Not Without My Bonnet–Why is The Handmaiden’s Tale Such a Snoozefest?

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I had heard of the Handmaiden’s Tale years before the series but knew little about it. I distinctly recall seeing the cover of the novel in book stores and being impressed with the graphics. Being a graphic designer I could appreciate the arresting, and simple yet powerful image of the dreaded red cloak and white bonnet. However I assumed it was a period piece and had made notes to myself (in my head) to look into what the book was about as I do like historical fiction, this it is more or less the only fiction I read. I get bored with most fiction, which is why I like historical fiction as I then feel like I am learning something. I am also a history buff and even considered majoring in history while in college. It was not until years later when the series came out that I found out what it was really about, and I was even more intrigued.

I always meant to pick up the book but with a busy life and full-time job it never happened. I also wanted to watch the series but with subscriptions to both Netflix and Amazon Prime I did not want to take on another streaming service. Then about eight months ago I cancelled my Netflix account as I found I could never find anything I wanted to watch and spent more time on YouTube. Down to only one streaming platform I decided to give Hulu a go with the main reason being to watch The Handmaiden’s Tale. I wish I could report that I watched every episode with engrossed attention, pulled in by intricate plot lines and clever dialogue that would draw direct parallels to past and present day geo-political events. But this was not the case. I was expecting a smart, cerebral, intellectual story with over arching geo-political elements and historical references in a West World like fable that made one think. But what I got instead was a dystopian soap opera with much of the focus being on the inner emotional worlds of the characters, predominantly the main character.

I have not read the novel so I cannot and will not give my opinions on it. But the novel is crafted as being written as diary entries of one women who lives as a sexual handmaiden under a religious totalitarian government that was once the United States. The book, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985 takes place in a non-specified future, in a portion of the former United States that is now known as Gilead. Margaret Atwood says she was prompted to write it as she saw parallels between the rise of the religious right in the U.S. and totalitarian societies like those of the Middle East and other parts of the world. From the series alone, I would never guess that Margaret Atwood was a student of history or current geo-political events. However when researching her past, she actually is quite versed in these topics. Sadly much of this is absent in the series. For example in one of the scenes in Season 1 we see traditional churches being burned, and priests hanging from a wall. This is because the new regime only wants its religion, or movement based on the Book of Job, and called The Sons of Job to be the law of the land. However I found this out online, not via the series.

Though, Atwood herself has said that The Handmaiden’s Tale is not science fiction, but speculative fiction. Written from the perspective of one person living under the control of a totalitarian society, in an extreme claustrophobic environment with little access to the outside world, the main character Offred, can only report on what is happening in her very small environment. This premise may work for a novel or even a ninety to a hundred and twenty minute film, but an on going series? Not so much. Reading a book and watching a film or series are two very different was of telling a story, and it is the reason why books and novels are “adapted” for the screen.

But the novel seems to be more of an emotional introspective study on what it would be like for an individual once use to
living with freedom, to now being enslaved with all rights removed.

I feel like The Handmaiden’s Tale is one of those books you either love or hate, or at least that is the impression I get from reading the reviews of the novel on Amazon. Again, I have not read it so I can give my opinion of the novel, but I have read complaints where readers are frustrated that there is very little information or plot-line as to the uprising itself, what led to it, how did it happen, how did the rest of the country not see what was coming, etc. Many reviewers wanted to know more about this aspect of the story, and not just follow along in the interior world of the narrator. I guess many readers were expecting dystopian science fiction which is generally very detailed in it’s references to history, current geo-political events or technological advances. But the novel seems to be more of an emotional introspective study on what it would be like for an individual once use to living with freedom, to now being enslaved with all rights removed. And one does not have to look very far for real world scenarios that parallel this idea. After all, before the over throw of the Shah in Iran, albite not a full on democracy—women had a fair amount of freedom which they lost once the religious right took over.

