NB: This post will contain spoilers for both Margaret Atwood’s novel and Hulu’s adaptation of it through episode 3. It also assumes familiarity with the basic plot of the book.
I have a confession to make. Despite being a feminist of a certain age, I had never read Margaret Atwood’s story of women living under an oppressive patriarchal regime until last week. The Handmaid’s Tale was forever on my to-read list, but somehow it never quite crept to the top. But with Hulu’s adaptation coming out and the state of the world being what it is at the moment, the time had finally come.
Having read other Atwood and found it a bit of a slow burn, I was a bit surprised to find the novel compulsively readable, despite being incredibly bleak. I finished it in two days, marveling over the eerie and disturbing parallels in our current sociopolitical climate and delighting in Atwood’s prose (and spot on description of Harvard Square). The book is a damnation of the power dynamic between men and women, of course, but it touches on so much more than that – the way that fear causes us to exchange freedom for the illusion of safety, the damage of white supremacy, religious hypocrisy, and the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was interested to see which of these would surface in the series – I knew going in that they’d removed the race elements, but what else would change?
Let me start by saying that, after watching the first three episodes, the show overall is incredibly well done. There are certainly changes and updates, both major and minor; some I agree with and some I don’t. But on the whole, the creative team has done an amazing job of setting the right tone and message. Like the novel, the show makes liberal use of narration and flashbacks, though it rearranges the timeline of the entire novel. The flashbacks help establish both how new and foreign the position of women in this society is, and how they struggle to survive it. As Aunt Lydia helpfully reminds the handmaids-to-be in the Red Center, “Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not feel ordinary now but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” Women aren’t used to being chattel anymore, she’s telling them, but in a few generations no one will remember another way.
The show also makes excellent, unnerving use of music. Most of it is instrumental, humming quietly in the backgrounds of scenes, imparting an air of menace and tension. However, when a song does come to the forefront, they are often even more jarring – a combination of 80’s classics, remakes of the same, and newer songs with similar new wave sounds. This choice both nods to the book’s original time and setting, while providing a creepy counterpoint to the nearly Colonial-style dress and mannerisms of the future it depicts. It’s a reminder that although it may look like the past, it’s the near future we’re watching.
The actors also give excellent performances. You can feel the strain in every interaction our narrator Offred (Elisabeth Moss) has with other characters in the present day scenes – no one is saying what they mean, no one can be trusted, and kindness always has some sort of strings attached. You can see it in her face and body language. This tension is complemented by the total ease in her memories of her former life before the government takeover. Her scenes with her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are particularly good – you feel their closeness, and how they’ve influenced each other’s lives.
With all of that said, the show makes a few changes that I don’t entirely agree with, changes that affect how we see Offred and the other women in relation to each other. Keep an eye out for part two, where I’ll explore those changes.
Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.