SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—Interest in books dealing with totalitarian states has increased with the election victory of Trump in the US.
One of the books that has surged to the top of the radar is “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985) by Margaret Atwood, which is now a Hulu TV series. Although preparations for the series were under way before Trump’s win, its release is timely.
Here’s the synopsis on TV that also pretty much sums up the storyline of the book: “In a dystopian near-future, the totalitarian and Christian-fundamentalist government of Gilead rules the former United States amid an ongoing civil war and subjugates women, who are not allowed to work, control money, or even read.
“Widespread infertility due to environmental contamination has resulted in the conscription of young fertile women—called Handmaids, according to Biblical precedent—who are assigned to the homes of the elite, where they must have ritualized sex with the men in order to become pregnant and bear children for those men and their wives.”
The protagonist, Offred (played by Elizabeth Moss)—her name comes from the possessive “of” and the name of her Commander (the elite man to whom she is assigned), Fred—is traumatized, dealing with the collapse of society and the rise of a new order, as well as the tearing apart of her family, her husband and daughter taken away by the new government.
The first episode opens with the scene where the family tries to run away into the forest—this came a bit later on in the book. Chronologically, however, this arrangement makes the story easier to understand.
Next, we see Offred in Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) household, where she meets his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who tells her in no uncertain terms not to have any ideas about seducing her husband – “If I get trouble, believe me I will give trouble back.” TV Serena Joy is younger than in the book, which takes some getting used to, but her bitchiness and jealousy are therefore more believable.
Atwood makes a cameo in the flashback scene at the Red Center, slapping Offred when she hesitates from participating in the collective shaming of another handmaid. Chillingly, this indoctrination, says the Center’s leader Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), is something that they will get used to, in time—“This will become—ordinary.”
The first season earned 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s a well-deserved assessment. The tone of the series is finely tuned. The scenes are fraught with tension but not overwrought. The acting is restrained, as befits the new norm of behavior in a society where the elite struggles to control everyone else, who live in fear of punishment and torture for offenses they might be accused of.
As the series progresses, we see Offred negotiating her assigned role. Handmaids are reproductive surrogates, Marthas keep house, Econowives are wed to those below elite ranks. Those who despair attempt to escape or commit suicide (as the previous Offred did), rebel, and are sent to “The Colonies” where they clean up toxic waste and can expect extremely limited lifespans.
Offred declares her intention at the end of the first episode. “I intend to survive for her [her daughter]. Her name is Hannah. My husband’s name is Luke. My name… is June.” (In the book, Offred’s true name is not known.) By affirming her identity, she maintains her sense of self and increases her mental strength and chances at survival.
This is one of the central themes of the book, and it is portrayed effectively in the series. Here and there are pockets of incident that reinforce Offred’s goal, handmaids encouraging each other to hang on. Offred finds a line scrawled in her bedroom closet, presumably by the previous Offred: “Nolite te bastardes carborundum”—don’t let the bastards grind you down.
The best survival advice comes from Moira (Samira Wiley), Offred’s friend from the life before—“Keep your fuckin’ shit together.” This is wisdom fit for anywhere and anytime.
I suggest both reading the book and watching the series, to learn what a well-made book-to-TV adaptation is like. “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu is a must-watch, for those who love the book, the speculative fiction storyline, and good cinema.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, @artuoste