The Handmaid’s tale, Season 1, created by Bruce Miller (Hulu, 2017).
I first read The Handmaid’s tale back in December of 2013, over three feverish days. I recall myself gawking at my e-reader at the tram platform after a long day of work. I remember deep discomfort and gradual coping towards what was coming out of those pages.
In the wake of an infertility epidemic, a martial coup turns the United States into a totalitarian theocracy. Fertile women, dubbed Handmaids, are gathered, assigned as property to the regime’s elite and forced to conceive children for the Commanders. Failure to comply with the rules of the new order results in physical punishment, mutilation or leaving the house in a black van and never being seen again. The Handmaid’s tale follows the life of a woman formerly known as June (Elisabeth Moss), now forced to take the patronym Offred after the Commander she’s been assigned to, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). June is decided to be reunited with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and young daughter, who went missing when they were trying to flee the country to Canada and she was captured.
Let’s go over the science-fiction mantra one more time: science-fiction is about the world right now and right here, not trying to guess the future or to issue warnings (except for warning about things that are actually happening). Publicity of the show has focused too much, for my taste, on reassuring people that the Free World will not become Gilead tomorrow, don’t be silly. Everyone’s like, oh my god, do you think this could happen to us? No way, we’re above that. It seems we’ve got our heads too deep inside our own butts to realize all this is happening, has happened and will happen again. Maybe not near our homes, but definitely somewhere out there, to other human beings. Is it so extremely distressing to entertain the idea that we may be complete barbarians? Even more important, is it completely unfounded?
The show discusses topics related to gender politics, such as, but not limited to: forced adoption, sexual slavery, reproductive rights, surrogate maternity, genital mutilation, human trafficking, slut shaming or homophobia. The wonderful thing about it is that it works on many other levels: it also works as criticism of dogmatic views of religion. For instance, June is a Catholic and in one occasion confronts Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) over Gilead’s biased interpretation of the Scripture; this could make some people think about how Muslims, for example, might have different and conflicting visions on their own faith.
Furthermore, it also works as commentary on power structures and social classes: the Handmaids are discussed the most because they’re the protagonists, but we also know a lot about Marthas, soldiers and drivers, who are also slaves to the military elite. We know that Marthas have been punished for having forbidden relationships, and it doesn’t sound like soldiers or blue-collar workers are allowed to get married, since marriage is only allowed for purposes of reproduction and it is assumed that only Handmaids and Commanders are fertile.
Children are the uttermost important thing, and only the elite is worthy of them. It’s too painfully obvious that Commander’s wives are not getting pregnant, but that can be easily blamed on them and the Commander’s manhoods kept intact. Handmaids are justified using a handful of biblical verses and the rest of society is organized under the elite and made into different kinds of slaves. But hey, remember Nick’s (Max Minghella) backstory? He’s happy to be an Eye due to the dire economical situation he was in. These guys might be evil bastards, but they gave him an opportunity when no one else would.
These characters live in a society where everyone knows the obvious but is coerced into swearing that the Emperor is wearing wonderful clothes by the business end of a machine gun. Classic totalitarianism. In dystopian fiction? No way, I’m sure you can think of real-life examples, even today.
The show stays quite close to the novel up to Episode 6, in which Gilead receives the visit of diplomats from Mexico, which echoes the epilogue of the novel, in which non-white scholars mock the downfall of Western society. The Western world sees itself in a new mirror: less “civilized” than its neighbour, Mexico; also, we are moved to wonder how much we should believe of what we’re told about enclosed dictatorships or regimes not that fond of human rights. June manages to gather the courage to seek help from the Mexican diplomat, only to find out that she’s perfectly aware of what’s going on but will still traffic with Handmaids.
I interpreted the ending of the novel as Offred being finally broken and tamed, losing the opportunity to escape Gilead for becoming complacent after finally being pregnant by Nick. The same thing happens with Moira: she never escapes because she settles for becoming a prostitute. So there is certainly a change of tone in the TV show: while novel!Gilead eventually crumbled under its own weight, TV!Gilead is set for being torn apart by the resistance of the Handmaids. Background for the Waterfords and Nick is added, with very interesting effects.
Thirty years have passed between the novel and the show, and Third-wave feminism happened, most prominently. Pornography-burning feminists have disappeared and transversal themes have been added to the show, along with motifs related with the last decades of political history (“God hates fags” scrawled on a wall is truly bloodcurdling). I agree with the creators’ decision to include black characters, which were exiled and exterminated in the novel: it was the right choice to avoid making a racist show just for the sake of making a show about racists.
I love the way Joseph Fiennes plays the Commander. His self-righteous smirk is completely spot-on. The Commander is truly an awesome character: you never know where he stands with Offred, treating her with forbidden reading material, engaging in a more personal relationship with her to try to make her a bit less miserable, until you get to see that he’s perfectly aware of what he’s doing: he believes women are now in their rightful place and has no intellectual respect for June or Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
Though I did like the adaptation a lot, I didn’t like the editing much in some episodes. Episodes 4 and 5 abused voiceovers and were too explicative. I hated the badass scenes with the Handmaids strolling down the street like the rest of people are in the wrong neighbourhood. This was especially flagrant in Episode 10, where after a breathtaking scene where June uses her leverage as a pregnant Handmaid to prevent Janine’s stoning we got an unbearably cheesy striding scene with the most inappropriate music ever, where it looked like she was going to say “we’re the Handmaids, biatch!” while a pair of pixelated sunglasses fell down to her eyes from the top of the screen.
All in all, a wonderful adaptation of the modern classic, which managed to update and reinvent the necessary elements, while keeping the core intact and sharp. Enjoy!