Margaret Atwood has stated the everything in the book was referenced to events that happened not just in countries like the Middle East or Romania but also other parts of Europe and the United States. She speaks of the Puritans and how they really were a monolithic theocracy, and how the idea of utopian idealism is often at the heart of these kinds of movements. The Nazi party for example was not a religious movement, and for all intents and purposes it was really a cult. And, it even had actual breeding farms, where the goal was to breed the perfect Aryan race. So in many ways the ideas in Margaret Atwood‘s book are spot on. And from what I know the novel excels in its details and it’s graphic imagery which does carry over to the televised series quite successfully. The actors do an excellent job with the material they have been given. And the art direction, cinematography, and costume design are stellar and award winning.

The biggest problem I have with The Handmaiden’s Tale series is the lack of a substantial plot-line, with little to almost no attention paid to the uprising itself. Who exactly are these people-the people who formed Gilead? What prompted them to overthrow the government, and how were they able to do this successfully? How did the rest of the country not see this coming? What part of the United States physically encompasses Gilead? Are there sympathizers in other countries for this movement? And really what is the movement itself about beyond Puritanism and the control of women’s bodies. In the novel similar to P D James’s Children of Men in the future there is a problem with wide spread infertility, in this case due to the environment. An interesting idea indeed.

But for me that is really the issue with The Handmaiden’s Tale there are a lot of interesting ideas and wonderful graphical details like the red cloaks and white bonnets, making women who are forced to wear them stand out in society much like The Scarlet Letter. But sadly, there is not much of a substantial storyline in the series, and some say the book as well. I liked the first season to a degree, but even the first season bored me quite a bit. Although I loved the visuals and was initially intrigued by the first season, I was still frustrated with the lack of a storyline. But I kept watching, hoping it would get better with a more advanced plot, it never did. It was just long takes of the characters either glaring at the camera, or staring off into space, broken up with long musical montages, which are visually arresting and fun to watch, but again nothing happens. And when the characters do speak the subject matter and the dialog itself is often uninteresting and reminds me of the type of dialog one would hear in a soap opera. Other times it sounds down right childish. Literally in one scene the characters say “no you are!” in a discussion on who is more guilty of not being a nice person. Seriously.

Over time instead of getting better the plot becomes even more mellow dramatic, and I often feel like I am watching a series made for LifeTime, or a tearjerker like “Not Without My Daughter“. Thin plot lines where the goal is just to be super emotional and entertain people via cheap emotional thrills—or lack there of. Many people complain that The Handmaiden’s Tale is torture porn or misery porn, which I can understand. That is the problem—there is such a thin plot, that one feels like you are just watching an unending montage of gloom. It is short on intellect and long on emotional mellow drama. It can also be very contrived with some characters being punished severely like having their eyes gouged out for for talking back, while the main character rebels and breaks the law repeatedly and is never punished etc. I also found the characters to not be particularly believable. In totalitarian societies when one is tortured or punished it is to keep people in line—and it works. In the series the characters often seemed like overly emotionally reactionary teenagers that are rebelling against their strict parents, not a totalitarian society that uses torture to enforce its will. For a series that is purportedly about the strength of women in such difficult situations, they seem childish and not particularly cerebral.

It is a shame because the series could have been so much more. There is so much historical references and current geo-political events both in the U.S. as well across the globe for the writers of the series to draw upon. I ultimately gave up watching it, as quite frankly, I was bored to tears. I would find my mind wandering, thinking about the chores I had to do, or what I should make for dinner or what I had to pick up at the store. It got the point where watching paint dry would be more interesting. It was disappointing, I really wanted to like this series. I stuck it out for three seasons, kind of, I did not finish season three, as I really did not care what happened to any of the characters. And I got tired of waiting for the more interesting aspects of the story to develop, because they never did. What say you? Did you read the novel? If so what did you think? Did you watch the series? If so did you like it? If you watched Season 4, tell me does it get any better? Do we learn more about the outside world and rebellion itself? Or does it continue in the same vein…

First photo via Cosmopolitian.com and second photo via LiteraryTraveler.com

XOXO
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39 Comments
  • Mariann Yip
    April 13, 2021

    Interesting thoughts! Amazing insights about this! Love your views!
    Lots of love.
    Mariann Yip

  • Jennifer
    April 13, 2021

    I actually like the show but I haven’t read the book.

