A few weeks ago I reread Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in preparation for the new serialisation on Channel 4. I say “in preparation for” but, truthfully, nothing can prepare you for such a harrowing viewing experience. The book is written in such a way that many of the more graphic details are left to the reader’s imagination but the ten part drama forces viewers to take in every single detail. It is an uncomfortable watch – far removed from the rose tinted nostalgia fests of Call the Midwife that I’m used to on a Sunday evening – it certainly wasn’t enjoyable, yet every Sunday night, there I was, glued to my television screen.
What makes ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ so disturbing is how little imagination is required for audiences to piece together how a society like Gilead came to be. It starts small, women can no longer use their credit cards, and somehow it ends in fertile women being sold and traded. This is not the latest sci-fi blockbuster nor is a rejected plot line from the newest season of Game of Thrones, the events of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are a result of the actions of humans, on Earth. In both the book and the series, the most striking thing was how everybody seemed to accept what was happening, nothing was shocking or upsetting to any of the characters, they had all become immune to the horrors they were facing.
A ten episode drama was always going to deviate from a three hundred and eleven page book. In the first two or episodes I found the deviations from the plot to be distracting but as the series continued these additions to the story became more prominent and yet at the same time felt more like a natural progression of the story. Most of the book’s content was covered in the first two episodes, with a few minor plot lines being reserved for the finale. I know Margaret Atwood herself was involved in the making of the series, making sure everything was true to her vision of the story. Book and adaptation meet again at the end when Offred is taken out of the house and put in a van, to be saved or punished, it is not known. For readers, it never will be, but the show has been commissioned for a second series and we will discover Offred’s fate next year. Personally, I don’t know how to feel about the prospect of a second series. I have no doubt in my mind that it would be just as brilliant as the first but, what stayed with me about the ending of the novel was that we never learn Offred’s fate. She becomes a story of one person in the dystopian society, one nameless member of the revolution.
I’m always sceptical of TV/film adaptations of books I really enjoyed, particularly this time around. The events of the book were so disturbing and shocking, I didn’t want them to ruin that atmosphere or to change the story too much. It was handled with the up most respect for Atwood’s writing and any scenes written for the series were fitting additions to the story. The final episode was by far one of the most harrowing pieces of drama I have ever watched. Despite that, there was, at times, a stronger sense of unity and triumph amongst the Handmaid’s which does not come across in the book. One scene shows all the Handmaid’s walking, in their assigned pairs, in a line down the street staring straight down the camera, it is in this moment that you feel an almost undetectable shift in Gilead, the scene concludes with the standout line of the series, “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”.
If you haven’t watched ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, I urge you to. It’s not an enjoyable watch in any way but, I promise, it’s a necessary one.