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The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian dread in the new golden age of television

The new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel has captured a moment.

When a television programme captures a moment, it can feel as if everyone is watching it. Newspaper review sections are full of critics opining one way or the other, and social media feeds fill up with gleefully captioned screenshots and pleas for “no spoilers”. Now that we live in a so-called golden age of television, in which the output of streaming services such as Netflix carries such critical weight and is so lucrative that Hollywood actors are swapping the big screen for the small, these brief rushes of communal enthusiasm seem to occur ever more frequently. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Broadchurch, Line of Duty: tuning in is mandatory if you want to be able to take part in the conversations at work the next day.

So, it is frustrating when a show comes along that appears to chime perfectly with the political and cultural moment but it isn’t possible for many of us to watch it. This is just what has happened with the new US television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Made by the streaming service Hulu and starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), it has been attracting excellent reviews in America and Atwood’s native Canada. Would-be viewers in the UK can only read these and brood, however, because the show is not available to watch here on any legal service. MGM, the production company behind the show, has said that the series will be available in the UK, but is yet to confirm where or when it will be broadcast.

It is clear that the show’s creators underestimated the response that it would elicit, believing that they would have months of slowly building interest to secure international syndication deals. Yet the world today is very different from the one in which they began work on turning Atwood’s novel into a television series. With Donald Trump in the White House, it could be expected that millions would be morbidly fascinated by a story exploring what happens when the fascists take power.

Atwood’s original novel focuses on Offred, a woman in a dystopian version of the United States who is forced to accept a position as a “handmaid” when a theocratic, Christian fundamentalist regime called Gilead takes control. Thanks to declining birth rates that are linked to nuclear disaster and the breakdown of traditional families, the few remaining fertile women have been enslaved by the state and are assigned to high-status, regime-supporting couples who can’t have children. A twisted version of surrogacy is the norm, in which the fertile handmaid must conceive a child while lying on the infertile wife’s lap.

Although from the outset Atwood’s novel, because of its unflinching depiction of the potential extremes of unchecked patriarchy, was claimed as a feminist text, it has found new resonances in the present moment. The defeat of Hillary Clinton, a lifelong feminist and women’s rights advocate, by Trump, a misogynist who admits to grabbing women “by the pussy”, shocked many progressives who thought that the movement towards equality in the past five decades could not be reversed.

The reversal has begun already: on 4 May, a Trump-backed health-care bill that classifies rape and pregnancy as “pre-existing conditions” (thereby enabling insurance companies to charge women much higher premiums) was passed by the US House of Representatives.

The Handmaid’s Tale forces us to consider the unthinkable consequences of misogyny on a national scale. Perhaps what begins as chants of “Lock her up!” at a political rally ends – as in Atwood’s narrative – with women losing the right to vote, to own property and to determine what happens to their own body.

Beyond its political resonance, this small-screen adaptation of the novel is deserving of the rapturous reception it has received. The quasi-biblical aesthetics of Atwood’s dystopia – the long, conservative red outfits and white veils of the handmaids, the icy-blue dresses of the wives whom they serve and the drab, faded green worn by the infertile “Marthas” – are heightened by the saturated, deep colours and unusual filming angles.

The chronology of Atwood’s novel has been altered to great effect, giving more detail about Gilead early on, so that the tenets of the new society are clear from the outset. There are more and longer flashbacks to Offred’s life before the regime change, allowing us to witness directly what is only implied in the novel: the slow slide from democracy to authoritarianism.

One scene, in which women take to the streets to protest the confiscation of their property, presents a terrifyingly realistic scenario. To begin with, it could be footage from any of the widely reported women’s marches held around the world in response to Trump’s election. But then, with no warning, the police open fire on the crowd, and Offred and her friends start running for their lives.

Above all, The Handmaid’s Tale has found new relevance in 2017 because it shows that authoritarian regimes secure absolute power not with a single violent act, but by a series of incremental changes, each one slightly worse than the last, and which, when they go unopposed, create the conditions for the final fall. We want to watch it, because we fear that if we don’t, we won’t recognise the horror when it comes. My only regret is that it isn’t yet available to viewers in the UK.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear