In high school, I had to do a project called an “extended reading.” They were sort of the worst things ever, but alas, I was in AP English and they were required. Extended readings were used to make sure we knew a broad range of literature that we could write about/needed to know about for the AP exam come April. So, each student in my class would choose a book to read and then give a spoiler-ridden presentation on to the class. The presentation was supposed to offer an in-depth summary of the work, themes, motifs, character biographies, etc. Basically, people should felt that they actually read the book by the end of your presentation. I hated public speaking in high school, so I got hives everytime I stood at the front of the room to give my presentation. So, what does this trip down memory lane have to do with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Well, my senior year of high school, my AP English teacher recommended I read it and present it to my class.
So, I read the novel. It was one of the first books, besides maybe To Kill A Mockingbird, that I read for class that I loved. Honestly, I loved the way it was written, I found the storyline fascinating, and I just could not put the novel down. I built a reading schedule, but quickly surpassed all of my goals and finished the novel in a matter of days. When Hulu decided to come out with a TV version of the book, I was hesitant. I was scared it wouldn’t live up to my impression of the book and would fail to capture the essence of the Atwood’s words.
In September, I finally sat down to watch the show. I was hesitant but had been told several times it was amazing. The show also won a ton of Emmys, so I decided maybe it was worth watching. I sat down in bed to watch one episode and was hooked. I ended up watching three in a row. I finished the show within a week but re-watched portions a second time, just as I had re-read portions of the book years before. The show tweaked some aspects of the book, but I felt most tweaks were appropriate and didn’t detract from the overarching message and themes of the book.
Elisabeth Moss did an incredible, incredible job playing Offred/June. Honestly, I think she brought emotion and rawness to the character that was even better than the book. Due to the clinical nature of the world created by Atwood, sometimes emotions didn’t come through as well in written form, but the acting of the Hulu cast was powerful. The subtle emotions, the complete outbursts, the debilitating fear an uneasiness…the cast portrayed that well. I heard someone complain the acting was too mechanical. Ironically, it’s supposed to be mechanical. It’s supposed to feel cold and detached while highlighting small moments of hope and integrity and resistance.
I particularly enjoyed seeing the build-up to how Gilead formed. I think when I read the book, as a somewhat naive seventeen-year-old girl, I thought, “Oh this could never happen.” Today, I’m not so sure. Quiet movements led by enraged, blame-focused groups seem real. The stripping of women’s rights doesn’t seem far off as we, women, have yet to receive all the rights we should. I think watching people walk through the beginning of Gilead thinking, “oh, it’s fine. They’ll never get their way,” and then watching those same people struggle with the fallout, the rights-stripping, and the dehumanizing behavior of Gilead leadership is uncomfortable in the best way. At the end of the day, “that would never happen,” is the wrong mentality to have when you think someone problematic is gaining traction. “That would never happen” is essentially a call for the unimaginable, the seemingly impossible to make itself realized. I think if the TV Handmaid’s Tale gives us anything its the message that passivity is detrimental. We shouldn’t need our world to become Gilead to push change or resistance to problematic movements and ideologies.
Offred is strong as hell and though she’s inherently feminine – seeing as her driving force is getting her daughter back, which is maternal – she pushes boundaries, she questions her Commander, she pushes back in the slightest ways that seem insignificant at the moment, but provide hope to those of us clinging to the edge of the book or sitting tense on our couches watching Elisabeth Moss say, “is this bullshit life enough for you?” Because it’s not enough for her. Though Offred is in the worst situation, she convinces herself that Gilead is temporary… that the wrongs of the leadership will be corrected, overthrown, people will gain their rights back. However, this is important insofar as it reminds us that all of this was absent when Gilead leadership bulldozed the country into submission.
I don’t want to spoil the show, as I think it’s a must-see, but I will say there were moments that made my stomach turn. There were moments when I wanted to scream at characters (specifically Serena Joy, who helped create the society that then stripped her dignity and belittled her intellect). I think shows like this, however, are uncommon, and I think the writing is just as powerful as Atwood’s novel is. So, if you haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale… I encourage you to do so!