I’d never read Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale. Though, I’m remedying this. I’m barely up to chapter eight. The book, however, has been one of my wife’s favorites for as long as I’ve known her, so the moment she saw the first trailer she was hooked. After seeing the trailer myself, it took little convincing to get me on board.
Just a couple days ago, Hulu released the first three episodes of their exclusive on-screen interpretation. I’ve kept up a little with what’s going on as far as production and what not, like how Atwood herself has been pretty heavily involved since the get-go. Translating any book to film is always a tricky prospect, but this fact gave me hope.
To be honest, I’m riding a bit high on the book-to-screen translation dope since I’m emphatically in love with SyFy’s production of S. A. Corey’s The Expanse. That show airs on Wednesday nights, my writing group night, but I try to watch it as soon as I can. (Note, if you like scifi and have not seen that, you clearly don’t like science fiction enough, because that show is the mother-fucking BOMB!)
The show starts with a chase scene, the main character and her family trying to escape mysterious, black-clad pursuers. And while this flash-back opener is a little cryptic, it only takes about a minute for you to understand what is really going on. The black-clad figures are part of some governmental police force and our main character, Offred—her given name after being captured—is a Handmaid.
As expected, the first episode is all setup. This is where we learn what Offred’s daily life is like, who are the proverbial good/bad guys and what a Handmaid is. Though, given Offred’s situation exactly who is “good” and who is “bad” is not terribly clear. In fact, the only really clear thing is this world she lives in, a world that seems very similar and yet very different from our own, is really messed up. The short end of the basic setup is that at some point in the near future, humanity is beset with a plague of sterility that nearly destroys our ability to reproduce.
Offred’s dark future is one that is ruled by an unnamed extreme religious fundamentalist group that has seized control of most of what used to be the United States. You can think of this group as something similar to a Christian ISIL. They blame the plague of sterility on dating apps, gays, science and abortions. Following the seriously new fucked-up laws, gays, scientists, priests (outside of the fundamentalist sect), doctors and professors are all executed, usually hung on public display.
And while all of that is really horrific, the focus ends up being on women. Women are broken into four basic castes. There are the elite women, married to men of power and faith. This is Serena Joy, the woman in charge of Offred. There are the econowives. I’ve not notice these women in the show yet, but that could be because they’re little more than background radiation. There are the Marthas, little more than slaves for labor in the home.
Lastly, there are Handmaids. Handmaids are, for all intents and purposes, human womb-slaves. These are the few women who can actually get pregnant. As such, they are basically leased to families of wealth for their childbearing functions. Needless to say, the wives are not too happy about the men boinking these strange, often very young, women while they’re SITTING RIGHT THERE. (Yes, that’s actually part of the ceremonialized impregnation.)
I suppose I could have given spoiler warnings, but everything I’ve said is really just the setup. The first episode ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, which is good. To me, this is the writers telling us, “Okay, now the shit gets real.”
Having watched a few of Netflix’s original content—Oh my god can’t wait for Stranger Things Season 2—I was not sure what to expect from this show. On one hand, Daredevil was slightly better than okay for me, just enough to get me mildly interested in watching Season 2, and I thought the Arrested Development revival was terrible. (I’ve not even watched the much-panned IronFist.)
However, I loved Stranger Things and Black Mirror. Their production, acting and effects qualities were really top-notch. So, while The Handmaid’s Tale does not seem to require a lot of special effects, I was REALLY hoping it would be on this level of quality.
My opinion after the first three episodes? I’m rather impressed. The acting was solid. Elisabeth Moss’ Offred is genuine and completely believable as a woman who has accepted her current situation but still has not given up. Even though her screen time was pretty minimal, I loved Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife. Serena’s initial disdain for Offred is palpable as it grows into a deep-seated hatred. At the same time, Strahovski does a great job of letting us wonder if there is something else behind that hatred, that maybe it doesn’t all come from Offred, even though that’s where she’d directing it.
The world shown in the show feels full and developed, meaning that even though our view is isolated to Offred’s experiences, we get the strong feeling that there’s more going on beyond her little sphere of knowledge.
As of writing this, I’m less than a fifth of my way through the book. So far I’m finding only minor differences, a character tweak here and there. The most prominent for me is that Offred is friendly with Ofglen. So far at my point in the book, she’s barely getting to know the woman and still thinks she’s a “pious little shit.” However, I understand that sometimes timelines shift for more effective storytelling when going from print to screen.
After just one episode, The Handmaid’s Tale, like the book, sucks you in. However, since Hulu released the first three at once, we burned through episodes 2 and 3 the next night. We’re definitely chomping at the bit waiting until Wednesday for the next episode.
One final note… I think part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale (book or show) so engrossing, is that it reflects a lot of the socio-religious-political speech that can be heard all over social media, on many “news” sites and on some “news” networks. In some respects, and given our current political climate, watching this show on my television is like seeing a dark, horrifying splinter of what could be our own future.