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On June 1 of this year the appearance of a press release in my inbox caused me to make a noise which prompted a colleague to inquire as to my wellbeing. Her concern was misplaced — my being was very well indeed. The Handmaid’s Tale, the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, finally had a New Zealand release date. Last Thursday, the first nine of 10 episodes became available to stream on Lightbox. By the end of Friday I had watched them all.
Adaptations of beloved books are always difficult territory (don’t even talk to me about World War Z), but I had been encouraged by a trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale I saw online some months ago, and my hopes for it were high. You guys, the show is everything I wanted it to be.
The story is set in the Republic of Gilead, a post-revolutionary theocracy in what was the United States, where women have been stripped of all personal freedoms and rights. Its central character is Offred (Elizabeth Moss), a handmaid — one of a class of women forced to conceive and bear children for the ruling elite in a society facing an infertility crisis. Offred (as in, ‘‘belonging to Fred’’, the commander to whom she is assigned) is one of Gilead’s first generation, and remembers the time before, when she was a college-educated assistant book editor with a husband and child, and her own name. Her personal history and the story of the revolution are told in flashbacks.
The show feels extremely faithful to Atwood’s novel in its tone and in many details, but it also takes the story and runs with it in several directions. The novel is written almost entirely in Offred’s words, and the show has her tell parts of her story in voice-over, but it also goes beyond her voice, expanding on the stories of several other characters. It also updates the story from the 1980s to the present day, driving home its contemporary setting with references to Uber, salted caramel and Tinder.
The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, powerful, captivating television, but it is not fun. As I watched I was dogged by the unsettling awareness that the misogynistic injustice and brutality it depicts has been or is currently a reality for many — it’s just the contemporary Western setting that makes it feel close to home. And there are people fighting hard right now to build this world, or something like it.
The final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale comes to Lightbox this week, some hours after its US release. I eagerly await it, with a touch of dread.
C. Tilley H. Turner