The Handmaid’s Tale – A season too far already?

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll go into the draw to win Jen’s slightly second-hand copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Post by Jennifer McDonald

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 18 months you couldn’t have failed to notice the hubbub surrounding the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elizabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes.

I’m no TV show critic so I’ll spare you the addition of my voice to the chorus of reviews on the second instalment of this Hulu Original series. I’m also not a purist about screen adaptations of brilliant books like The Handmaid’s Tale. I understand that stories told in books are often enhanced and expanded for the screen, large and small, particularly when the producers are trying to eke as many seasons as possible out of the original print concept. I accept that and occasionally delight in the fruit of their efforts.  But as a publisher and a great believer in the excruciating impact good fiction can sometimes have on the real world, you can hardly blame me for standing up for books.

A New York Times review by Margaret Lyons (republished in The New Daily) said it best. While Season Two had retained its stunning visuals (think blood red-clad handmaids walking beside grey sandstone walls or filmed from above running through stark white snowscapes) Lyons asserts that the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale appears to have ‘run out of story’. 

Right about now, anyone who’s read Atwood’s astonishing book (or any of her books for that matter) would have to be asking themselves, how could that happen and so quickly?   

The Handmaid’s Tale burst onto our screens in 2017 just after Trump made history as the US’s first pussy-grabbing President. Who can forget the infamous photograph of him in the Oval Office, surrounded by blokes, signing an executive order to ban federal funding to international groups providing information on abortions? No wonder The Handmaid’s Tale was the darling of the 2017 awards season. Offred/June’s words during one of her pre-Gilead flashbacks seemed chillingly close to home - ‘That’s how we let it happen.’

After such a strong start out of the blocks, season two is in danger of losing the plot, descending into what Lyons describes in her review as little more than ‘torture porn’ with circular, obscure and sometimes dead-end storylines. More than once while viewing this season I was bored enough to contemplate turning the TV off. For someone who had trouble putting the book down, that’s nothing short of a travesty!

Margaret Atwood’s original work is so rich in narrative tributaries feeding into the wild rapids of a dystopian feminist nightmare I find it impossible to accept that the screen representation could be ‘running out of story’. It’s more likely that, flush with the acclaim and success of the first season, the book’s themes have fallen by the wayside or been sacrificed for the entertainment value of whippings, rapes, executions, death by radiation poisoning and forced separations of mothers and their babies. 

You see? There’s still plenty of modern day relevance in this futuristic fiction so it’s not too late to salvage The Handmaid’s Tale for at least another few seasons yet. One need look no further than the book. If I was executive producer for a day, here’s what I’d run with:

  1. Pursue Serena Joy’s backstory: The TV series made a very promising start on this but to my mind, it’s low hanging fruit that season two just left hanging. In the book, the pre-Gilead Serena was a gospel singer who made speeches in support of ‘traditional values’ and a-woman’s-place-being-in-the-home. While being the wife of a Commander afforded certain privileges denied to other women in Gilead, Serena is as oppressed as the rest of them. In a recent re-read of the book I came across Offred’s telling observation of the Commander’s wife: 

‘She doesn’t make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she’s been taken at her word.’ 

Furious indeed. The actor who plays Serena Joy Waterford, Yvonne Strahovski, has just been nominated for an Emmy, providing a big fat clue to the value of this highly ironic character’s storyline.

  1. Take a closer look at Aunt Lydia: This character (played so immaculately by Ann Dowd, another Emmy award winner for her part in The Handmaid’s Tales first season) is the starkest example of a most perplexing and horrifying theme of the book - the subjugation and humiliation of women by other women.  While this phenomenon isn’t new (think the Aufseherinnen in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps) the motivations behind the cruelty of Aunt Lydia and her cohorts in the realm of Gilead would be rich pickings for a very interesting continuing narrative. 
  2. The roles and fates of ‘lesser men’: And no, I don’t mean Nick the driver-cum-security guard of the Waterford household, even though his role is both obscure and fascinating in the book as well as the TV series. I mean the other non-Commander types. We already know that males who happened to be homosexual, intellectuals, political dissidents, journalists or doctors who worked in the field of women’s reproductive health (if you get my meaning) were hunted down and slaughtered by the incoming Gilead regime. But what of the ordinary men who were not fortunate enough to be afforded Commander status? 

In the book Offred observes that many of the security guards on the street are no more than adolescents who’ve known no other life before Gilead. Now, they’re equipped with machine guns and combat gear which, thanks to their limited life experience, they sometimes use injudiciously. These young men are sworn to protect the handmaids as they walk two-by-two to the shops. But looking at them or, God forbid, touching them, is a criminal offence punishable by execution. Too young and insignificant to be afforded State-issued ‘wives’ and in the absence of books and magazines, porn films or even prostitutes (these are the preserve of the ruling class) Offred wonders what kind of outlet these young men have for their raging testosterone? 

