The Handmaid’s Tale. Adapted from the novel by Margaret Atwood. Hulu, 2017.
This review, which appears in our third issue “Return of the Crowd,” was originally published when The Handmaid's Tale was still unfolding on Hulu. Some observations may be out of date, but the thrust of the article we stand behind.
* * *
When I was a kid, I read a spoof in a nickelodeon about what it was like to watch a World War Two film with a German Shepherd. The punchline was that the dog always rooted for the wrong side. Viewing Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 sci-fi novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, I couldn’t help but to think of all the viewers who were sharing a sofa with friends, family, and lovers, who, openly or not, may view Gilead, the theocratic, dystopic, man-scape setting for the story, with a palate falling well short of the distaste intended by the filmmakers. Gilead, of course serves as a parable in which a society just beyond the notion of equal rights is suddenly and violently thrust backward to a new dawn of the days of yore, where gender roles are curtailed within a framework specifically sanctioned and inspired by religious text, nominally the Old Testament.
Indeed the series highlights just how tenuous and vulnerable is our own grasp on basic issues of bodily autonomy, gay rights, and gender roles that our faith in them has been so fundamentally shaken by the shit-storm-cum-dupster-fire known in the collective parlance as the year 2016 (anno domine). Yet, the series is so craftily presented that as it goes on (and it will go on, having been renewed for at least a second season) the viewer may often find themselves wondering just what side of the sofa we’re sitting on. Surely we’re for Offred, the character filling the titular role, but, just sometimes, the nuance of the show is so crafty that we feel -to our alarm- the hot pant of the German Shepherd glancing just off our shoulder.
It is to the benefit of The Handmaid’s Tale that the the show’s material is not easy to disentangle. We are confronted by the dehumanizing violence of the state, but also by characters who have adapted to and prefer the new order, we are aghast at Offred’s calvary, her loss of status, life, and autonomy, but are also made to consider characters who have experienced the same, but whose existences have improved in consequence. We are given a look at the architects of Gilead, their crises, motivations and self-exculpations. It’s a format that goes well beyond the capacity of the traditional television show, and certainly beyond the usual print-to-screen adaptation. The opportunity to explore the negative space between Offred and her bedlam as well as the comprehensive flashbacks and subplots, so often unsuccessful in their deployment, are a hallmark of longform television and something that film adaptations of literature have long been in dire need. As such, The Handmaid’s Tale is in more that one way a product of its time.
Much has been discussed about the timeliness of the release of The Handmaid’s Tale. The shows publicity was highlighted by protesters wearing reg gowns and white bonnets in state houses and protest signs held at mega marches reading “Make Atwood Fiction Again”. Critics and commentators have said as much about how The Handmaid’s Tale suggests a future under Trump. Even Forbes magazine termed the series “unfortunately relevant.” But the sentiment to “Make Margret Atwood Fiction Again” gets it wrong. The reality is that while The Handmaid’s Tale is touted as a “what may be” scenario warning us against a potential future, much of its patriarchal musings are already such an integral part of our social fabric that in reality, as opposed to in fiction, we may fail to notice them.
It’s true that Gilead looks something like what might be the musings of Mike Pence were, like that other theolog out-of-time, Thomas More, to draft his own utopia. Where More’s moral catechism “[Y]ou first make thieves only then to punish them” Pence’s may be more along the lines of “Let’s get the bitch!” But The Handmaid’s Tale, like the novel before it, isn’t crafted out of what-if’s. Rather it is a rendering of existing brutality set in a dystopic time frame. If scenes from The Handmaid’s Tale shock, it is only because they are surprisingly contemporary. As visceral as some of the scenarios are, their graphic content is only taken out of the pages of our own history, or otherwise carbon copied from events around the world taking place this very day. It is important to remember as we view The Handmaid’s Tale that Margaret Atwood didn’t need a slippery slope theory to write a story about women’s oppression and sex slavery. The dread that slips through her typesetting is the same that binds the sinews of our own reality.
Remaining true to its source material, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a successful adaptation that delivers a steady drip of drama and tension as its bleak template is punctuated by stirring, if sometimes subtle, depictions of resistance. As such, the show is sure ground to launch Hulu’s ambitious bid for streaming greatness, though one is left wondering just how long it can keep it up. The breakneck pacing of the first three episodes has already settled into a more plodding tempo and Atwood’s novel is itself a brief affair that itself concludes on a stunning cliff hanger, so it will come as no surprise that Hulu continues to fuel a regular supply of subplots and backstories to keep the narrative engine steaming for at least two seasons.
As for the German Shepherd in the room, while the show continues to prod our insecurities bound to the world we live in it also begs the question of what world do we want to see. At the time of writing (somewhere around season one, episode eight), The Handmaid’s Tale tells us we should be happy with what we have. We are shown that the tenuous brews of extremism, environmental crisis, and violence that stock our news alerts is ultimately preferable to a world where those anxieties are unbounded.
Offred’s calvary is therefore a quest for restoration, to a timeline when she is reunited with her family, her office job, and to a world where bigots are closeted to online rants and uncomfortable family reunions. Following the back-storied gaze of its protagonists, the show pines for our world circa 2015 and shies away from the social engineering motives of its antagonists, because, to paraphrase Commander Waterford, making the world better for everyone means making it worse for someone. Here, “Don’t let the bastards get you down” is a stand-in for “Be happy with what you have because one day the dogs may take the whole couch.” Maybe it’s time we showed them the doggy-door.
This review appears in our third issue, “Return of the Crowd.” Purchase a copy at wedge shop.
Red Wedge relies on your support. If you like what you read above, consider becoming a subscriber, or donating a monthly sum through Patreon.
J. Matthew Camp was an activist and labor organizer and founding editor at Red Wedge. A peacock pecking in the dirt, but remembering how handsome he is, he lives as a quasi-retired aesthetic (non-functional) in Berlin, Germany.