[Spoiler alert: this review contains extensive plot details]
The first thing the viewer notices in the Hulu TV series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is how “trains-running-on-time” the theocracy is. As with Nazi Germany, everything in the Republic of Gilead is bright and shiny. There is no dirt or trash anywhere in evidence. Even the vans into which the Eyes (Gilead’s secret police) shove “heretics” grabbed off the streets are polished to perfection.
This stands in bold contrast to the series’ pre-Gilead society, which is grey and dirty, resembling less the Boston in which Atwood slyly situated the novel (a reminder that a theocracy of sorts happened there in the form of sixteenth-century Puritanism) and more the old Soviet Union.
But such a resemblance is offset in the new series by the presence of all the technical marvels of today. Cellphones, the Internet, and iPods are in evidence. The Sons of Jacob army, who will overthrow American democracy and establish a theocracy, resemble less an official army and more a black-clad militia who engage in street battles with counter-protesters.
All of this is, no doubt, to situate Margaret Atwood’s 1985 tale in our own era in conjunction with the rise of Donald Trump. Certainly Atwood finds it applicable. In a promo for the series, Atwood told how the cast woke up the morning of Trump’s victory and thought, “we’re no longer making fiction—we’re making a documentary.”
Chillingly, the means that the Republic of Gilead uses to overthrow the American government require no contemporary adjustment. They are even more plausible now than they were in 1985.
A red-state-like militia movement assassinates the president and most of Congress and then blames the murders on Islamic terrorists. From there it’s only a short leap to establishing martial law, which the government promises will only be temporary, which they profess while setting up a permanent repressive apparatus.
From there the regime freezes women’s ATM accounts. Without financial power they’re vulnerable for what comes next: the ban on holding property, reading, writing, and voting, and assignment of value determined solely on whether they can produce healthy babies or not. The material has been updated in casting much younger actors for the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), as well as the main character Offred (Elisabeth Moss) who is “assigned” to them. Unlike the novel in which the Commander was grey-haired and on the cusp of old age, here he is young, with a carefully trimmed beard and an apparent neediness. The biggest change for the couple, however, is with his wife. In the novel, this former mascara-running televangelist—think Tammy Faye Bakker—was old and arthritic. In the series Serena Joy is more coiled supermodel, but the intensity remains.
The most welcome change in the series is in the character of Offred, one of the Handmaids regarded by the regime as little more than “walking wombs” for the Commanders to joylessly spill their seed into. Courtesy of her inner monologue Offred reveals that the regime has not erased her gutsy personality. Although she’s often tempted to commit suicide, the filmmakers do supply a motivation for Offred enduring all the repression of the regime by declaring she intends “to survive” this for her kidnapped child.
In the series Offred is much more militant and in several instances overtly rebellious. In the novel, she was too scared to engage in the marches against the Gilead coup still in its early stages. In the series, however, she is at the forefront of the placard-waving protesters and has to flee the scene when the black-clad Gilead shock troops machine-gun the throngs. When her lesbian college friend Moria forcibly escapes the conditioning center, whose thick-calved, cattle-prod wielding enforcers (called “Aunts”) oversee the breaking down of the female’s pre-Gilead (read “sinful”) identities, Offred goes with her (she even cattle prods a bound Aunt).
Captured, her feet beaten bloody, Offred nevertheless continues to rebel albeit in more subtle ways. Like the novel, in which she desires the Cosmopolitan-type magazines the Commander allows her to read, her “rebellions” aren’t of the politically correct variety. She flashes leg at the Commander’s driver, Nick, who is attracted to her. She smiles condescendingly at a wife/“mother” who is simulating labor pains while surrounded by other wives comforting and wiping her brow and who will soon take the child birthed by a Handmaid as if she had done so.
Offred likewise manipulates the system to her own advantage. Following a series of after-hours meetings with the Commander, who, as in the novel, wants to emotionally connect with her on “dates,” Offred is able to free herself from a two-week confinement to her room by the Commander’s wife (for not being pregnant). She does so by telling the Commander that she is becoming suicidal, which the Commander deems “a tragedy” before ordering his wife to allow her out. When we next see Offred with the Commander, she has also managed to get him to allow her drink alcohol.
The series departs from the book regarding race. In the novel, African Americans have been supposedly relocated to the Midwest. But in the TV series Offred’s husband is black, and her child as well as her friend Moira are half-black. Thus far into the series, the Republic seems to have no problem with race—what really raises the hackles of the regime is homosexuality. The writers of the show have introduced Moira as a lesbian character who was once married and had adopted a child. She’s a member of the resistance whose quiet rebellious nature is tortured out of her, not only physically but by witnessing the hanging of her lover/wife. Denounced as disgusting and an “abomination” in the eyes of God by a taser-wielding female trainer, Moira nevertheless is allowed back into the Handmaids because she is fertile; an indication of the paramount importance of reproduction over all biblical injunction.
As in the novel, the series shows not only how unhappy the Handmaids are, but how unhappy those in the government are as well. This is most apparent in the excruciating “Ceremony,” based on the Old Testament in which Abraham and Jacob, faced with infertile wives, impregnated their handmaids. The regime has made the session much more horrible than Abraham and Jacob merely slipping out of sight of their wives with the Handmaids. Instead, the viewer is presented with the horror-filled pantomime of husband, wife, and Handmaid symbolically forming “one flesh.” The Handmaids who are being thrust into by the husbands are physically connected to the wives by resting their heads between the legs of said wives, who hold (actually squeeze painfully) the wrists of the Handmaids. The series shows how everyone involved is dying inside. The Commander treats sex like a disgusting chore, akin to going to the bathroom; his wife, her head rocking back with each thrust, can’t look at him; and Offred has clearly left her “vessel” body.
As befits a theocracy, there must be a horrific fate used as a means of social control—but here it’s not the usual threat of hell. Instead, it’s a real place called “the Colonies.” Here the exiles are forced to undergo a slow death (i.e., skin falling off in strips) by cleaning up radioactive waste. Rebellion against the regime qualifies one for exile status (in the novel, Offred sees film of her uber-feminist mother shoveling nuclear waste), as does old age, infertility, and failure of any Handmaid to produce a viable baby after three assignments. For the Handmaids, the term “biological clock” takes on a new and desperate meaning.
All in all, the Hulu version of The Handmaid’s Tale, six episodes in, is an example of how a visual medium can enhance the horror depicted in a novel long regarded as the ultimate warning against church partnering with state.