In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood imagined a dystopian future for America in which a totalitarian theocracy has stripped all women off their rights to work, vote, own property, and read. The Republic of Gilead has been created to make things better for a world suffering from a plague of infertility owing to pollution, radiation and too much sin. The few women who have proven to be fertile are recruited for the higher purpose of bearing children for the party leaders and their wives. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, who was once a mother, wife, friend, daughter and strong independent working woman. She is now a womb on two legs.
Thirty-two years after it was published, Atwood’s feminist anti-prediction for the future has become menacingly relevant. It threatens on a visceral level, not only in Donald Trump’s America, where pro-life campaigns are attempting to take away the reproductive rights of women, but closer home, where the insistence on patriarchal values, misogyny, and religious fanaticism is only getting louder.
The book inspired a movie of the same name by German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990 and is now a 10-episode limited series starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake) and Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love).
The film adaptation, by Harold Pinter, starred Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. An over-the-top sexual drama that lost much of the book’s emotional depth and gravitas, the movie drastically changed the original ending, making it more sensational and letting the protagonist redeem herself in some little way.
Bruce Miller’s new limited series is more loyal to the book. June (Moss) and her family are on the run when they are captured by the religious army known as Sons of Jacob. June’s daughter is taken away and her husband is killed. She is taken to the Rachel and Leah Center to be disciplined into the role of a Handmaid.
In the Republic of Gilead, women are property of the state. Dressed in uniforms fitting their social stature – Wives, Marthas, Econowives, Aunts, and Handmaids – they perform the roles delineated by the theocracy. Clothed in scarlet robes, June, renamed Offred (of Fred), must serve God and bear Commander Fred Waterford (Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) a child.
Offred dutifully takes part in a disturbing ritual called The Ceremony, designed to help her fulfill her higher purpose. She can leave the house once a day, but only with a partner who walks with her to the store or to the wall where dissenters are publicly executed. Once the two Handmaids greet each other with the regime-approved niceties of “Under his eye” and “Blessed be the fruit,” the two may even talk about the weather. Anything more and Offred is breaking the law – which she does by developing a friendship with her partner Ofglen (Alexis Bledel).
Amidst the suppression and control, women often find strength in the relationships they build with other women. In a birthing ceremony, we see a cult-like intimacy as the Handmaids support each other and present a collective antipathy to the older social order. Bathroom graffiti is mutinous and an old Latin joke, engraved and hidden inside the wardrobe, is a message of hope and strength: “Nolites te bastardes carborundorum” or “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Much like the book, the series is narrated by Offred in first person. We get a glimpse into her mind, where so much happens in thought and memory, in contrast to her life as a Handmaid, where she is stripped of the freedom to move, talk or read.
In the book, the Commander is old and greying, and Serena Joy is an arthritic woman who walks with a cane. On television, both these characters are much younger. Strahovski is incredible as Serena, a young woman who has been unable to conceive. Even in the skewed order of things, she is envious of Offred for her viable ovaries and in no way masks her loathing. She will take the power she can get, and for a woman no matter what role she gets to play in the new social structure, there is always very little of it going around.
The book never reveals Offred’s real name, but on TV, she has the name June, to which she stubbornly clings. The series draws Offred out as a bolder character, one who has participated in a protest rally in a pre-Gilead era and attempted escape from the Rachel and Leah Center. She is a lot more passive, contemplative and outwardly submissive in the book.
Bruce Miller has modernised the setting and made it more current (there are references to Craigslist and Uber) and therefore more terrifying. There is also greater diversity in the series. African-American actress Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) plays Moira, a Handmaid and Offred’s best friend. In the book, Gilead is a racist state in which all minorities and people of colour are sent off to the Midwest.
The series is shot in a washed-out and dark colour scheme, adding to the menace and solemnity of every frame. Unlike the ill-fated 1990 movie, the series is astounding television packed with powerful performances. Moss perfectly radiates Offred’s fear, rage, desperation and confusion. The show loses none of the book’s seriousness. The visual suffocation adds a world of context to the horrifying story.