Margaret Atwood’s first foray into speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic of dystopian satire, and won both the Arthur C. Clarke and Canadian Governor-General Awards. I haven’t heard the radio show or the 2000 opera. The 1990 film adaptation features a lot of talent in the service of an adaptation that falls flat, reportedly, in part, due to internal conflicts over how to best adapt Atwood’s book.

It’s not an enviable task. Much of what works on the printed page, in a first-person monologue,1 simply does not translate to screen. Nevertheless, Hulu premiered its ten-part mini-series adaptation last night, and Bravo in Canada ran the first two episodes.2

Certainly, it’s more promising than the film….

Titles: “Offred” and “Birth Day”

Cast and Crew
Director: Reed Morano
Writers: Bruce Miller, from the novel by Margaret Atwood

Elisabeth Moss as Offred / June
Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred Waterford
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford
Alexis Bledel as Ofglen / Emily.
Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia
O. T. Fagbenle as Luke
Max Minghella as Nick
Samira Wiley as Moira
Madeline Brewer as Ofwarren / Janine
Amanda Brugel as Rita
Kristen Gutoskie as Beth
Jordana Blake as Hannah

Premise

In the near future3, various disasters and conflicts have destroyed and fragmented the United States. Apart from radioactive colonies and a “United States of America” based in Alaska, we have the state of Gilead, run by Taliban-like Christian Reconstructionist extremists. Few people can have children; fertile woman have been conscripted as “Handmaids” who bear children for the elite.

Offred attempts to navigate her oppressive new reality, with the hope she will find her daughter one day. In the first two episodes, we learn her backstory, meet the central characters, and discover, with Offred, that rebels exist. Of course, the state’s “Eyes” are everywhere.

High Points

The series does two things the movie did not:

1. It shares with us the point of view of Offred, and her humour in the face of severe adversity makes the character appealing.

2. It establishes the difficult blend of tones. The story, satiric and tragic, creates a sense of plausible dread while keeping its broad targets in view. This adaptation shares more than a little with the horror movie, a fact emphasized further by a strong score….

Low Points

….Though I quibble with the pop songs. “You Don’t Own Me” works in the credit sequence of “Offred,” but the all-too-familiar pop number from the 80s feels strangely out of place in “Birth Day.” YMMV.

Thus far, the movie lacks many of the historic hints from the novel that lent a demented, chilling plausibility to the rise of Gilead society. Some people who only know the film (or who don’t understand dystopic literature) have dismissed Atwood’s work as paranoid; this adaptation lets the satire speak for itself, while appealing to our awareness of just how repressive a society can become. But—thus far– we have to just accept that we get from here to there in a very short time.4

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 We have here a comparatively faithful adaptation of a novel that has been adapted a few times already.5

Effects: 4/6 Effects are few and unobtrusive, and mostly connected to killing.

Acting: 5/6 The film features an exemplary cast. Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss seems perfectly cast, and Orange is the New Black‘s Samira Wiley makes a strong Moira. I’m curious about Yvonne Strahovski’s version of Serena Joy, who seems far harsher than the novel’s parody of Tammy Faye Baker.

Story: 5/6 The story has been paced-well: slowly, deliberately, and with significant suspense.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Production: 6/6

Overall: 6/6 I need to balance its overall excellence against the lower scores in the first two categories.

In total, “Offred” and “Birth Day” receive 33/42

Notes

1. I am very interested in seeing whether the mini-series attempts the epilogue, written from a different perspective than the rest of novel.

2. Due to the serial nature of the story, the rest of the series will likely be reviewed in groupings of four.

3. In the timeline of the original novel, Gilead would exist now.

4. Then again, in the wake of the last US election, Atwood’s original novel became a bestseller again.

5. Among the changes: Atwood’s Gilead was also racist, and non-whites were resettled elsewhere. That element has been dropped, and some key characters (Moira, Luke) are African-American. I don’t know the specific reasons for the change, but, given that the novel already tackles sexual and religious oppression, it doesn’t especially need to address racism as well. And, as I’ve said, they’ve made an excellent choice in the casting of Moira.