After over 30 years, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) gets its harrowing TV adaptation and even the mighty author herself cannot believe the raw impact made by its disturbing premise on screen. Watching, rather than reading, the horrors of enslavement, subjugation, rape and mutilation faced by women in the service of men in her alternate apocalyptic universe has terrified many of the impending doom of the earth. She created a world where humanity is, yet again, on the brink of extinction by none other than the inability to procreate. The book and TV show’s protagonist Offred, a headstrong and independent woman, previously named June, has her little daughter taken away from her and is forced to survive as a meek and submissive handmaid to serve the needs of the influential men.
The Republic of Gilead, a patriarchal theocracy that has taken over the United States of America, strives to maintain its dying population by collecting all the remaining fertile women it can find and forcing them to bear children for powerful men. After an epidemic that leaves most the world infertile, men still cannot treat women as their equals and think they can survive without the help of the ‘weaker’ sex. The TV show perfectly encapsulates the brutal reality of Gilead by showing us smaller horrors on a day to day basis rather than the big horrors that we cannot comprehend. One such incident is when the protagonist Offred’s room gets its chandelier removed because the previous handmaid of the house hanged herself from it to escape the life of a breeding tool. It goes to show that handmaids can never escape their fate and their lives are not their own anymore. The Red Centers, where they are trained, teaches the saying “Blessed are the meek”.
Atwood’s dystopian society was inspired by many historical precedents like the Lebensborn program of Nazi Germany created to encourage birth rates, enforced dress codes, state surveillance and book burning. The timelessness of the show’s adaptation can be seen from its premiere so soon after the election of leaders like President Donald Trump. Though it is never wrong to be skeptical about book to screen adaptations, Atwood’s portrayal of the masterpiece from 1985 cannot be written off as unoriginal. The pain and suffering of handmaids has been marvelously conveyed by Offred, played by the brilliant actress Elizabeth Moss on screen, as she is silently raped by the man of the house, titled commander, every month right in front of his wife in a sacred ‘ceremony’. The agony felt by characters for losing their families or being damned and hanged for being gay or having jobs that only men should have in this patriarchal world is gut-wrenching in this ten-episode season. The future seems quite bleak when having your eyes plucked out for noncompliance is as disheartening as having your new-born baby ripped from your hands and given to be raised by the commander’s wife.
Adapting the book for the current decade makes the TV show go off-book in the right areas. Using flashbacks to compare Offred’s life to her earlier life as June makes us realize how much the world has changed and how women can no longer control their own lives. June and other women around the world realize that they can’t earn an income or own land and must depend on their male relatives for basic necessities. ATM screens deny her withdrawals and shopkeepers call her a ‘slut’ for demanding her basic rights. Strangely, the comparably minor injustices do not shock us very much since almost every woman today has endured unsolicited misogyny from strangers at some point in their lives.
By taking a hard look at the current state of our world, we need to consider the hypocritical and misogynistic view that drives most of our political figures and leaders. The show does not hold back any of the gruesome details when portraying the Gilead government being fully controlled by men and making decisions relating to women and their bodies without their consent. The idea behind the show has resonated with women around the world and has led to protests and marches in the iconic red robes and white bonnet outfits of Atwood’s handmaid that demonstrates support among women in times of struggle and signifies their fight for freedom. The timely story of Margaret Atwood has got a brilliant TV adaptation and continues to be promoted with the help of standout performances on screen by Elizabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. We can only hope that adaptations like these will continue to shock and inspire us so that humanity can change its course in time from doomsday towards a much brighter future.