander’s wife is unable to conceive. There’s no real choice in the matter: the other option is to get shipped off to the “colonies” and clean up nuclear waste. The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her experiences with her commander (Joseph Fiennes), his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and fellow Handmaids (Alexis Bledel [Ofglen], Madeline Brewer [Janine], Samira Wiley [Moira]).
Since Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, it’s always had unsettling echoes of reality … but sometimes it’s extra prescient. In 1985 America was experiencing the rise of the Moral Majority – a far-right backlash to developments both negative (the rise of street drugs, the growth of the AIDS epidemic) and positive (the gains made by the ’70s Gay Liberation Movement and the reproductive rights developments in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe vs. Wade). The back-and-forth between periods of social progress and reactionary periods of regression are familiar to anyone who’s opened a history book. An adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale probably would have been well-received in the 90s or early 2000s, but the Hulu adaptation feels almost necessary now. With news stories about an Oklahoma bill requiring a man’s permission to get an abortion, the commodification of children in unethical surrogacy and adoption contracts, and gay men being rounded up into camps in Chechnya, it’s not hard to envision a future like Gilead.
In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood makes it clear that not long has passed between its 1980s publication and the establishment of Gilead– she refers to cassette tapes, 1950s military surplus and 1970s magazines all still in existence. Likewise, the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the near future: in flashbacks to Offred and Moira’s recent past, there are references to Tinder, Uber and Craigslist. If Gilead looks familiar it’s because it should – Atwood has commented that everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale has already happened somewhere in the world. Even smaller details are accurate, such as the Handmaids’, wives’ and Marthas’ (housekeeper/cook/maid) old-timey outfits — they’re spot-on when you look deep into the trenches of some Christian Fundamentalist movements or the FLDS church, where womens’ wardrobes are a kind of Little House throwback.
… or at least it should. If you watched Mad Men you already know that Elisabeth Moss can do everything, but if not we’re letting you know: Elisabeth Moss can do everything. She seamlessly switches from young, carefree Offred, to Offred as a Handmaid concealing her distaste for the regime, at once defiant and compliant. Moss excels both in scenes without dialogue and in voice-overs (I especially enjoyed the voiceovers after re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale and getting to the epilogue — no spoilers, but I forgot about that part). Joseph Fiennes is just as the Commander should be: he’s clearly part of the regime, but you can’t help but have some questions about him. Yvonne Strahovski is delightfully icy as Serena Joy. I admit that when I read The Handmaid’s Tale I was expecting something a little more Tammy Faye Bakker, but she’s actually perfect for a 2017 version. I can just picture Serena Joy as the Pinterest-perfect upper-class housewife before Gilead.
The real revelation, though, is Alexis Bledel as Ofglen. We’re both longtime, reunion-panel-attending Gilmore Girls fans, but having only seen Alexis as Rory I didn’t really know what range she is capable of. In one instant you can see why Offred believes that Ofglen is totally sold on the Gilead lifestyle, and in the next you understand that Ofglen is a rebel. Ofglen is both unbreakable and quietly devastated, and Alexis’s innocent appearance is used to better end here than it is in Gilmore Girls; as Vanity Fair noted, “she’s less Bambi here and more trapped bird.”
For what it’s worth, in my notes I wrote “somebody should have told me Samira Wiley was in this,” so I’m telling you now. If Poussey was one of your favorites in Orange Is The New Black, you’ll absolutely love Samira as the ebullient Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale. If Moira’s character in the Hulu series has the same outcome as Moira in the novel, I can’t wait to see it, but at least through episode 5 she is seen only in flashbacks.
Many books suffer in film adaptations, and I think even more suffer in television adaptations. However, the Hulu limited series is the perfect way to adapt The Handmaid’s Tale. The format has allowed for expanded stories of some of the characters — for instance, Ofglen has a bigger backstory and a different fate in the show; we have filled in Moira and Offred’s history, but there is still more of Moira’s future to come as of episode 5. Although some characters have been altered or expanded on a bit, every change preserves the spirit of the book. Bruce Miller also made the wise choice of adding in details to show that we aren’t too far off from 2017. Now that The Handmaid’s Tale has been renewed for a second season, I do wonder how the comparison to the book will pan out. Does the first season encapsulate the whole novel, or will the season end partway through? If you have read the book, you’ll know that the Epilogue gives fodder for how the show could continue if season one does end with the book.
Still, I’d argue that all of the best adaptations succeed because they can be enjoyed on their own merits, and that’s my belief of The Handmaid’s Tale. The whitewashed lighting and beautiful set and costume design lend a real cinematic feel, and the writing includes plenty of time for suspense and speculation — but it doesn’t go full Lost and add a ton of elements that the viewer doesn’t have time to make sense of. Even the songs at the end of each episode are perfect. It’s dystopian fiction without any teens being sorted, and it’s grounded enough in reality that you won’t feel like it’s set on a different planet. The Handmaid’s Tale is a series so gripping that when I remember it’s Wednesday and a new episode is up, I’m more than happy to switch off the news. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.