    Jennifer
    Curated By Jennifer

  • Kathrine Eldridge
    April 13, 2021

    Thanks for you thoughts on this series. I have not seen it and have not read the book but have heard so much about it. I might have to pass after seeing how unimpressed you are with it. With so much on TV now, we have to be discerning.

    https://www.kathrineeldridge.com

  • Ivana Split
    April 13, 2021

    I read the book a long time ago (for a dystopian class I was taking) and loved it, but then again, I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood and have enjoyed everything she has written so far so I always knew I would like it. I have heard of this series but I don’t have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or any streaming option. I generally don’t follow any TV series. I think I heard generally good things about this series online, but I haven’t read any detailed reviews so far. Your give an in-depth review of this series- and I can understand your points. The lack of sub-plot and good writing is something that can undermine every series, no matter how good the actors, the photography and costume design is- writing is what counts the most in the end. If actors aren’t given good lines, there is only as much as they can do with them. The novel is emotional but there is a strong message behind it. Moreover, the novel feels quite realistic. It seems that this adaptation leaves much to be desired. It’s a shame you couldn’t enjoy it.

  • Margot
    April 13, 2021

    I first read the novel and I really loved it. Then I watched the tv show and I personally think the TV show went too far. When I read the novel I feel like this dystopia could actually become our reality but more seasons go in this tv show and more it seems like nothing will ever happen to the main character.
    I’m glad to hear here I’m not the only one to think that.
    That’s what annoy me the most in this tv show. I think the main character is far to be the most interesting one.
    I also really loved the fact that the first book ends with an open ending. I love when the end is free to to the reader or actually the viewer if it’s a movie.
    I read the second novel not so long ago and I got quite disappointed about it. I love the way we learnt more about this universe and others characters but It felt like she got inspired by the tv show and tried to give a suite to the main character which I think was not necessary. But once again it’s free to the reader to think what they want.
    It was really interesting to read your opinion about this tv show. I’ll still probably watch the new season even if the main character annoy me a lot.
    xx
    Margot
    https://troughthepasturesofthesky.com

    • alimackin@gmail.com
      April 14, 2021

      I am curious to read the book now. Too bad the writing was not better on the show I was so looking forward to watching this.

  • Hena Tayeb
    April 13, 2021

    Interesting point of view. I do watch the series and did enjoy it initially. Though I’m not sure enjoy is the word I’d use.
    Over the past seasons it has gotten very dramatic and make less sense plus Elizabeth Moss’ angry face does get annoying after a while.
    I don’t think I ready to give up on it just yet.

    • alimackin@gmail.com
      April 14, 2021

      I feel bad for her, she must be super fed up with just glaring at the camera all the time.

  • Tayane Ribeiro
    April 14, 2021

    I love this series. I haven’t been able to read the book or the sequel yet, but the series is the kind of production you’ve watched and parallels the current world. The book was written in 85, the story still seems very current and an imminent reminder of what could happen if we let the wrong idea be put into practice.

    And I also understand your reservations with the story, there are a lot of things that made my eyes roll in the production, but in the end, I was not able to leave the series until I finished watching.
    xo

  • Rashmi
    April 14, 2021

    Amazing insights …thanks for sharing dear 🙂
    Beauty and Fashion/Rampdiary/Glamansion

  • Michelle
    April 14, 2021

    I read the book, probably around 25 years ago. I thought it was well-done. Horrifically, well done. I also knew the series would never be able to do the book justice. I watched one random episode and found I was correct.

    Michelle
    https://mybijoulifeonline.com

  • Pablo
    April 14, 2021

    Hey Allie, I hope you’re doing well!

    It was a really interesting reading, specially after watching the show. I must confess I “enjoyed” (not sure if that’s the word) the first season, but the 2nd one and the 3rd one got too repetitive and as you said I feel that the plot is kinda empty at this point. I have to say that the main character almost feels like Wonder Woman since nothing can’t kill her and they are breaking many rules established in the first episodes of the show.

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m curious to know about the development of the main character, and I know there is a sequel too. Despite that I have read other books by Margaret Atwood and I liked the way she gets into the character’s mind. Maybe what we need are another points of views (different characters leading the action) when it comes to the tv show, but I feel they are going too far and just expanding Offred’s suffering.

    But well as you well said there are many things related to the art direction that are really good! Not sure if I will keep watching season 4, it took me months to end the 3rd season.

