Margaret Atwood is amazing. Her first novel was published in 1969, The Edible Woman, a feminist masterpiece that deals with eating disorders and gender roles in the 1960s. Since then she’s written 17 novels, 10 short story collections, 20 poetry collections, 7 children’s books, 10 non-fictions books, 3 operas, and a graphic novel. To call her prolific would be an understatement.
The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, a finalist for the Booker prize (a prize Atwood later won for The Blind Assassin) and a commercial hit. When Atwood wrote the book, many of the things it deals with may have not been quite as close to the forefront of the cultural consciousness as they are today, but they had all happened at some point in history.
If you’ve read almost any of Atwood’s novels you would know that her insight is undeniable, whether she is writing in the genre she states is speculative fiction (not containing the fantastical elements of science fiction, but something that could feasibly develop from our current reality) or the more straight forward fiction of some of her other novels. The Handmaid’s Tale still stands out for me as my favourite and a career-defining novel.
The high level of production you expect from a modern TV show is clear from the moment The Handmaid’s Tale begins, and a lot of care has obviously been put in to adapting what is a widely read and well loved novel. The cast are fantastic, the direction and cinematography is incredible; but the music selection, especially in the first few episodes, really stands out.
Elisabeth Moss is a boss. Like most people I first caught her in Mad Men as the superlative Peggy Olson and after that in the incredible Top Of The Lake. Her turn in The Handmaid’s Tale is incredible, no other actress could so perfectly embody Offred, her expressions of defiance and audacity elicit absolute empathy. Samira Wiley also stands out as Moira. The entire ensemble cast of Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, and Alexis Bledel kill it throughout the entire season.
Adaptation and Original
The expansion of the story line is so subtle and well done that I kept having to flick through the pages of the book to try and remember if it happened. The inclusion of Luke’s, Serena Joy’s and Ofglen’s stories gives the show a new depth and exciting promise of more. The series ends where the book ends, but has added much more to the story line. The inclusion in the final episode of Moira making it to Canada and meeting with Luke was exciting: something the show offers that the book didn’t is the prospect of seeing how the world changes back, how the resistance wins. In the novel there is an epilogue based in a conference which is discussing the time of Gilead after it has ended, so we know it has ended but we don’t get the vindication of seeing it happen.
The show is glammed up a bit. There’s more violence, more sex, and more trauma than the novel (this has been criticised by some, not without reason, see Alison Vincent’s article in The Telegraph). The beauty of the way Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale is that everything was understated, hinted at. This works amazingly for a novel but not always so well for a TV show, especially when we’re all used to Game of Thrones‘ level of spectacle (Mad Men used subtlety constantly, but was also extremely watchable and had a devoted audience, so got away with it). The book uses understatement and subtlety throughout, so you have to pay attention, and never really tells you what is going on. The show is still subtle, but it does this much less and makes much bolder moves with the story lines.
Why The Handmaid’s Tale Matters Now
The timing of the filming of the show was obviously not intentional, the creators could not have known that the rise of certain values in the west would become apparent with votes that took place. But it is nonetheless prescient, many hard-won women’s rights are being challenged by politicians and courts, whilst climate change is being ignored more fervently than ever.
The rise in right wing extremist Christianity, due to an extreme decline in fertility is the catalyst for the Gilead government taking power in the novel. Climate change is held responsible for the decline in birthrate to near zero (amazingly Atwood was writing in the mid 80s, when climate change would have barely been on anybody’s radar) and the rise in religious extremism creates the perfect storm.
Current Attitudes Towards Climate Change
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement cemented his indifference towards issues of climate change. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead claim that their government have reduced carbon emissions by 78% in three years through taking complete control of society. The current political attitude towards climate change, especially in America, is incredibly dismissive with many politicians outright denying its existence. For many people climate change is a pressing issue that is not being dealt with by people in power with enough expedition. Without the decline in birthrate this would appear to be similar to the situation regarding climate change before the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Defence of Women’s Rights
The women’s march that took place on the day of Trump’s inauguration was a protest against the reduction in women’s rights, with people around the world not only showing solidarity with Americans, but also all the women who do not have basic rights throughout the world. The election of a man to one of the highest offices in the world who has voiced anti-female sentiments on multiple occasions throughout his life, coupled with the wish to repeal rights-ensuring legislation that would affect millions of women throughout America, has brought the issue and women’s rights to the forefront. The questing of women’s rights that keeps happening in current political discourse feels alarmingly familiar to the sentiments behind the much more extreme actions of the Gilead government.
Dystopias in the Modern World
Atwood wrote an introduction to a new edition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which she discusses the relevance of both Huxley’s novel and Nineteen Eighty-Four to modern society (2007 at the time of her writing). If you aren’t familiar with either of these books (they are both fantastic and worth reading) she explains that they contain two very different dystopias: one characterised by totalitarianism control (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and one characterised by prescribed consumerism (Brave New World).
Throughout the world the boot of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the soma of Brave New World can be seen: the boot in oppressive governments and regimes and the soma in the rampant consumerism of shopping and the tranquillising effect of the internet.
The Handmaid’s Tale is arguably on the same level as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both of which contain striking prescience about the modern world; The Handmaid’s Tale‘s insight focuses on religious extremism within government and female subjugation. Just like how aspects of the dystopias in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World can be seen in our modern world, aspects of the dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale are obvious. In recent years the rise in anti-female sentiment and continued attacks on women’s rights make this patent.
In the passage from the novel that holds the same sentiment Elisabeth Moss speaks as Offred, Atwood says that when the Gilead government took power they gunned down Congress and blamed it on Islamic fanatics, and that there were no riots, that everyone stayed home and watched their TVs, that “there wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”.
The boot is more flagrant, but it’s the combination that will get you.
Bring on season two.