Like all good dystopian visions, the brilliant TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's seminal novel is not all that far from reality
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which aired on Channel 4 on Sunday night, is not an easy watch. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, the show portrays a near-future in which a Christian fundamentalist regime rules the United States. In The Republic of Gilead, women are cruelly and strictly subjugated and denied anything that could give them power, despite not so long ago enjoying the same freedoms and technology that we do IRL today. Infertility is widespread, and Elisabeth Moss plays a handmaid, a woman assigned to a high class family to have sex with the husband and give the family a baby. The infertile, gay, and older women suffer any number of worse fates.
What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so tough, firstly, is of course its scenes of brutal violence and oppression. Even Atwood found it difficult to take part in, writing in an essay for The New York Times that she found a scene where a group of girls are forced to victim shame a woman for being raped, “horribly upsetting”, adding, “it was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even - and, possibly, especially – in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none”.
But it isn’t just the more explicitly disturbing scenes that make The Handmaid's Tale so hard – it’s how close it hits to home. Dystopia as a genre tends to deal not with fantastic, unbelievable futures, but with ones that are in some way realistic - a logical conclusion of the mistakes we are already making in our world. The Handmaid’s Tale’s terrifying realism is twofold - firstly, the idea pollution and leaks from nuclear plants and chemical weapons could render women infertile isn’t entirely unrealistic. Secondly, as many writers – including the book’s – have noted, the subjugation and control that fundamentalist Christian lawmakers enforce on women’s bodies in Gilead isn’t as far from Trump’s America as we might like to think. Texas legislation that would criminalise everyone involved in an unlawful abortion, including the doctor and the person driving someone to an appointment, could pass within the next few days. The GOP’s war on women’s reproductive rights can be summed up in the one, chilling image of a room entirely full of men discussing maternity care. Its worst possible conclusion can perhaps be seen in The Handmaid’s Tale.
What’s most interesting is the timing of the adaptation. The book was published was 32 years ago. That it can be adapted now, in 2017, and still feel as likely and realistic as it did before 32 years of apparent advancements in women’s rights is terrifying. The adaptation doesn’t stick strictly to the book – it’s set later, after or during the present that we live in. Orange is the New Black-style flashbacks show June and Moira free. They drink, they have relationships, they swear, they enjoy their freedom. They could be any of us, and that’s key – they do exactly what we do now. Their freedoms are stripped away, and it isn’t the huge, brutal attacks on those freedoms that feel most chilling, it’s the slow, steady build up.
“While it’s devastating that any of the ideas in the show or book are even relevant now at all, its timing is no accident”
It’s June’s card being denied in a coffee shop. A man calling her and Moira sluts – something that happens daily. The women being fired from their workplaces. It’s slow, but it’s sure. While it’s devastating that any of the ideas in the show or book are even relevant now at all, its timing is no accident. The scenes of marches and resistance are perhaps most shocking - we have seen them, we have lived them, and we know that they did not work. We see, too, in the Handmaid’s Tale that they did not work. The modernism could feel cheap or take you out of the action in a lesser show, but here it’s a powerful way of keeping you right by Offred’s side.
This terrifying realism was constructed carefully in Atwood’s original novel. She maintains that all of the scenarios she describes have actually happened somewhere. Her intention was to respond to those who claim that totalitarian regimes could never take place in America; Atwood recently wrote, “having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. ‘It can’t happen here’ could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances”. Her novel was a satirical view of various trends in the US, like Reagan’s cuts to women’s services, and questioned what would happen if they and “casually held attitudes about women” were taken to their logical end. She was also inspired by ideas from Nazi Germany, the Old Testament, her visits to countries like East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and other regimes around the world. She wanted to show just how easily these regimes can take hold, right under our noses.
“Her novel was a satirical view of various trends in the US, like Reagan’s cuts to women’s services”
In the essay, Atwood acknowledges the book and show’s place in Trump’s America. She says, “in the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere – many, I would guess – are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can”. Chillingly, she also acknowledges that, “the control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.”. At 77, Atwood is as aware of the political climate and of women’s place in the world as she was in 1985.
So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale is difficult to watch. If you are easily disturbed or triggered by depictions of rape or violence or subjugation, it could be best to avoid it entirely. But it is masterfully put together, terrifyingly scored, and devastatingly acted by its central characters. Its confrontation of violence against not only heterosexual women but others deemed less than by society – gay men, the lower class, lesbians, those non-religious – is uncomfortable viewing, but perhaps necessary to remind ourselves the importance of resistance. It’s also TV at its best – brilliant, occasionally funny, and at times devastating. But, as with all good dystopian fiction, don’t ever be assured that it couldn’t possibly happen.