Note: This review discusses major spoilers for the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale; the articles linked in this review also discuss spoilers.
Critical and reader praise for Canadian literary legend Margaret Atwood’s genre-bending novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been widespread ever since that novel’s publication in 1985; its depiction of an evangelical Christianity-influenced dystopia has stood the test of time, and the novel is regularly included on lists of the best 20th century science fiction, in high school English curricula, and roundups of must-read feminist novels.
Hulu’s ten-episode miniseries adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which premiered on April 26, brings Atwood’s depiction of a violently misogynistic evangelical dystopia to disturbing life. As the U.S. seems to inch closer to a violent, sexist, racist, and overall more oppressive dystopia in real life, The Handmaid’s Tale makes for frightening, necessary viewing, even though the series has noticeable flaws that mirror those of the book.
The first episode opens with a masterfully crafted action sequence that shows protagonist Offred (nee June), her husband Luke, and their daughter Hannah fleeing from the police while attempting to escape to Canada; while serious fans of the novel might balk at the show’s disregard for the source material’s timeline, starting the show with such a suspenseful sequence effectively drops viewers right into the terrifying world of religious republic Gilead, and raises the stakes from minute one. Given the novel’s slower pacing, some of its material could not have been as easily translated had the show simply adapted novel directly without any changes.
The many changes that the show makes to (among other things) the novel’s timeline, how characters and concepts are introduced, and what information is revealed in expository dialogue versus what is shown visually tend to be mostly positive—and, just as importantly, effectively displays the true horrors of Gilead. There are a variety of factors that make The Handmaid’s Tale work so well as a miniseries; the overall quality of the production design, cinematography and visual style (the tableaus in the first episode alone, particularly the “Particicution” sequence that comes in the last 20 minutes, are gorgeous and hard-to-watch at the same time), and the writing are first-rate—if you love sci-fi and dystopian fiction, you’ll be hooked by the end of the first episode.
The actors of The Handmaid’s Tale also deserve a shout-out; Elisabeth Moss has been getting (well-deserved) critical praise for her lead role as Offred, but one gets the sense that The Handmaid’s Tale is, somewhat sneakily, an ensemble piece. Samira Wiley and Alexis Bleidel, as fellow Handmaids, are both fantastic, as is the always-excellent Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia, one of the piously condescending (often frighteningly so) women responsible for getting Handmaids used to their new roles as brood mares for upper class households in the new regime. Yvonne Strahovski is also a standout as the bitterly two-faced Commander’s wife Serena Joy.
The Handmaid’s Tale miniseries is both chilling and beautifully executed. That does not mean, however, that it doesn’t have flaws; Priya Nair, writing for Bitch Magazine, recently critiqued the novel’s elision of racial issues related to how black women fare in Gilead—Nair takes particular issue with the ways in which the novel “takes from the oppression of Black women and applies it indiscriminately to white women” in its vision of reproductive injustice.
As Nair points out, in the original text, Atwood dodges race issues by explaining away (in a mere two sentences) Gilead’s white supremacist leanings instead of exploring said leanings in any further depth. The miniseries adaptation does make some much-needed changes to this erasure of black people–both Offred/June’s best friend, Moira, and her husband, Luke, are black. Queer visibility (other than Moira’s, well established in the source material) is given more screen time in the adaptation as well. Offred’s fellow Handmaid Ofglen gets some much-needed backstory—and her status as a queer woman makes her a target in Gilead, where she is branded a “gender traitor” and subjected to a shocking punishment in episode three.
These changes from the novel are certainly positive—as “positive” as visibility and diversity in a dystopian world can be, anyway—but one may wonder if the miniseries will extend onscreen visibility to other groups that Atwood did not in the novel. How would trans women and gender nonconforming women fare in Gilead, besides the obvious answer that they would be branded as Unwomen and sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste? How would disabled women fare—particularly those who cannot perform reproductive labor as Handmaids, or household labor as Marthas? Thus far, the miniseries has not offered any answers, nor much in the way of representation for these groups. I’m not optimistic that there will be either for the series’ ten-episode run. I also do not think that it’s the job of one series—in this case, The Handmaid’s Tale—to revolutionize disability representation, or trans representation, in just ten episodes. It would be nice to be included, however—yes, even in a fictional depiction of a dystopia.