For the sake of this particular conversation, forget everything I've said about television being an inferior (to cinema) storytelling medium. It turns out that with a story as complex and rich as Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, a well-produced 10-episode series may be the best way to do the book's world proper justice.
And never mind what I've said about the paradoxically apolitical nature of many dystopian stories, whereupon the viewer projects her own ideological reasons for how the world was ruined. The Handmaid's Tale is very plainly a condemnation of right-wing religious extremism and a cautionary tale about what happens when women's reproductive rights and other basic civil liberties are suspended by a theocracy. (I will stop short of sagely echoing the refrain about the novel's newfound relevance—we get it.)
The Handmaid's Tale imagines a near future where vague environmental forces have rendered the population less fertile, and a series of terrorist attacks (maybe) have toppled American democracy as we know it in favor of the totalitarian church state of Gilead. We meet our heroine, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), after she's been kidnapped and forced into her role as a handmaid in the church's caste system. The show oscillates between her new life of reproductive servitude and the life she lived before, with her friends, husband and daughter. In these flashbacks, we get unsettling glimpses of just how the world went to hell. One day, they've drained every woman's bank account, and the next day soldiers are shooting protesters in the street.
- Elisabeth Moss stars in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Beyond the poignant political undertones, series creator Bruce Miller has given us a near-perfect television drama. In both style and tone, The Handmaid's Tale reminds me of Syfy's reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which I intend as a compliment. And fans of the book can be comforted in the knowledge that Atwood worked closely with the show's creators as a consulting producer. (Look out for her cameo in episode one, when she slaps a sassy handmaid in the head.) When I read the book several years ago, I thought about what a terrible handmaid I would make, and I reassured myself that a takeover like this couldn't happen in America. It would take too many soldiers to keep everyone in line. But Atwood's story is less about the logistics than it is about the psychology of Offred, and how it would feel to have everything that makes you free and human systematically stripped from you.
The show does the novel great justice, and even improves on the source material as it updates with the times. We get black characters, for instance. (In the book, all non-white persons are sent off somewhere, but unless the story expanded to depict these deportations, we'd have a show with only white people, and that's a little too much to bear.) And it's one thing to read about the bizarre mating rituals of the handmaids and the barren mistresses they serve, but to see it performed is a different experience altogether. Finally, much of Atwood's original prose has been preserved in voiceover and dialogue, with a few updated "fucks" to remind us that Offred used to be cool, and possibly to give us hope that she could be again.
The Handmaid Tale's first three episodes dropped this week, with the rest to follow on Wednesdays thereafter. Pace yourself and watch them as they're released, like the television gods intended.