By Transmute Jun
Remember back in high school when you were forced to read a whole bunch of books in which you had little to no interest as part of your English class? Most of those books were probably dull and you don’t remember them, or maybe you just don’t want to remember them. But occasionally, there was a book that was good, one that you actually enjoyed reading, that you devoured from front to back. And maybe that book stuck with you, and you kept that old high school copy, sitting on a shelf in your home, waiting to be read again.
For me, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was such a book. Long before dystopian YA novels became a thing, Atwood’s story about Offred, a woman forced in a fundamentalist society to become a baby breeder for important military officials, struck a chord with me, detailing a future I would never want yet could see happening all the same. I was excited to learn of a film based on the novel, yet deeply disappointed when the movie didn’t capture the edge-of-your seat intensity I felt when reading the book and skipped over much of what I felt was essential storyline. I mentally filed that movie away in the dusty backlog of my mind, rarely thinking about it again.
And then a couple of months ago, I heard that Hulu was making The Handmaid’s Tale into a series. I have to admit, my heart jumped in excitement. Perhaps this time, with ten full episodes instead of a measly 100 minutes, the creators would be able to properly recreate the story that had captured my imagination all of those years ago. I was even more pleased when I saw that Margaret Atwood herself would be both a writer and producer for the series. My hopes were high.
I was right to be excited. I recently saw the first three episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and as a fan of the original novel, I am happy to report that while not one hundred percent faithful to everything in the book, the series sticks very closely to the original story, modifying it mostly to update the tale to modern times (which have changed since the book was written in the mid-1980s). Additionally, The Handmaid’s Tale series adds in a few scenes with characters other than Offred (who, as the first person narrator of the book, is a part of every scene in the novel), most notably Ofglen.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the future United States (only it’s now known as Gilead). The birth rate has dropped to near zero and many of the women who get pregnant deliver dead or deformed babies. As such, a healthy woman with the capacity to bear healthy children is a valuable resource. A religious fundamentalist paramilitary group assassinated the members of Congress and took over the country, eliminating freedoms in the name of safety and security, until the rights of almost every citizen were severely diminished. Women were relegated to becoming property and as the strictures became more severe, many people tried to escape. The Handmaid’s Tale begins with Offred (before she had that name) making an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border on the northern side of Maine, only to be caught. As a fertile woman who had already borne a child, she was sent to the Red Center and educated as a Handmaid. Handmaids are technically revered in this society, yet they are prisoners because of their fertility, strictly monitored and punished for the smallest infraction, and forced to yield their bodies to the men to whom they have been assigned but whom they will never marry. The ultimate goal of a Handmaid is to bear at least one child in this manner, and this is Offred’s fate. As a Handmaid, she has no identity other than as property. Even her name ‘Of-Fred’ demonstrates that she is owned by the man of the house. And should she bear a child, it will belong to her owner and his wife, and she will never see it again.
Being used to freedom and equality, Offred has learned how to be openly submissive, yet she survives by retaining her sense of identity and self-worth despite the restrictive environment in which she now lives. Her story not only depicts life in this dystopian world, but her struggle to regain the very things our society currently takes for granted.
Inhabitants of Gilead dress in colors to define their roles in society and while these colors are bright enough to be evident in the show, they are not so bright as to make the environment seem happy or frivolous. Scenes of near-normalcy contrast with images we viewers never see in our daily lives, highlighting the differences in The Handmaid’s Tale’s society. As we are drawn into Offred’s world, we see how others are integrated within and how the sanctions imposed by the government rule over all, teaching the remaining inhabitants to live in fear. Can such a system survive, especially in the face of those who continue to resist? Will Offred, and those around her, be subsumed by the roles that society demands for them?
I can’t wait to keep watching and find out for myself.
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres on Hulu on April 26. Will you be watching? Join the conversation on FoCC!