At the Women’s March events in the United States the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, it was remarkable how many placards were inspired by Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again” got the most media coverage, although my personal favorite was “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is not an instruction manual.”
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Atwood’s 1985 novel won the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, which is why some people make the mistake of calling it sci-fi. But as the Canadian author reminded Haaretz earlier this month, her stories are always drawn from the pages of history, not the realms of fantasy.
The biggest surprise about the lavish TV adaptation – which was produced by the U.S. streaming subscription service Hulu, and is shown in Israel on HOT HBO over the weekend, with new episodes broadcasting Sundays at 22.00 – is that it has taken so long to reach the small screen. Over the past 30 years it has been turned into a film, radio play, stage play, ballet and even an opera (no “Things Aunt What They Used to Be” aria, alas). All it needs to complete the set is a video game – just think “Assassin’s Creed,” but with a red robe.
Atwood much prefers the term “dystopian” to describe her near-future tale, and as I watched the first four episodes, I couldn’t get P.D. James’ novel “The Children of Men” out of my head. After all, both stories are about an infertility crisis, both feature totalitarian states, both tap unerringly into the zeitgeist. Oh, and both film versions were box office flops.
For me, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” (2006) is one of the best films of the millennium (with its refugee plotline especially haunting now), but it took the best part of a decade for its genius to be recognized. I wasn’t a fan of Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990), but that’s because Atwood’s novel is too full of ideas to be satisfactorily condensed into two hours. It’s like trying to publish the Bible on Twitter.
Thankfully, the TV adaptation doesn’t lack for time. The first season is nearly 10 hours long (10 episodes), with a second season already commissioned. And given that the show’s star, Elisabeth Moss (as Offred), has signed up for a potential seven seasons, it’s safe to assume the novel will eventually be acting as a jumping-off point for the show.
Indeed, what the creators decide to do with Atwood’s template will ultimately make or break the show. The source material paints a detailed picture of one person’s fate in a theocratic future, but how much will they want to broaden the canvas in future seasons?
Before viewing the first episode, I imagined a very cerebral show where the closest we would get to action would be a cart chase. But the opening scene brilliantly wrong-foots the audience with blaring sirens and a nerve-jangling pursuit. From that moment on, the show never ceases to enthrall, impress and, yes, horrify. Never before have so many disturbing scenes been staged in such a beautiful fashion (the last time I saw so much red on the screen was when CBS announced Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in the 1984 U.S. presidential election).
It was a smart move to retain the novel’s first-person narrative, and even smarter to drop some of the book’s literariness. So instead of passages like “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity,” the show gives us voiceovers like “I want to tell her that Ofglen is a pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass” and “Now there has to be an ‘Us,’ because now there is a ‘Them.’” It grips the viewer rather than merely strokes their intellect.
Could it really happen?
The person delivering these voiceovers is “Mad Men” alum Moss, who appears in every single scene as Offred, whose fertility in an increasingly barren world sees her being turned into a “two-legged womb.” As Atwood herself wrote in the British daily The Guardian back in 2012, “Since ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services the rare and the desirable would include fertile women and reproductive control.”
Although the adaptation hasn’t specifically mentioned it nearly halfway through the first season, the drama plays out in the newly formed Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that has replaced much of the United States (America is now down to two states and a capital in – the horror! – Anchorage). Flashbacks, meanwhile, show us Offred’s life when things went to hell, and her training to become a child-bearing handmaid at a college even the Jesuits might consider sadistic.
Offred’s life with the Commander (Joseph Fiennes, remarkably well preserved for 47) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski, definitely nothing like the arthritic character in the novel) is presented almost as a series of tableaux (the future really is bleak, judging by the lack of strong indoor lighting). Then there’s the black-clad Eyes maintaining totalitarian rule – I hadn’t seen such a sinister-looking group of men since Trump announced his cabinet picks.
Speaking of the Republican elephant in the room, it’s ironic that there wouldn’t be half as much interest in “The Handmaid’s Tale” if Hillary Clinton had won the U.S. election last November. Even the prescient Atwood couldn’t have predicted Trump’s triumph, but it’s clear that current events and the presence of so many from the religious right in Trump’s cabinet give the show ever more plausibility.
In the week I watched the first four episodes, Trump – along with the ongoing assault against Planned Parenthood – signed an executive order to lessen the separation of church and state in the United States. And this week, we saw his all-male Senate panel charged with trying to find a consensus on health care. As Michelle Wolf said in "The Daily Show," "Thirteen white guys and no women. In that group they were able to get two Mormons, but no women ... which is weird from Mormons, because normally they want extra women!" And it’s impossible not to hear Trump's patronizing patriarchal tones when the commander brushes off his wife’s attempts to help him solve a problem by saying, “We’ve got good men working on it.”
And it’s not only the United States. Immediately prior to watching the first episode, my newspaper showed a young woman wearing a red hijab, looking uncannily like a handmaid, as she explained how the Islamic terror group Boko Haram tried to strap explosives to her body and use her for a suicide bombing in Nigeria.
Then there’s the fact that I’m watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Israel, a country that seems more interested in becoming a theocracy than a democracy these days. Check out the billboard ads for “Wonder Woman” in sites near ultra-Orthodox communities if you need more proof.
Could “The Handmaid’s Tale” ever really happen? As Offred warns in this sobering drama, “Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”