Words & Screen: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Welcome to Words & Screen, a new series at Reader Voracious that dives into film and television adaptations of some of my favorite books. I am really excited to begin this series with a look into one of my favorite books The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and I hope that you find this mostly spoiler-free analysis as fun and interesting as I do!
The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and in my opinion is one of the best pieces of speculative fiction there is. With the recent television series adaptation, which premiered on Hulu in 2017 and received countless awards, the happenings of Gilead have entered the popular culture lexicon and continues to remain culturally relevant.
Remember, science fiction’s always been the kind of first level alert to think about things to come. It’s easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we’re preaching to them. Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, any one that’s worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true. — Steven Spielberg
I think a lot of the series’ success lies in the fact that it hits a little too close to home. But that’s kind of the point. The best science fiction is about the human condition of today through the lens of tomorrow. Where are we headed, and what will we find when we get there? Because it is purely speculation, it serves as a warning signal for what may become reality if we do not change. And in a time of increased polarization and decreased liberties in the United States, this series is a horrifying glimpse into a potential future.
If you have never read the book (I hope I convince you to pick it up!), we are five years into the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic territory that uses biblical precedent to address the declining global birth rate. Women who are fertile are a precious commodity and the Republic of Gilead has a solution: forcing the fertile women into surrogacy for the Commanders in power. Women have been placed into a system which separated them based on their function, be it household duties (Marthas), reproduction (Handmaids), or wives and are no longer allowed to have money or property, are not permitted to read or write. They have no power and are completely subservient to men.
The novel itself is unsettling as a result of being written in the present tense, so that while reading I was on edge that at any moment something could happen to the narrator and the story would end abruptly. The style of writing set the tone for the dangerous world of Gilead, and that carries over well into Hulu’s adaptation of the book. The Tale being shared is Offred’s, the Handmaid of Fred Waterford. In the Before she was called June, but now she is merely the property of Fred – “Of Fred.”
My rule for the book was, I didn’t put in anything that people hadn’t already done. And I think the series is following that rule, not putting in anything that is just a made-up thing. It’s all happened before. – Margaret Atwood in a 2017 Interview.
While the television series is not an exact replica of the book, the changes made stay true to the source material and largely serve to root them in our present (such as referencing Uber). Other than the delegation visit in Season 1, Episode 6, the majority of the changes build out characters from the book that were outside of Offred’s knowledge. The adjustments (such as an increased importance of Nick, the age of Serena Joy, and Janine) enhance the dystopian story being told and it feels authentic and true to the book.
The book doesn’t deal much with the way the world was before, in what happened to Offred before she came to be at the Red Center. But the series masterfully provides flashback glimpses into her life with Luke and Hannah as well as the small, insidious changes that were made as the Sons of Jacob were making their move.
The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people not in the papers. We lived in the white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
I feel like this especially hits home. In the digital age that we all live in we are constantly connected to the world and the news, and in a lot of ways people become desensitized to it. But hindsight is always 20/20, as they say. With the lens of the present you are able to see the warning signs in the past.
The danger and lesson that we as a society can take from both the book and the tv series is that changes like those depicted never happen all at once. They begin slowly at first, often in the name of protecting the citizens. In Gilead it was protecting them from terrorists at first; in modern history we have given up personal freedoms to feel safer. I remember what the world was like before 9/11, a world before TSA and full body scanners. Perhaps even more haunting are the current debates surrounding internet privacy, and the desire for increased governmental control/regulation. The parallels to modern life are countless.
The Handmaid’s Tale really drives how just how much we as a species come to accept with time. That is what dictators and bad leaders count on – it becoming normal. This thread is explored in a very nuanced – and terrifying – manner.
I know this must feel very strange. But “ordinary” is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary. — Aunt Lydia (Season 1, Episode 1)
It looks kind of weird without all the dead bodies, doesn’t it? [pauses] Huh, I guess you get used to things being one way. — Janine (Season 1, Episode 6)
After five years of indoctrination it became normal to see corpses hanging on the Wall, as illustrated in the above quotes. Out of fear for their lives, women don’t really fight back anymore either.
I am excited for season 2 because it is moving into territory outside of the book’s narrative (as season 1 ends where the book’s narrative does). Margaret Atwood was more heavily involved with the development of the second season and it is my hope that explore more about the political structure of Gilead and Mayday, as well as learning more about the characters.
At its core, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about people. In both the book and the tv show, the characters are what shine through: you come to genuinely care about everyone, about what they gave up, and about them finding a sliver of happiness in their new reality. An added bonus to Hulu’s adaptation is the ‘humanization’ of the Commander and Serena Joy – you get to see glimpses of their past and see that things are never black and white.
- My full book review can be found here on Goodreads.
- Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale will be 13 episodes, with new episodes each Wednesday. The first two episodes, June and Unwomen, were released on Hulu April 25, 2018.
- Once the finale of season 2 airs, there will be a second Words & Screen post diving into that season! I am so excited since it is going into uncharted territory!
This post and new series has been an absolute labor of love, and I am so excited to share it with you all and hopefully talk about the book, show, and themes in the comments!
Can’t get enough? Here’s some Additional Reading:
Margaret Atwood Annotates Season 1 of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, New York Times, 2017 June 14
Atwood explains the historical basis of the book and the show’s most disconcerting elements: color-coded clothing, mob justice, forced childbearing, and more.