Confession time: I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
This is obviously nowhere near as shocking as if I had announced I am pregnant with quintuplets or that I don’t know who Beyonce is, but it feels like a personal failure that I haven’t picked this book up yet. I’ve even read the likes of The Power by Naomi Alderman and Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill which have both been compared to Atwood’s novel.
Furthermore, I’ve committed the ultimate reader sin of watching the TV show before reading the book. And I would be ashamed except the first episode of Hulu’s adaptation (shown on Channel 4 here in the UK) was so good.
Before watching it, I had a fairly solid idea of the premise from the amount of times I had come across the book and its blurb. Just a quick heads up that this will be a pretty spoiler-filled review of the first episode, but not of the whole story because I don’t know it myself yet. Here are just a few of my thoughts – I had to condense my original notes quite a lot as there was so much to talk about!
So, we’re thrown straight into the action with shaky camera, sirens and a sense of panic, although it isn’t revealed what about. I think that dystopians always work best this way, rather than explaining the history before entering the narrative. It forces you to adjust and puts the viewer/reader in a tentative state of temporary ignorance. The flashbacks worked well to drip-feed little bits of the past and provide clarity without an information dump, although they began to feel too frequent as the episode went on. Personally, that’s how I like to experience these future worlds – with the same sense of unease and uncertainty as the main character. The constant switching of the two timelines of past and present threw me a little as I couldn’t become fully immersed in either timeframe. That’s a very small fault I found with the storytelling though.
I first encountered Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, who I loved, and she proves her acting abilities and versatility as Offred. Her narration works incredibly well – she’s funny and sarcastic in her thoughts, whilst her speech is brief and submissive:
Ofglen: Offred? Are you okay?
Offred: Yes. (pious little shit) Very well, thank you.
Her quick-witted, biting internal dialogue instantly made me love her character.
The handmaids’ outfits were somewhat disconcerting in contrast to the modern setting of the supermarket and surrounded by the advanced technology of machine guns.
What this episode really succeeded in was subtlety. We didn’t need Offred to tell us that being gay was considered a crime when we saw the hanged men. We didn’t need to be told that women were denied access to simple education because there were pictures instead of words on products and signs. I don’t like being spoon-fed dystopian societies, but instead prefer to discover them for myself, as it just further underlines what has become the norm for the characters.
Religion was an interesting factor. They’re told that ‘fertility is a gift directly from God’, and ‘praise be’ is an automatic response. I’ll be intrigued to see how this plays out in the rest of the series. I couldn’t help recoiling when the religious readings played over the scene when Offred is used for sex; the juxtaposition was jarring at the very least. And so creepy.
When they pointed their fingers and chanted at the poor girl in the middle that it was ‘her fault’… It just reminded me of a physical representation of online slut-shaming, when comments section are flooded with similar words and women are blamed for their bodies.
It feels like I’ve only skimmed the surface of what this episode had to offer, let alone the whole series. I am even more inclined to read the book now as I can only imagine that, as the original text, Margaret Atwood’s work has a much more fleshed-out, in-depth explanation of Offred’s world. That’s the biggest aspect that has got me hooked: I am desperate to find out more about how this society came into being. The links that are frighteningly close to our culture, like the slut-shaming comparison, make me feel like I have so much more to learn from this story. On a final note, I nearly cheered when Samira Wiley came on screen and the whole show just became even better due to her mere presence. I have an embarrassingly huge crush on her ever since seeing her in Orange Is The New Black.
Have you watched the first episode yet? Or have you actually read the book? What do you think of the adaptation?