I must admit, I was reluctant to begin The Handmaid’s Tale, despite all the rave reviews and the positive comments from people whose taste in TV I trust completely. The subject matter felt a bit too heavy for summertime consumption, and, having skipped the Mad Men craze, I was never a huge fan of Elizabeth Moss and her perpetually sour expression.
Having binge-watched the entire first season in a matter of days, I’m the first to admit I was wrong, and so glad I soldiered on, in spite of my initial apprehension. I’ve had the book on my reading list for years and kept putting it off for the same reasons I kept avoiding the TV show: I tend to consume novels in the summer, and a tragic tale set in a post-apocalyptic patriarchy just doesn’t scream beach-appropriate reading material. Thus, aside from a general summary of the main plot line, I was largely unaware of the actual story, and went in not expecting what I was about to watch.
I was not just pleasantly surprised, but quite impressed with the end result – so much so that, as soon as I finished the first season, I finally read the book, basically in one sitting.
How does it compare? It may be an unpopular opinion, but I think the show was actually an improvement. Call me ignorant and uncultured, but I rarely enjoy the so-called classics (or modern classics, in the case of a book published merely 32 years ago). Even when the language isn’t dated – stilted, even – as is often the case with century-old works of fiction, I find it hard to relate to characters developed in an unfamiliar environment, under circumstances so different than my own. My attempt to finish the most prominent F.S. Fitzgerald books, a few summers ago, is a prime example: instead of reading for pleasure, it felt like homework, or a even a chore. [I feel the same way about period pieces, both on the page and on screen: the overall atmosphere, however well-crafted, makes it hard for me to become immersed, and the characters are equally hard to relate to, so the entire experience is lacking.]
But I digress: the brilliance in Atwood’s book is the fact that it’s pretty much timeless: by constructing a different kind of post-apocalyptic universe, the events of The Handmaid’s Tale can be translated to present day America without feeling dated. By doing away with the majority of the technology and reverting back to ‘traditional values’, Gilead could be a terrifying portrayal of a parallel world in 2017 just as easily as it would have been in the 80’s, so any initial qualms I may have had about watching a period drama were squashed right from the get-go.
As far as the story and the characters, it’s gripping and intense, the protagonists beautifully nuanced. So much is accomplished by utilizing silences, which ordinarily would have been filled by the heroine’s internal monologue, as they are in the book. Instead, the show allows the viewer to interpret them, and shows tremendous restraint in what it chooses to let be voiced by Offred.
The amped-up violence also serves the same purpose: although it could be construed as gratuitous at first glance, it’s a brilliant, if not unique, way to bridge the gap between the two media. Offred’s world is terrifying, and without her constant book narration, we need something more to convey just how dangerous her circumstances are.
The book’s non-linear structure translates beautifully on screen with the use of flashbacks, which help flesh out Moira and Luke and give them enough agency to work as complete and separate characters. As much as you could hold this against the show, for deviating from the book, I feel that these changes (along with Offglen and Offwarren’s stories, or the ages of the Commander and his wife) are necessary, not just for dramatic purposes, but also in laying the foundation for the second season.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a show surpass the book material: Game of Thrones did just that starting with Season 6, and, for all its (minor and entirely forgivable) flaws, the showrunners have done a wonderful job so far. The Handmaid’s Tale has a much easier task than GoT, of course, in terms of sheer numbers, but its writers will still have to contend with a story whose fans are poised to be quite skeptical towards any deviation from the book’s central theme.
Either way, it will be quite interesting to see where they take Offred’s story. It’s not a digestible show, nor is it ‘fun’ to watch, in the traditional sense – in fact, it’s quite terrifying – but it’s what I’d call an important work of fiction. I didn’t mind the slow pace, nor the depressing tone, and Moss’s portrayal of the central character actually endeared her to me. Everything about the art direction, the color palette, the camera work – especially the shallow focus shots – and the subtle performances contributed in creating a unique atmosphere that fully envelops the viewer and makes this dystopian universe far easier to imagine becoming reality than one would presume – or feel comfortable with.
And that, to me, makes The Handmaid’s Tale an incredibly powerful TV show.