Though familiar with the novel and its concept during my years studying English, I had never read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. When Hulu announced that they would be adapting the dystopian novel into a ten-episode series, I immediately downloaded it to my e-reader and found myself so engrossed in this story that the show’s premiere in April cannot come fast enough.
The Republic of Gilead
The Handmaid’s Tale opens with the narrator, a Handmaid named Offred, slowly describing not only the state of things as they are for her at that moment, but also sharing, in bits and pieces over time, how her life and the world around her have changed. Initially published in 1985, this story is set in our own near-future. A coup led by a religious extremist group called The Sons of Jacob leads to the deaths of the executive and legislative branches of the United States government. As a result, the Constitution is suspended purportedly until order can be restored. Instead, The Sons of Jacob impose a theocratic and hierarchical social order in their newly created Republic of Gilead where men hold all of the power and women’s right no longer exist.
Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have caused widespread sterility so the women of Gilead are segregated by their fertility, which becomes their only function within this new social order. Women that are sterile or too old to bear children are labeled “Unwomen” and sent to “the Colonies” where they are forced to clean up toxic waste or, if lucky, farm and pick crops. The women of the men in charge become “Wives,” the highest status a woman can achieve. The women who serve them become “Marthas,” clad in white and keeping house among other duties. Women who are childbearing age and especially those who have borne children before become “Handmaids,” assigned to the homes of the men of the regime in an effort to produce children. Monthly, the men attempt to fertilize their Handmaids in a Ceremony, which is essentially forced rape committed with the Wife in attendance. The men of regime themselves are also assigned to classes. Offred lives as a Handmaid to the Commander, a man named Fred (Offred = Of Fred), who she implies is a high-ranking official, and his Wife, Serena Joy, herself formerly a televangelist. Nick is his driver and supposedly an Eye, a spy for the government.
Much of the novel is spent with Offred offering crumbs of information, tracing her de-evolution from an educated and employed woman with a husband and child to Handmaid, without the right to read, a refugee from a past and a family she remembers with reluctance and relish. Atwood’s story was a quick read for me, which means I probably will read the novel again before the show’s premiere in April. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the show do the same.
Ten Episodes on Hulu
Like Netflix and Amazon, the streaming service Hulu has started producing its own original programming, including shows like 11/22/63 and The Path. The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26th with a schedule ten-episode run. The show features Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) as Offred, Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth) as the Commander, Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter, The Astronaut Wives Club) as Serena Joy, Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, and more. The cast looks stellar and, from the looks of the trailer, the show looks as haunting as the novel itself.
While we wait for the show’s premiere, the previous cinematic version of The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), which stars Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall, appears to be unavailable to stream and is currently out of print on DVD. This previous version will be rereleased on DVD and Blu Ray just before the Hulu series premieres in April. The novel itself is available at your local library and any major retailer either in hard copy or for your e-reader.
Look for my review of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale here on Sister Geeks in early May.