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.

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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 a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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