The Handmaid’s Tale: “Offred” and “Birth Day”

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.

7 replies on “The Handmaid’s Tale: “Offred” and “Birth Day””

  1. JG says:

    Thanks for the review. I agree, largely, but wanted to note that one of my favorite moments of these episodes was the pop song usage that you objected to. I’ll be vague to avoid spoilery stuff, but my thought was (a) Offred, though she’s presumably about a decade younger than this Xer, would still be likely to have grown up knowing both the song and its signature use in *that* film, and (b) there was a wonderful bit of parallelism in the scene in HT and the corresponding scene in that 80s classic. I was tickled. Perhaps the humor of the juxtaposition was a bit over the top for you?

    P.S. Not to make a big deal of it, but I dislike the penalty adapted works take in your scoring system, due to the obligatory low “originality” score. Not that anyone’s necessarily relying on that final x/42 number, but I’ve seen many otherwise top-rated works look mediocre in the finally tally. Similarly I find it strange that works that don’t really rely on effects lose a bit on that axis.

    • Brian says:

      It’s not the first time our rubrics have been questioned (here or in emails among ourselves).
      We’re probably overdue for another discussion. We don’t have to have it hear, maybe we’ll brainstorm behind-the-scenes and then open the discussion up for public commentary/inquiry/mockery.

      (Full disclosure: I’m the “genius” that created the rubric to shoehorn our scores into “42” points)

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      It was a small point for me but, yeah, I thought the scene would have played better without it. Tone is tricky in a production like this one. I suspect a lot of people would share your opinion, however.

      And, yeah, we’ve often argued about the rating system. In the end, I find the comments more useful than some final “score.”

  2. J_W_W says:

    As a Christian, I have zero interest in this series. I am even more turned off by the fact that certain political factions are heralding it as “spookily predictive” (see your footnote #4)

    Not interested in watching a series based on strawman, blasé, and incorrect stereotypes of my religion.

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      You can watch or not watch, of course, but:
      (1) it is satire of certain attitudes, and not any one religion. Many of the people who find it predictive are looking at the potential loss of gains made recently by women. Obviously, there are shots directed at religious extremism of the particular shading found in America. And satire is rarely fair.
      (2) the novel, certainly, makes it clear that many of the rebels are devout members of various Christian factions who oppose Gilead. It has been less clear here, but one of the characters does bemoan the destruction of a Catholic cathedral– a direct parallel with actions taken by the Taliban, recently, and the Puritans, in Cromwell’s England.

      One of the things that struck me about the original novel is how many of the extremist elements had already happened, somewhere, though not to the same degree. I didn’t see it as characterizing all Christians in this way, however.

    • zocalo says:

      Agree with JD – “You can watch or not watch, of course, but…”

      Genuine question as I’ve not read the book yet (it’s on the list), but is it *really* fundamental Christianity that is specifically in Atwood’s firing line, or is that more the result of the familiar setting (obviously deliberately chosen to resonate with her readers) and it is actually religious extremism in general that is being targetted?

      I get the impression that you could easily relocate the setting to several other areas of the world where other religions are dominant, change a few names/locations to suit, and the story would still stand as is. Depending on where that is, the devout rebels mentioned by JD could just as easily be bemoaning the loss of a mandir, mosque, synagogue, temple, or whatever else, instead of a cathedral. In some contemporary IRL locations, I suspect the victims of that fundamentalism might even say it probably doesn’t even come close to the reality of the horrors they’ve witnessed.

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