I didn’t expect to enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale.
I don’t really enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction. Not even the best post-apocalyptic dystopia stories appeal to me. I read Brave New World in one sitting and it moved me deeply, but I didn’t enjoy it; it gave me the creeps. Not the good cathartic creeps I get from a supernatural piece of horror like The Exorcist or The Shining, but the nightmare-inducing creeps I got when I watched Fail Safe.
Further, all the trailers I’d seen for A Handmaid’s Tale made it look cliche, boring and ham-fisted. Reading the synopsis of the novel didn’t inspire me– either to read the book, to look up the 90s feature film version or tune in to Hulu to watch the series. It sounded like fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 rather than serious art.
However, as soon as I’d made up my mind to dismiss The Handmaid’s Tale, I started reading all the positive critical reviews, and my curiosity won out. I’m very glad that it did, because I was wrong, in part, about The Handmaid’s Tale. I was right that it would be ham-fisted– there’s no subtlety in this series; no ambiguity about who the bad guys are or the kind of people its author, Margaret Atwood, distrusts. I was right that it would be traumatic– it’s about the most traumatic thing I’ve ever seen on film. But I was wrong that it was cliche. I was certainly wrong that it was boring. And I hadn’t even bothered to consider the best things about The Handmaid’s Tale. The acting is excellent across the board, the storytelling through cinematography is brilliant, and the feminine viewpoint of the post-apocalyptic world is refreshingly different.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, who used to be called June. Offred lives in Gilead, a totalitarian post-United States ruled over by a fundamentalist cult which is so far never stated to be Christian or mentions Christ, but which uses the Bible and resembles a caricature of fundamentalist Protestantism. In Gilead, most of the women are barren due to environmental pollution, so the state requires fertile women of the lower classes to be enslaved as “Handmaids,” surrogates to bear children. Offred, like the other Handmaids, is brainwashed and forbidden to have any personal identity or will of her own– even her name refers only to the man she serves, Fred. Offred fights to maintain her will to live under such unbearable circumstances in hope of being reunited with the daughter she had before the cult took over the United States and enslaved her.
Described like that, the story sounds lame and preachy, but it manages not to be. This is partly due to the writing, which establishes a great deal of realism in this sci-fi scenario; partly due to the acting, which is excellent; and in great measure due to the way that it’s filmed. The camera stays intimately, uncomfortably close to Offred nearly all the time. She’s about the only character we get a close look at. It peeks through doors and windows with her, and hides from us what she can’t see. The audience is allowed to know next to nothing that Offred doesn’t know. We share her dread and confusion throughout all three of the episodes which have currently been released.
This a refreshingly unique way to look at a post-apocalyptic dystopia. So often, science fiction has been about men, with female characters serving as eye candy. In The Handmaid’s Tale, every viewpoint character and everyone the audience feels for is a woman. The Handmaid’s Tale takes place entirely inside the restricted, claustrophobic world of enslaved women. We hear bits and pieces of news about the wars and catastrophes going on in the outside world, but the only action we see is Offred and her fellow handmaids– enduring, conforming, rebelling in whatever small ways they can. This is a story of how a rather cliche post-apocalyptic dystopia feels to the people who are helpless under its boot-heel.
It is a clever and chilling touch that every suffering inflicted on the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale is real– there isn’t a futuristic weapon or an alien menace to blame, but the same acts of human cruelty that have happened throughout history. Modern countries can and do turn into religious dictatorships seemingly overnight. Religious movements can be and are taken over by power-worshiping fundamentalists. Female sexuality is verbally exalted, while in practice exploited, when these kinds of people are in power, and when that happens women really are enslaved. A controlling obsession with modesty does mask an obsession with sex. Public execution, genital mutilation and torture are used to for control, and this is praised in such cultures. This has all happened before and, in various parts of the world, it’s happening now. And that makes The Handmaid’s Tale all the more terrifying– in a way, it’s all perfectly true.
I hope I’ve been clear enough that the subject matter of The Handmaid’s Tale is extremely intense, and while it isn’t portrayed in a pornographic way, it is explicit. I want to especially warn my audience who have survived rape or other physical abuse that it’s bound to be triggering. Still, I do plan on watching future episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and I recommend it to my readers with a high tolerance for violent imagery. So far, this series is a clever, effective horror story which explores its themes to the hilt, not shying away from reality, in a heavy-handed but artistic manner.
(Image: A still from The Handmaid’s Tale, used in accordance with Fair Use principles.)