What if right-wing religious extremists overthrow the government and impose an authoritarian theocracy in which women have no rights?
Welcome to The Handmaid’s Tale, the pre-Hunger Games, and pre-Divergent dystopia of your worst nightmares.
Whether or not you’ve read the book you’ll find this adaptation terrifying and too relevant for comfort. It’s also damned good filmmaking.
I was afraid to watch this adaptation for fear of being disappointed. I’m a die-hard fan of the book and of Ms. Atwood, and the 1990 film version left me underwhelmed.
The teasers and trailers Hulu dropped were compelling though, and I’d watch Elizabeth Moss in anything. Have you seen her in The Top of the Lake? So, of course, I binged the first three episodes like everyone else.
I wasn’t disappointed. The series is stunning, and many women may well need a moment to lie down after they watch. But just remember, everything in this book has happened or is happening to women (last scene in episode 3 ) in other parts of the world. That was the criteria Atwood set when she started writing the book.
One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available.- Margaret Atwood in The New York Times, March 10, 2017
This series may well surpass the novel in its power to frighten people, particularly American women, about the current state of our “democracy.” Why? Some very well thought out choices by director Reed Morano have (so far) enhanced the story in the book and made it more immediately frightening.
Morano is also a cinematographer, which explains the stunning visuals in the series. The use of color, light, and shadow are gorgeous. The camera work in the show is gorgeous and can be disturbing. The intense close-ups of lead actress Elizabeth Moss keep things claustrophobic, and the gorgeous shots juxtaposed with horrific atrocities (the wall, the rapist being um, sentenced) make for deeply disturbing viewing. In a good way.
Elizabeth Moss as Offred narrates parts of episodes, and this is crucial for viewers to understand her thoughts and get the context of the story. We’re dropped in the middle of this craziness without any idea of what is happening. Since the story is very much an interior one, the narration is essential. It also serves a kind of intimacy with the character, because it feels as if she’s speaking only to us.
Costume designer Ane Crabtree told The Hollywood Reporter that she tested tons of different reds because not only did it have to look good on all skin tones, “we wanted it to look like liquid blood.” The red also had to look good on camera with the blue the wives use. The costumes look exactly as you imagined after reading the book.
Expanding the Story
A risky decision by the director to add scenes not in the book has been (thus far) flawlessly executed. The scenes give us a deeper look into Gilead, the nation that has sprung up after the U.S. government is overthrown. Particularly powerful is the opening chase sequence, which is referenced in the book but not shown. Also, all the scenes of Offred’s memories of the recent past, of her life and society before the overthrow are wonderfully done and poignant in light of her present situation.
The Tyranny is in Your Face
Who knew that would be so necessary just now. The show does a masterful job of juxtaposing Offred’s present life against the relatively normal (except for widespread infertility) past. The juxtaposition of the gorgeous visuals against the horrific events also maintains the tension and fear.
One way the director conveys the political chaos is by putting us in the middle of it, which never happens in the book. The scene at the coffee shop, the demonstration that turns into a massacre, the hospital scene after she has her daughter, these scenes add fear and immediacy which is exactly what the story needs on screen.
I love love love the fact that producers/director whoever made Offred’s marriage interracial and her best friend black. In the novel, the revolution rounds up Blacks and sends them out to another area of the country, in effect deporting them. This is mentioned briefly in the text.
The use of music in the show is brilliant. Alternately horrifying, ironic and hilarious, there are quite a few songs from te 2980s here that are deployed in a way rarely seen on television. The music is punctuation, emphasis, commentary…all used to tell the story, not score it. Particularly blood-curdling is the music in the last scene of episode 3. Holy Mother of God.
Margaret Atwood has a cameo for a split second in episode 1 and it’s deliciously violent. She smacks the isht out of Offred in the “center” during the scene in which they’re slut-shaming the victim of a rape. Offred has trouble pointing at the woman and shouting “your fault” like all the others, and she’s slapped for her hesitance. I screamed in delight when I saw her.
The series continues streaming on Hulu on Wednesday nights with different directors.
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