The Handmaid’s Tale is a Fable for Our Times


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Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian classic. Does the new television adaptation do it justice? Sarah Lohmann writes about the series as it reaches its halfway stage.

As a researcher looking at feminist utopian literature, I am always aware of the looming presence of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale at the periphery of my studies. It makes explicit the dystopian depths that the literary utopias I focus on have so successfully averted. This new TV adaptation brilliantly plumbs those depths once again, and hints at the real dystopia its twenty-first century audience may be heading towards.

Arguably the most influential feminist dystopia to date, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the distressing story of a young woman in a near-future totalitarian regime, the Republic of Gilead (formerly the north-eastern United States); like many others, Offred has been ripped out of her former life, deprived of all her rights, and forced into sexual servitude to the ruling elite. In a recent essay for the New York Times, Atwood writes that the underlying premise to this in fact seemed “fairly outrageous” even to her back in 1984, when she penned it: “Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?” However, such a thought experiment has perhaps never been more relevant than today: current totalitarian political tendencies – particularly regarding women’s ownership over their own bodies, and particularly in the US – have given a chilling urgency to Atwood’s warning. Human Rights Watch has claimed that the United States “poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world”, while one protester’s sign at the Women’s March on Washington on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration simply read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”.

We may not quite live in dystopian times (yet), but Atwood’s gloomy predictions are not even far-fetched: in the New York Times, she writes, “one of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.” And she kept to her word, as she insists in an interview for Time, since all the events she describes have indeed already taken place somewhere, at some time – “I made nothing up”.

As such, I was delighted to hear that a new TV adaption of the text was in development, perfectly timed as a prescient reminder of what the future might hold if the status quo is not challenged. Its only successor in terms of screen adaptations was the 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson, but since this version was generally derided for its ill-judged focus on the relationship between Offred and the commander, it seemed likely that any new film or TV adaptation must be an improvement. The series, however, set in the present day, goes above and beyond these expectations: judging by the five episodes that have been released at the time of writing, I will venture to say that it not only treats its source material with the appropriate respect that the earlier film lacks, but that it uses the capabilities of its medium to create an exciting and autonomous riff on this story – perhaps outlining the shape it might take in an age more like our own.

The adaptation uses the capabilities of its medium to create an exciting and autonomous riff on this story – perhaps outlining the shape it might take in an age more like our own

On watching the first episode, I was impressed with the sinister urgency of the dystopian atmosphere: straight away the tone is set with sirens in place of an opening track, and sustained with an eerie minimal score as well as excellent use of light and shadow. As the story unfolded I initially found it difficult, though, to forgive any major deviation from the storyline of the original novel – in particular, the multiple instances that portrayed Offred as being overly angry and distraught early on in her new captivity. Atwood’s Offred, for example, merely takes pleasure at the thought of being able to present her household with oranges from the market in one scene, while this version’s voiceover suddenly announces “I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun”. This intensity appeared jarring and premature to me, as in Atwood’s novel such a violent outburst (even unspoken) would be quite out of character for the protagonist.

However, it soon becomes clear that Offred is reacting differently to her situation because she is a different person to her literary counterpart. Offred’s role in the novel is quite particular: Atwood gives us a bleak, minimal description of this terrible new world through Offred’s eyes, and the novel’s genius lies in the way it employs the limitations of her restricted perception (winged headdress and all) to tell its story in claustrophobic glimpses.

The dystopian horror is presented as chillingly mundane in Offred’s strict daily routine, from the erasure of shop names from signs (lest the handmaids read anything) to the ever-changing bodies dangling from the wall by the river. And Offred herself, though fully aware of the injustice of it all, eventually almost becomes part of this uncanniness herself by adapting ever so slowly to her situation: she misses the opportunity to exploit her commander’s advances for information and, finally, she has an affair with the driver that seems to sap her of any residual energy for organised resistance.

The Offred of this adaption, on the other hand, seems all set to be a rebel. Here, there is no complacency whatsoever, no peace-making with her situation, no fading into uncanny anonymity. Not only does this Offred react with more explicit anger to her imprisonment, but it is gradually revealed that she has resisted right from the beginning: most notably at this stage, we learn that she played an active and violent role in Moira’s escape from the Red Centre, wielding cattle prods and harsh words in Moira’s place and only barely failing to flee herself. In a featurette on the series, Elisabeth Moss (who plays Offred) comments on this new resilience: “Here’s this character, stripped of everything, of her rights, of her family, of her friends, and she still can’t quite give up”. This is no meek Offred, no nameless figure standing in for all us who are in danger of gradually trading principles for survival. In fact, this isn’t a nameless ‘of Fred’ at all, defined only by her relation to the man who ‘owns’ her – it is ‘June’, as she reveals her true name at the end of episode one.

Also, this is not just Offred/June’s story – her narrative is joined by those of others. So far, this includes Janine, a fellow handmaiden from the Red Centre; Offred’s best friend Moira, whose feisty energy she shares to a much greater extent; and her new friend Ofglen, who has a far more developed storyline than in Atwood’s text. Indeed, it is Ofglen who seems to pass on the torch of resistance to Offred – she suffers horrific punishments for being a ‘gender traitor’ (gay), which shocks Offred out of any possible remaining complacency, and she asks her to join the ‘Mayday’ resistance movement just before being carted off by the authorities (presumably for the last time).

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

Overall, whether the opposition is organised or not, there seems to be a much stronger sense of collective resistance uniting these women – that, to me, has been the most significant change so far. The germ of this was there in the novel, with the ‘Mayday’ movement that Offred chose to ignore and with the message left to her by the house’s handmaid before her: ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, or ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. However, in this version that message becomes more than a moment of shared pain for Offred – it is a battle cry. In the final frame of the fourth episode, the handmaidens are pictured walking together towards the viewer, accompanied by a voiceover of Offred’s that highlights their irrepressible solidarity: “there was an Offred before me. She is dead. She is alive. She is me. We are handmaidens. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”.

At this point, it really seems that this adaptation is taking Atwood’s dark vision – which was brilliant as a minimal, suffocatingly oppressive tale of the loss of individuality in a fundamentalist patriarchal regime – and turning it into a fable for our times: a tale of resistance, of community, of fighting back together. In the age of Trump and the global threat of populism, I am excited to see the series exploit its creative possibilities to further adapt the story to our current world. Because the screenplay was written before Trump’s election, it can’t directly comment on that particular turn of events, but the sense of a turning political tide is palpable nevertheless. Having covered most of the book’s material within the first five episodes, there is immense scope here for the series to assert itself as a stand-alone work of art with some new and exciting storylines – especially regarding new possibilities for the women fighting back together. Nolite to bastardes carborundorum, indeed.

The Handmaid’s Tale is out now on Hulu in the US, and on Channel 4 in the UK.

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