    Best!
    Pablo
    http://www.heyfungi.com

  • Tiziana
    April 14, 2021

    Oh this show is still on my watchlist but I heard so many good things about it! Great thoughts, I also didn´t knew that it´s based on a book. Maybe I read that before the show 🙂
    have a great day,
    Tiziana
    http://www.tizianaolbrich.de

  • Ashley
    April 14, 2021

    Loved reading your thoughts on the show, Allie! I have never read the book, but did give the show a try for a few episodes. I have to tell you, and it could just be me with a weak stomach and emotions, but I couldn’t get through any more episodes than that. I know the storyline is sad in itself and they wanted to showcase that, but the graphic nature of watching these women forced to have sex was absolutely horrific to watch. I think it was enough to maybe note what was happening, but to fully show so much of that was so disturbing. I found myself so depressed even after I quit watching it once I thought about it, so I couldn’t continue watching it.

    It’s amazing how many people are absolutely hooked on the show though, which is totally fine. Maybe it’s like you mentioned with the reviews you saw on the books, you sort of either love it or hate it.

    Wishing you the brightest day, friend!

    Make Life Marvelous

  • Emmy
    April 14, 2021

    THank you so much for this honest review, Allie. I’ve only read good reviews which made me feel like I was missing out. I have confession to make…I’ve tried to read this book so many times and no lie….I kept falling asleep. Even the book, from what I read, has a sub-par plotline. Needless to say, I never read the entire thing. Honestly, I felt like the book is not Margaret Atwood’s best…I love her and all, but her other books like The Edible Woman (my fave of her works) and Oryx and Crake were written so much better.

  • Angelica
    April 14, 2021

    WOW super interesting reading this! Haven’t seen it yet but I heard only amazing things! I guess its really hit or miss.

    XX Angelica
    https://eraenvogue.com

  • mia
    April 15, 2021

    I’m only one season one of the show but I’m really enjoying it so far! I definitely see your points though – it confuses me how June has got away with so much scot free so far and I’d be far more interested in the uprising itself than all the day-to-day stuff afterwards tbh xx

  • Shauna
    April 15, 2021

    I feel like I’m the only one who has had zero interest in the boom or show! Glad to hear I’m not missing much 🙂

    Shauna

    http://www.lipglossandlace.net

  • Itzel Najar
    April 15, 2021

    thanks for sharing this!
    I have to take a look on this book!

    https://www.itzytrendy.com/2021/04/floral-floral.html

  • Ananka
    April 15, 2021

    I haven’t seen this!

  • S
    April 15, 2021

    I’ve saw the serie but never read the book, anyway having experiences of movies and series from books, I can understand your points.
    In general I can say that this is a pretty good done show, if your watch without comparing with book could result pretty entertaining and interesting.
    XO
    S
    https://s-fashion-avenue.blogspot.com

  • Kate
    April 16, 2021

    This was super interesting to read—especially since this is such a popular show! I’ve very intrigued!
    XOXO, Kate // http://www.classyandkate.com/all-white-faves-for-spring/

  • selvaggia Capizzi
    April 16, 2021

    Ugh I have never heard about the novel nor about the TV series, I have have to check whether this one is boradcasted in Ualy!
    Don’t Call Me Fashion Blogger
    Facebook
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  • Váh
    April 16, 2021

    I love The Handmaid’s Tale series!
    I’ve watched every season recently and I’m really looking forward to the new season.
    It’s a heavy and complicated series to watch, not everyone can do it, but I loved it. It is very interesting the reflection that this series transmits to us.

    https://www.heyimwiththeband.com.br/

  • Radi
    April 16, 2021

    I love how informative this post is because I had no idea about the book or the series.
    Happy weekend Allie and see you again in the next post!

    http://www.fashionradi.com

  • Lizzy
    April 17, 2021

    Thank you for your thoughts on the Handmaiden’s Tale, Allie. I had seen previews about it, but have never watched the series. I, too, love history and historical fiction is normally the fiction I like to read. Though, I have a weakness for Kristin Hannah novels (but Firefly Lane on Netlfix is AWFUL … same characters, different stories…I stopped watching after episode 3). With your review, I’m pretty certain now I won’t be adding this to my list of shows to watch. I’m currently reading “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly. It’s about how the lives of 3 women (one in NYC, one in Poland, and one in Germany) merge during WWII. I just started it and so far, I’m hooked. :). Happy weekend!

    http://lizzyslatest.com/

  • Pilar
    April 18, 2021

    I haven’t seen the show or read the book, but both sound interesting!

