As the world has generally, if not universally, improved its lot for women, feminism — the sociopolitical doctrine that women are people, too — has seemed so mainstream and vague as to be, potentially, obsolete. Now the emphases of feminism are in pondering the roots of gender identity and expression, or in the intersectionality of gender equality with racial, economic, and religious equality. Mere equality for women is so obvious, it’s retro.
Enter the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark feminist novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with its almost hyperbolic imagining of a dystopian American future where women are officially downgraded to second-class citizens. In 1986, when “The Handmaid’s Tale” was first published, authoritarianism and feminism had a rather different context than they do today. Or did they? The story of 2017 has been one of global movement towards conservatism, even as the language of progressivism has become increasingly more sophisticated. Violence motivated by religion, by hatred of women, or by the sweet spot where the two overlap dominates the news, whether that is a rampaging shooter in America or an ISIL raid in northern Iraq. Sexual harassment cases dominate the news; sexual assault is an unsolved problem at college campuses; abortion rights are nationally highly controversial. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in Atwood’s own words, is a dystopia that takes implication to its furthest logical ends. What persists about the novel is how jarringly familiar its regressive world is, despite its hyperbole.
Atwood’s story, which is brilliant, presents quite a challenge for a screen adaptation: The story has to build the world of Gilead, place the action in the context of the real world, and do justice to Atwood’s singular, award-winning prose. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” — deftly translated from the novel by showrunner Bruce Miller — is a worthy, heartbreaking adaptation of the text, anchored by strong performances and profound visual grammar.
Elisabeth Moss plays the protagonist Offred (“of Fred”), a “Handmaiden” in the city that used to be called Boston. In the post-America republic of Gilead, a Handmaid is a fertile woman that belongs to a man for the sole purpose of childbearing; she turns over her baby to the man’s wife when it’s born. As awful as it is, there are worse fates: The drudgery of the infertile women known as Marthas; the death penalties for “gender traitors” (gays and lesbians); and the slavery of Unwomen, who are sent to the nuclear wastelands of war-torn colonies to work until they die.
After birthrates declined worldwide (a development played up in the TV series that evokes the film “Children of Men”) fertile women become commodities prized highly — and solely — for their wombs. The religious dogma behind Gilead (a loosely Protestant belief system) presumes that modern women — with their consent, and their orgasms, and their free will — are what is to blame for the declining births. So they slowly and then quickly take over, eliminating women’s rights to their own bank accounts, property, jobs, and ultimately, their own bodies.
The paradox at the center of Gilead’s repression is that the Handmaids — while so low that they are a kind of institutionalized and branded sex worker, made to wear scarlet and forced into intercourse — are in fact also desperately important to the republic. They are collectibles: “like a prize pig,” Offred describes herself, with self-loathing. The show takes that metaphor further; Offred and the other handmaidens are tagged through the ear with a sturdy plastic serial number, and when they misbehave, they are set upon with an electric cattle prod.
Significantly, Offred’s main threats to survival in Gilead are not the men, but other women: Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who re-educated Offred and the other handmaids, and now helps to supervise them; Mrs. Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), Offred’s commander’s wife, who is both desperate to differentiate herself from Offred but is helplessly dependent on her Handmaid’s prized ovaries; and Offred’s designated companion Ofglen (Alexis Bledel, in what is possibly her best role yet), a “pious little s—,” in Offred’s internal narration, who seems to be constantly watching her — just as Offred, in turn, is constantly watching Ofglen.
And watching, and/or seeing, is an essential motif in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the regime’s spies are called “eyes,” and a common salutation is “Under His Eye.” In transitioning from text to screen, the producers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” have considered the implications of watching the women. There is the view of the fellow resident of Gilead — peering through hallways and doors, or snatched glimpses across wide open spaces. From afar, the women are careful to make perfect tableaus of domesticity, whether that is the wives gossiping over coffee or the Handmaids doing their shopping in pairs. Even the light coming in through the windows has a soft luxury to it, a Vermeer-ish quality. But the prettiness, the painterly framing, the sophisticated Yankee interiors and ‘40s-‘50s era fashions, are all deceiving. The nostalgic, reliably beautiful aesthetics, from the Martha making bread every morning to the boat neck on Mrs. Waterford’s teal dress, are themselves a form of brainwashing.
Reed Morano, the director for the first three episodes, sends the camera not afar but above for a few crucial scenes. From a God’s-eye-view, the women, neatly arranged by color, convey a beautiful, orderly, sanctified harmony. The Handmaids with their identical white starched bonnets and scarlet capes move together with a fluid grace; the camera portrays how lovely they are, visually, moving together like wordless cogs in a vast and efficient machine. But from inside the bonnet — the other angle the show uses extensively — the cloistered, walled-in view of the Handmaid’s lives is desperate, loveless, and bloody. The Handmaid’s uniform denies the women individuality until one gets close enough to look directly into their face, under six inches of starched white brim. She is constantly watched, but only the audience gets close enough to Offred to see her humiliations — at least, at first.
Because the story of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is that women are not merely vessels —and even in the midst of a brutal regime, life demands to be lived. Offred remembers her old life. She used to be a book editor with a husband and daughter of her own. The story jumps between Offred’s life in Gilead and the times she smoked pot with her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) or lounged on the beach with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) and husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle). They have all been taken from her. In this elegant landscape, when the brutality of the regime clenches its fist, the violence is breathtaking. It has the veneer of order and right, which makes it so much harder to stomach.
Atwood is a master of prose, and in showrunner Bruce Miller’s adaptation, it comes out in the show in Offred’s narration — both sardonically funny and despairing. “I don’t need oranges, I need to scream,” she says in voiceover at one point, staring at the fruit in a grocery store. In her head, she can speak freely. They haven’t taken that yet.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a sobering reminder to hold ourselves accountable for the state of the world, when and if we can. Gilead — which uses methods from oppressive, patriarchal regimes the world over — is everything we should fear. But the show also offers the hope that Offred, against all odds, will one day be able to take the red off.