"I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting" (122). This is the desire of Margaret Atwood's central character Offred in The Handmaid's Tale. The novel is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead which is formally the United States of America. Placing the blame on Islamic fanatics, a right-wing extremist movement guns down the president along with the congress, and takes total control of the government. Within days, citizens namely women, begin to realize that their freedoms are being taken away. The United States is transformed into an American dystopia full of environmental pollution, state supervision and Puritanical fundamentalism. With this transformation, comes a transformation of the way citizens are accustomed to live. Families are ripped apart and taken to different locations in the regime. They are either used as a "resource" for the betterment of society or killed.
In this case, Offred is sent to a school to be re-educated about her new life and the responsibilities that come with it. She is then sent to a house to be a handmaid whose only functions are to go to the market and buy the food daily and to, most importantly, produce children for the Commander and his wife whom she is staying with. So begins the story of the handmaid Offred with whom the reader connects and goes along with on a journey of personal growth. The Handmaid's Tale presents delicate issues that may be unsuitable for immature audiences. Topics of sex, oppression, social and political reorganization along with gender hierarchy prove to be too challenging or too explicit for younger audiences. Although it is right to challenge The Handmaid's Tale for children that are not yet in high school, it proves to be an...
Often, the small horrors we can imagine are more frightening than the big ones we cannot comprehend. There is one such moment in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the narrator, Offred, is told why the chandelier in her room was removed: her predecessor, another woman used as a breeding tool by the master of the house, hanged herself from it.
It’s a tiny, terrible moment on a spectrum of grander horrors, but it perfectly encapsulates the brutal reality of Gilead, the patriarchal theocracy that takes over America in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel and the new TV adaptation. In both the show and the book, Offred is a handmaid: one of the few remaining fertile women who are forced to have sex with powerful men and bear their children. This isn’t a world where men treat women equally; they just take the chandelier down, to stop the next one from getting away.
The Handmaid's Tale review – timely adaptation scares with dystopian dread
While precedent says readers are not wrong to be sceptical of adaptations, it would be a disservice to write off the TV take on Atwood’s book: both are masterpieces, in their own ways. But for all the novel’s power, it is 30 years old, written by Atwood as she travelled through West Germany and behind the Iron Curtain; and reading it today, it is easy to feel there is a missing piece, a disconnect between where we are now in 2017 and how we would get to our own Gilead. It is telling that The Handmaid’s Tale is sometimes miscategorised as science-fiction – we don’t like to consider it as a possibility.
Even for those who have read the book, there is something raw and new in seeing Atwood’s tale on screen. Even when you know it is coming, it is hard to witness Offred – played marvellously by Elisabeth Moss – silently being raped by the commander, her head gently banging into his wife’s lap as she holds her arms down. It is tough to watch the handmaids hurry past lines of bodies hanging from walls, variously damned for being gay, Catholic, an abortion clinic worker. Women have eyes plucked from their heads, endure clitoridectomies as punishment. We are shown exactly how bad such a future would be, if it ever happened.
And, smartly, the adaptation goes off-book, adding all the necessary tweaks to show exactly how it could happen. Atwood’s book thrusts the reader right into Gilead, with only small references to what came before. Flashbacks on TV are usually awful, but not here: watching Offred, then called June, being slowly and insidiously punished in an America not far from the one we know, is terrifyingly realisable. She is marched from her office with stunned colleagues because women aren’t allowed to earn income. She stares at an ATM screen as it denies her a withdrawal, disbelief all over her slack face. Strangely, these comparably lesser injustices shock almost as much as the sexual violence she endures later; we have jobs, we use ATMs. The small horrors have their own power.
And a scene in a cafe, where she is viciously branded a “slut” by a barista surely smarts for every woman watching who, statistically, will have endured such unsolicited misogyny from a stranger at some point. Even Atwood herself has found the reality of the show disturbing, writing of a scene where the handmaids shame a woman who was gang raped: “I found this scene horribly upsetting. It was way too much like way too much history.”
The novelist famously constructed her dystopian world using only historical precedents, digging at America’s Puritan roots to build Gilead, then mining other parts from the past – the Nazi party’s Lebensborn program, designed to encourage a high birth rate among Aryan women; book burnings; the religious iconography seen in the enforced dress codes; state surveillance in China and East Germany. Some have even praised the show for the timeliness of its adaptation, falling as it has so soon after the election of President Donald Trump. When before has America needed to take such a hard look at itself, and consider the hypocritical, misogynist prurience that seems to drive so many of its political figures? Tellingly, since the show started being promoted in America, women have been attending marches and protests dressed in the red robe and white bonnet made iconic by Atwood’s handmaids.
But, arguably, there has also never been a moment since Atwood’s book arrived on shelves that this story hasn’t been timely. What should be praised is the willingness to translate it for audiences today. We are blessed, in a strange way, that it has the capacity to shock us still.
The Handmaid’s Tale starts in the UK on Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4, and continues in the US on Wednesdays on Hulu.