‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Warning: this post contains spoilers!

I’ve been meaning to write up something about, The Handmaid’s Tale for a while, but I never gotten around to it.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 literary fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale (which I read last year, during the summer) is one of the most significant and influential dystopian stories in contemporary culture. I read the book, then I listened to the audiobook (read by Elisabeth Moss). I watched three seasons of the TV series (when they aired), it features Elisabeth Moss as Offred. I watched the film, which was originally released in 1990.

Margaret Atwood sees the novel as speculative fiction rather than science fiction. It’s also referred to as, an ‘American dystopian tragedy’. The story takes place in the near future, when a conservative, quasi-religious movement has taken over the US in a coup.

It’s clear that a lot of thought and research has gone into the novel’s world building. Atwood is interested in power politics and how democratic institutions can be usurped by authoritarian movements. This aspect of the novel makes it relevant to a contemporary audience, especially at the tail end of the Trump presidency.

The novel is a work of ‘Literary Fiction’ and this is reflected in it being a character study Offred, the main character. The world around her is explored through her eyes. In classic literary fiction mode it’s an interior monologue that spends a lot of time inside her head. This produces somewhat mixed results. The reader gets to know Offred and care about her as a character, but it also slows the narrative down. I found the pace to be pretty glacial, and I had to force myself to complete the book. I appreciate that much of this is subjective and many readers will delight in Atwood’s rich literary language and the opportunity to live inside Offred’s head. The writing is great, better (in my view) than Orwell (who Atwood cites as an influence). Offred’s thoughts are often capped by a slightly weird question, or a desirous thought. She’s a remarkably intelligent and observant character.

The novel, which is a ‘feminist dystopian tragedy’, does a great job of handling the politics of this repressive society. It takes a nuanced approach rather than a comic book ‘all men are evil’ tone. The society it depicts is hierarchical, not all men have equal power, some women have more power than men lower down the class ladder, but at the same social level, men always have more power than women. There’s also a power dynamic between the female characters, with many of the women being complicit in maintaining the system.

The comparison with George Orwell's 1984 is difficult to avoid. They are the product of different generations and moments in time (post Second World War Stalinism vs 1980s Regeanomics and Neoconservatism). Atwood’s take is sufficiently different from Orwell’s, drawing on the history of American Puritanism. Its subtlety helps it to evade the post-1984 cliché of the repressive police state. In terms of basic storytelling, Offred is a more engaging character than Winston, although both novels have an intellectual approach to storytelling.

The narrative weaves between Offred’s current reality and memories of her past life before the authoritarian quasi-religious movement took power. Another way to understand the novel is to see it as a story about loss. Offred’s personal loss is a metaphor for the death of the 1960s Counter Culture and the prevailing assault of reactionary US conservatism.

Although classified as ‘speculative fiction’ or a ‘dystopian tragedy’, it’s a Literary Fiction novel that happens to use many of the established genre tropes from science fiction. Population control (over population) and population decline (infertility) are recurring Science Fiction themes. The Handmaid’s Tale deals with population decline (pollution has reduced fertility).

Atwood does a great job of exposing the power modes and the cultural hypocrisy of the regime, which refuses to accept male infertility and officially blames women for the declining birthrates (although the actual real-world science of fertility is usually more complex).

Another example of the hypocrisy in this culture comes when The Commander takes her to a club that caters for the regime’s elite (there’s alcohol, and sexual slavery). This environment is the polar opposite to the conservative moral code officially endorsed by the regime. The hypocrisy and double standards takes its cue from real-life cults, sects, and repressive theocratic groups, where punitive moral codes are often not followed by the very people who enforce them.

One of the glaring problems with the novel is why it was written in the present tense. Who writes or narrates their own journal in the present tense? Obviously, this is a literary device that’s designed to make the near future seem more immediate to the reader. The metafiction ending contradicts the present tense immediacy, making the whole experience feel incongruous (more like a stylistic choice).

The story is revealed to be a historical document, a transcription made from audio cassette recordings. Offred’s testimony is being discussed at an academic seminar. In literary fiction, the found letter or journal is as old as the form itself, as is metafiction, but I still didn’t understand why it was necessary to frame the narrative in this way.

The final chapter is a parody or a satirical take on an academic seminar, which discusses Offred’s account and how authentic the transcript is. It implies that the reader should question everything that he or she reads.

There’s a parallel between the two texts, because they are both transcripts. The ending deadened the story for me, sacrificing the drama for intellectual artifice, and to illustrate the irony that sexual discrimination is still occurring in the distant future. Another reason for the bolted-on ending is to deny the story a typical genre ending (where good defeats evil and the balance is restored).

The found journal as a literary device is usually prefaced with an introduction at the beginning (to alert the reader, and often to distance the author from the text). Without this warning, it feels like the reader is being tricked. It’s like a character suddenly waking up from a dream at the end of a story.

While the writing in The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, I didn’t really enjoy reading it as a novel. The story is slowed down by Offred’s interior monologues. The story doesn’t feel like it’s making the most of its dramatic potential, which is exactly what you’d expect from a work of literary fiction like this — because it isn’t a genre, action-based thriller.

Film and TV adaptations are unique to themselves, and they succeed or fail on their own terms. There’s an old joke that terrible novels often make great films… and vice-versa. The Handmaid’s Tale is a decent novel, but, for my money, the TV Series offers a more satisfying delivery of the story. The TV series brings different variables into play — the locations, the costumes, the visual world building, and the performances. All these elements have really brought the story to life.

The novel must have been a challenge to adapt to the screen because of its prominent internal monologue. But it has translated brilliantly onto the screen, making the most of the intrigue by holding back on Offred’s backstory.

As an aside, the novel has aged well, but how well will the TV series age in the years to come?

There’s a lesser known film version of The Handmaid’s Tale (which was released in 1990), is already a product of its time. It looks and feels dated — the hairstyles, the costumes, the lighting, and sound quality, and the soundtrack (by the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto) all feels dated. None of it has aged well. And, in comparison to the TV series, it looks incredibly low budget.

The film suffered through the usual production problems that afflict troubled projects — changes of director, a disaffected screenwriter (Harold Pinter), rewrites, actors having their own views about the script (in this case to reflect the source material more closely). The end result doesn’t really work. There are plenty of talented actors on board, but something’s lacking. It doesn’t know if it should be a genre flick, or a contemplative, character-based drama.

The film is surface focused, which is to say that, apart from a brief voice-over at the end, we don’t really know what’s going on in Offred’s head. There’s not even enough action or drama to turn it into a thriller or a psychological thriller. Instead, it exists in an uneasy in-between, neither replicating the merits of the novel, nor bringing anything satisfyingly cinematic about it.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been an incredible journey. After an acclaimed novel, and then a disappointing film, the TV series came along (plus the politics of the Trump presidency), catapulting The Handmaid’s Tale into a mainstream phenomenon.

Novel: Interesting.
TV Series: Season 1 and 2: Brilliant. Season 3: Interesting.
Film: Disappointing.