  • Katie
    April 18, 2021

    I really hate it when you commit too much time to a show and it just never gets better! I haven’t seen it, but good to know it’s not a must see!

    Katie | katieemmabeauty.com

  • Sugar Lane
    April 18, 2021

    Really interesting post.
    I had heard a lot about it and was even more intrigued after seeing them filming at the Lincoln memorial here in DC, the image was so powerful!
    However, I started watching a couple months ago and I stopped. I found the whole scenario a great starting point to start a discussion and it gives a lot to think about, but then I was not super interested as the episodes continued and I really don’t need more drama in the middle of this pandemic situation.
    I might continue watching but maybe once the world is vaccinated and things go back to normal… for now I´m watching comedies!
    I didn’t know the book was so old, thanks for sharing a little bit about the author!
    have a great week,
    S

  • Woman Today
    April 18, 2021

    I confess I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t get to watch many movies even if we have subscriptions to Amazon Prime, Infinity and Sky. When I am aline I also tend to watch movies on YouTube or listen to music on the same platform while reading. That being said, I have noticed the book on the weebsites where I usually buy books but for some reason I didn’t dig into it. Aftrr reading your post, I must say I am sincerely interested, therefore I will certainly add it to my reading list. Don’t know when I will get to biy it or read it, in the past few months I bought and was given as gift more than 30 books or so and for the moment I have read only five of them. Anyways, I will buy it sooner or later and I will add the link to your post in my browser favourites, therefore when I get to buy and read it, I will read your post first.
    Have a beautiful evening dear and stay strong!

  • Kinga
    April 19, 2021

    I’ve read a book and I like it ❤

  • Regine Karpel
    April 19, 2021

    I haven’t watched the series or read the book. Hope all is well.

  • Julia Rees
    April 19, 2021

    Thank you so much for your informative review, Allie. I have neither read the book, nor watched the series, as I had heard very mixed reviews, and having read your review, I think I will pass, as I don’t think it will appeal to me at all!
    Julia x
    https://www.thevelvetrunway.com/

  • Julia
    April 23, 2021

    I haven’t seen the show yet but after reading this, I’m not sure I should haha! I did read the book and found its themes interesting to discuss. I wasn’t completely blown away by it, but it does raise some important questions that it would be worth bringing up with others, to get people’s point of view. I’ve been tempted to watch the show but did not start because of the heavy themes – it’s something to watch when you’re in the mood and know what you’re getting into!

    Julia x
    http://www.julia-speaks.com

  • Corinne
    April 23, 2021

    Oh I’m sad you didn’t really enjoy it! I really liked the show and thought it was interesting, exciting, brutal and addictive! I would like to know more about the rise of the people of Giliad though! It does briefly tell the story through flashbacks of the characters but a prequel would be great.

    Corinne x

    • alimackin@gmail.com
      April 24, 2021

      Yes for me that is where the interest lies: what led up to the uprising, who are these people? How did the rest of the country not see it coming. A lot of parallels to movements like the Nazi party which technically a cult in many ways, though there are a lot of other parallels too. The show for me was too much about emotions and relationships and the pace is super slow but the details and the visuals are great.

  • nerline
    April 25, 2021

    I have not read the book yet, but I enjoyed watching the show. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • Lynn
    May 1, 2021

    Interesting views! I read Handmaid’s tale cover to cover during my senior year of high school. It was my essay! It was hard to understand for me hahah Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ali xx

    Lynn | https://www.lynnmumbingmejia.com

  • Nancy
    May 1, 2021

    Oooh I haven’t watched the Handmaiden’s Tale before. I should definitely look into it. It is so interesting how there are lots of hidden gems in all of these subscription services. You get to see some of the ideas happening around the world. Even the red cloaks itself has its own story. Thanks for sharing about this! Gotta check it out!

    Nancy ✨ mdrnminimalists.com

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