Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. It tells the story of a near-future dystopia called Gilead, where people live according to strict gender roles. Women are divided into three main groups: Wives (wealthy, infertile women married to wealthy men), Marthas (servants), and Handmaids — who, like in the Biblical story of Rachel and Leah, bear children for the Wives. (There are other women's roles, including Aunts, Econowives, and Jezebels, but most women are Wives, Marthas, or Handmaids.)
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005, and while I loved the book, the future-as-seen-from-1985 felt very much like a fictional dystopia. Atwood's book references punk fashion, the anti-porn movement of the '70s, the newness of the term "date rape," and '80s-style film projectors; in one scene in the novel, Offred notices graffiti dated from the '50s. When the novel was first published in 1985, these references were timely; but when I first read the book in 2005, they nodded back to a time from before I was born. Hulu’s adaptation — of which I saw the first three episodes for review — brings Atwood’s vision closer to our current reality, in ways that feel all too real.
While Atwood waits to reveal how women lost their rights until midway through the novel, Hulu’s miniseries reveals it in bits and pieces of horrifying detail. In flashbacks, we watch as protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s credit card is declined; as she and the other women in her publishing office are fired en masse; and, in a scene that seems all too likely, as police open fire on a peaceful protest. Characters reference Tinder, Craigslist, and Uber, placing us firmly in 2017-ish. The references to the newness of the definition "date rape" in the novel are replaced with a reference to the campus sexual assault epidemic. While in the novel, references are made that indicate that the story taking place in Boston, the Hulu series makes the setting even more clear. In flashbacks, the characters talk about the Davis Square and Alewife subway stations; in Gilead, we see the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Paul. Less specific visual cues are just as haunting: In one scene, we see Offred and her partner Handmaid Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) enter a grocery store that looks straight out of 2017. The stark contrast between the Handmaid’s red cloaks and white hats and the completely normal-looking background is chilling and makes a Gilead-type reality seem just a few weeks or months away.
Hulu also engages further with LGBTQ rights than the original novel does; while the novel mentions the executions of so-called "gender traitors," Hulu expands this by giving us two major lesbian characters, and showing the horrifying ways that Gilead treats them because of their sexuality. I'm interested to see, as the series progresses, if Hulu does the same with race. In the novel, all people of color are exiled from Gilead; in the miniseries, we have people of color in major roles, including Samira Wiley as Offred's best friend Moira; O-T Fagbenle as Offred's husband Luke; and Jordana Blake as Offred's daughter Hannah.
The Handmaid’s Tale is at times hard to watch. There are rape scenes and scenes of graphic physical and sexual violence — which sometimes go further than the book. And seeing the extreme means to which Gilead’s society controls women’s bodies is even more terrifying that you’d expect. But in the political situation of 2017, with the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color at risk, the Handmaid’s Tale’s message is vitally important — and Hulu made the right decision in emphasizing its relevance. Despite what some cast members say, the Handmaid's Tale is an explicitly political, feminist story — and one that is more necessary now than ever.
The first three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale premiere on Hulu on April 26.
Top image via Hulu
More from BUST