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 I was expecting a smart, cerebral, intellectual story with over arching geo-political elements and historical references in a West World like fable that made one think.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…