Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was prescient when it was published in 1985, and it feels even more so today. Nonetheless, the eerie work of social science-fiction is a difficult one to translate from the page. (A 1990 film version, even with a screenplay by playwright Harold Pinter, couldn’t quite focus its intentions.) Sensing the time is ripe, however, online streaming service Hulu is tackling the story as a 10-episode series.
In a near-future America, brought low by civil war and a plague which has reduced fertility to record lows, Christian fundamentalist forces have taken over society at large. Here, unmarried women are forced into indentured servitude to the more privileged (and allegedly more pious) members of society. Using the Bible as their rule book, totalitarian religious authorities force these young women to serve primarily as breeding stock for infertile wives.
Our main character here is Offred (the extraordinary Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men”), a seemingly meek and servile handmaid to The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his frigid wife (Yvonne Strahovski). But inside, Offred’s internal monologue lets us know just how rebellious she really is, as she fantasizes about mowing down every pious bastard with a machine gun, reuniting with her (illegal) daughter and fleeing the country. Flashbacks give us a taste of what our main character’s life was like before the revolution took place and how she was forced to become a handmaid.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect star for this than Moss. Her past work as Peggy on “Mad Men” proves she can project the exact mixture of timid and angry that this character needs. The rest of the cast, including Alexis Bledel as a fellow handmaid with a secret, is equally up to the task.
Atwood’s feminist tale is a tough nut to crack, partially because it avoids any typical trappings of sci-fi. In that sense, it’s more speculative fiction than science fiction. Visually, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is extraordinarily old-fashioned, with half the cast running around looking like Amish nuns. But this is what it looks like when conservative forces want to turn back the clock, stifle scientific advancement and curtail human rights. Smart production design is mixed with a handful of timely references (Über, Tinder) to make the show feel both otherworldly and frighteningly plausible.
The story itself (following Atwood’s design) is rather slow and extraordinarily glum. But the show has a fine sense of pacing, dropping in the occasional exciting sequence (such as the chase that opens the show) to keep things moving. It also plays up the book’s sense of paranoia, with handmaids forced to spy on one another and well-armed religious forces standing on every street corner. This gives the whole show a dark, tense atmosphere.
With today’s ruling political forces promising to “Make America Great Again,” you could easily argue that the retro-cautionary story “The Handmaid’s Tale” offers up couldn’t be more timely. Credit to Hulu for giving Atwood’s enduring work the attention it deserves.