Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale



In this post, Sheffield Gothic's Hannah Moss reviews Hulu's recent series, The Handmaid's Tale. To explore the Gothic origin's of the show's source material, check out Hannah's previous discussion of Atwood's novel here.

You only have to turn on the TV or flick through a magazine to see that The Handmaid’s Tale is a hot topic right now. Reviewers have been praising the 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel for capturing the zeitgeist, commenting that its release could not have been timelier. As a woman stripped of her rights and treated as property of the state, the figure of the Handmaid has gained particular significance in Trump’s America. A recent protest against the GOP healthcare bill, which seeks to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood, saw 30 women dressed as Handmaids march on Capitol Hill. Red-cloaked women are now becoming a familiar sight at protests against inequality, slut shaming and the limitation of reproductive rights, but the truth is that Atwood’s dystopian tale is timeless and these are issues that were prevalent before the novel was published and remain so now. If the TV series has helped to raise the political awareness of its audience, then it can be judged as a resounding success for this alone - but how does it measure up against the book?


In the UK The Handmaid’s Tale has filled the Sunday evening slot where Channel 4 so often place hard-hitting US shows as an antidote to the nostalgic period dramas favoured by rival broadcasters. Watching The Handmaid’s Tale is by no means a relaxing way to end the weekend, and for that very reason I would find myself tuning into Poldark, avoiding the Twitter commentary and waiting until Monday lunchtime to catch up with the latest instalment from Gilead. If you’ve not seen it yet, this is not a series to binge watch over a couple of sittings. As gripping as it may be, The Handmaid’s Tale is far too intense for that! Rich in symbolism and produced with the attention to detail of a true perfectionist, each episode requires your undivided attention in order to fully process the nightmare unfolding before your eyes. The series is a dark and dystopian assault upon the senses.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is the visually arresting cinematography. From the colour contrast of blood red against clinical white to the choreographed movement of the cloaked figures, it is very clear that beauty and horror co-exist here. Even Serena Joy and Commander Waterford gain youth and glamour their characters distinctly lack in the novel. As played by Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes, they are presented as a power couple being driven apart by infertility, infidelity and the reality of living by the religious and political ideals that they fought so hard to implement. Somewhat ironically, Serena was once a successful writer whose works promoted the Gileadean family values that have since seen her excluded from the corridors of power and confined to the domestic sphere. It sounds frivolous to mention that at one point I found myself admiring the cut of one of her chic dresses before some instance of horrific brutality snapped me back out my reverie. However, the costume designers want you to notice these things – after all, appearances matter in the branding of Gilead! Everyone has their place, and punishment for even minor transgressions involves mutilation so that the perpetrator must wear their shame. Eyes, arms and feet are fair game as long as such ‘damaged’ Handmaids are kept well out of sight from the Mexican trade delegation and their reproductive capacity remains unharmed.


Although Gilead can be an eerily silent place, music is still used to heighten the tension. The sometimes jarring, yet always brilliant transition from the foreboding score to the ‘echoes from the past’ in Offred’s head includes loud blasts of Simple Minds, Nina Simone and Blondie designed to shock the viewer into the realisation of how much life has changed. The use of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me at the end of episode 1 is so apt that it sends tingles down your spine. The haunting combination of audio and visual stays with you long after the credits roll. 

So often viewers can be left feeling infuriated when a literary favourite is adapted from page to screen, but I was definitely not disappointed with Bruce Miller’s highly anticipated reimagining of Atwood’s 1985 novel - praise be! In many ways the series is a how to lesson in adaptation. Miller sticks to the source text whilst at the same time updating ideas and developing certain characters further. For example, Ofglen’s story of so called ‘gender treachery’ makes a heart-breaking addition. Caught having a same-sex affair with one of the Martha’s in her household, Ofglen is forced to watch as her lover is executed before she is herself forced to undergo a clitoridectomy in an attempt by the state to control her sexuality. Death is not an option for her whilst she still has viable ovaries. Such departures from the source text mean that the mounting tension is maintained for those of us who have read the book numerous times before. Given the dystopian setting, it is suitably unsettling when you are never quite sure if the narrative will take an unexpected turn.


With Margaret Atwood on board with the project the series could never stray too far, but some changes haven’t been as well thought through as others. Whilst it is refreshing to watch a series with a racially diverse cast, it is perhaps surprising that a regime so grounded in far-right ideology would accept women of colour as Handmaids without comment. Furthermore, Elisabeth Moss’ voiceover monologue does at first sound like the woman readers feel like they know so well from the stream of consciousness narrative of Atwood’s novel, but this Offred is different. For the want of a better word, Offred is as content as she can be with Nick and becomes lazy and self-absorbed – she doesn’t want to resist, she wants to stay safe. However, the TV series turns her into a heroine with added sass. She scratches out the reply ‘you are not alone’ in response to the battle cry ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, defiantly refuses to stone Janine to death, and feels let down by Moira’s resignation to life as a sex worker at Jezebel’s. What’s more, with her knowledge that Luke and her daughter have survived, hope of a family reunion is provided thus making this more a story about escape and over-coming adversity rather than about the ease with which human rights can be violated and the frighteningly fast pace at which normalization occurs following a regime change: ‘in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it’ is a line that will never lose its poignancy. 

One of the most moving moments of the series comes when Offred opens the package she has received from Mayday via Moira, who is anxious that it could contain a bomb or even anthrax. What it actually contains are the written testimonies of hundreds of Handmaids, describing the horror of being routinely raped and forcedly separated from their children. This serves as a potent reminder that Offred’s voice is one of many. In the shift from novel to television, the power of the written word is not lost. What is lost, however, is the ambiguity which is central to the experience of reading Atwood’s text. We, as readers, don’t know people’s real names, their backstories, or what really happens to Offred once she is taken away in the black van. Even though it can be assumed that Nick has arranged for her to be smuggled out of the country, the lack of certainty makes you question everything you have read. As much as I am looking forward to seeing what answers are provided when The Handmaid’s Tale returns to our screens next year, we will inevitably lose the tantalizing element of mystery to puzzle over. Until then, there’s just one thing left to say: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches!



Hannah 'Nolite te Bastardes Carborundum' Moss is a PhD researcher on perceptions of architecture in the 18th Century Gothic novel at the University of Sheffield, and without her Sheffield Gothic would definitely fall apart! When she is not delving into Atwood's fiction, she can be found roaming the halls of Gothic country houses.

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