Way back in the summer of 1996/7 I spent a solid two or three afternoons lying on my bed absorbed entirely in the world of Gilead and Offred, swept up in Margaret Atwood’s already-classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The previous year I had had a similar experience with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, another dystopian masterpiece. These were both school English texts (and given that I also read Day of the Triffids in Year 10 I wonder what on earth the English teachers were trying to prepare us for?) and opened my eyes to a form of fiction that I have continued to enjoy (what does that say about me?). The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those novels where even the smallest of details have stayed in my mind and with just a slightest of memory jogs I can be drawn back into that world and that bedroom of my teenage years. It’s one of those formative texts for me, one that I thank those English teachers for have the courage and foresight to pick. It also started me down a path with Margaret Atwood that continues to this day.
Unless you’ve spent the last few weeks or months living under a rock you will be well aware that Hulu has just released (in Australia anyway, it came out a little earlier in the US) a TV mini-series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Incidentally sales of the novel have rocketed this year, ever since the election of Trump, but especially since the release of the TV series. In Australia, the series is being shown on SBS and all eight episodes are available through SBS On Demand, so you can choose to binge watch if you like.
I’ve watched all eight episodes although I had to space it out a little as it gets pretty bleak at times. The adaptation is very true to the original story – I think Atwood was involved in some way, but I could be wrong – but it has been updated to include modern technology in the flashback scenes and to better represent today’s society (ie handmaids from different ethnic backgrounds and characters who are same-sex attracked). These updates have been seamlessly embedded within the original story and actually make it more poignant in my opinion. There are one or two changes that have been controversial (I won’t give spoilers) but they didn’t bother me. The ending of the original book was somewhat controversial in itself, that remains the same, but there is apparently going to be a season two which will flesh out the epilogue (at least that’s what I’ve heard).
What strikes me most about the TV series is how iconic and atmospheric it is, capturing perfectly the feelings of Atwood’s world. The colouring is muted with dull greens, blues and greys, making the red and white attire of the handmaids all the more striking and memorable. The constant grey clouds and rain adds another layer to the bleak world of Gilead, as though the very weather itself is being controlled by the theocratic powers with the purpose of further suppressing the masses. The soundtrack also adds to the overall atmosphere and is the perfect, though sometimes unexpected, matching for the cinematography.
The cast is made up of some familiar faces and some unknown to me. The protagonist, Offred, is played superbly by Elizabeth Moss (she also played Peggy Olsen in Mad Men and Robin in the magnificent NZ/Australian production Top of the Lake with David Wenham – check that one out if you haven’t already, it’s chilling and yet stunning). Other notables include Alexis Bledel as Ofglen (this is a long way from Stars Hollow and her Rory Gilmore character), Joseph Fiennes as the Commander and Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) is brilliant in her portrayal of Moira.
This latest (and definitely best) screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps an even more frightening depiction of the near future and a very real reminder of why we must be vigilant in the protection of our rights and freedoms so hard won be past generations. The body autonomy debates that have cropped up recently, particularly in the US, but also here in Australia around things like abortion laws, are played out to a devastating end. It’s a realisation that perhaps there aren’t so many steps between where we are now and the society of Gilead. The fact that Canada is the haven many run to and which offers an open-armed welcome is also pretty close to certain current situations.
On a brighter note, it’s also a reminded that we really are experiencing some of the very best television at the moment and I intend to enjoy it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, the novel, other Atwood works, or your most memorable high school English texts – were they duds or delights?