Towards the end of the book, one of these ‘guardians’ is the subject of a particularly gruesome ceremony where handmaids are let loose to tear him apart with their bare hands as penance for a supposed rape. In the TV series, the young guardian assigned to the Waterfords home makes off with Eden, the new, 15 year-old wife assigned to Nick the driver. When they’re caught, both are ceremoniously and simultaneously executed for the crime of falling in love. All evidence to the gun-slinging contrary, it would seem that an ordinary young man in Gilead is a particularly powerless creature. 

And then there’s the Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale section at the end of the book, a particular stroke of Atwood fictional genius. This epilogue of sorts is recounted as a partial transcript of a paper delivered at the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies in 2195 by Professor Pieixoto of England’s Cambridge University. Clearly, by this time, Gilead is a but a blip on the horizon of world history.

The Professor’s paper chronicles the discovery of some cassette tape recordings of a woman’s voice, uncovered in what would have been the state of Maine prior to being enveloped by Gilead. These tapes have been transcribed and entitled The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred is identified as the narrator and her story provides incredible insight into the culture and workings of the Gilead regime. Professor Pieixoto’s retrospective conclusions about State-institutionalised procreation, while vastly informative, are highly objective and clinical as evidenced by this passage:

‘If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans… [their] society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and it was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause from the audience.)’

I’d forgotten about this epilogue until I reread the book in preparation for writing this post.  Seems to me that the TV show producers and scriptwriters could do a lot worse than revisit the book for viable, contemporarily relevant themes to underpin several more series of The Handmaid’s Tale. Running out of story? Please…

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post if you’d like to go into the draw to win a pre-loved copy of the book!

Breath by Tim Winton - a reflection on the film & book by Jennifer McDonald

Comment on this blog to go in the draw to win Jen’s slightly age-damaged, with a few bits underlined, but still good copy of Tim Winton’s Breath.  Soon after Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin Award I bought a copy and put it in my bookcase. Life got in the way and Breath sat there until this April when I first heard of Simon Baker’s directorial debut in the movie by the same name. It was worth the wait. I devoured the book in a matter of days before seeing the film on release day at the Palace Theatre in Norton Street, Sydney.

I like to credit myself as a fan of Tim Winton before he became as acclaimed as he is now. My bookcase sports several of his pre-Cloudstreet works namely The Riders,That Eye The Skyand In The Winter DarkWhile I’m a little rusty on the storylines of these books after so many years, the feelings Tim Winton’s writing evoke in me have never faded. When I started in on Breath, these came rushing back to me with a force to rival the biggest waves ever ridden by Loonie, Pikelet and Sando.

I’m sure I can add nothing to the chorus of high praise Winton has consistently attracted over the years from more erudite literary types than myself. Nevertheless, I will try to accurately describe the emotional impact Tim Winton’s style of stringing words together has on me. Why? Because it is central to my mindset as I entered the cinema to see Breath on the big screen.

Winton writes in a straightforward way that is highly accessible to the reader while completely transcending the ordinary. His words are authentic, evocative and lyrical, without a hint of literary pretension. Early on in Breath, Pikelet - the book’s main voice – gives us this first insight into what can only be described as the beginnings of his and Loonie’s obsession with surfing:

I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day.  How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.

‘Pointless and elegant’. It’s hard to think of a more apt description for a person jumping to their feet on a board while skimming down the face of a wall of water. The adult Pikelet goes onto say,

The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward…And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Breath is ostensibly a coming of age story but it’s a complicated one.  Two teenage boys, growing up in the 1970s, are living in a dying mill town set on a placid river that flows to, but doesn’t quite connect with, the thundering surf beaches of Western Australia’s southern-most parts. Pikelet is the only child in a loving but dull working-class home. Loonie’s father is the local publican who tends towards violence and has already been through a couple of wives. Pikelet craves escape from the ordinary and Loonie’s devil-may-care temperament is just the ticket. They discover the sea and quickly become hooked on the rush of riding waves, bringing them into contact with the enigmatic former surfing champion Sando, and his secretive and surly American wife, Eva.

20180505 - Jens copy of Breath coverThe visceral beauty in Winton’s words are always, always underpinned by a sense of foreboding. I’ve felt this in every Tim Winton book I have ever read and Breath is no exception. In the telling of ordinary things, like swimming in a river, riding bikes to the beach or sitting on the school bus, Winton keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering if this is moment where disaster will strike, and what form that disaster will take.

This inexorable sense of dread compels one to keep reading, to get to the bottom of whatever it is the author is trying to subliminally impart. Breath is so much more than a coming of age story. It is a deeply disturbing cautionary tale of addiction to the most potent substance of all – adrenaline.

Sando was good at portraying the moment you found yourself at your limit, when things multiplied around you like an hallucination…And when he talked about the final rush, the sense of release you felt at the end, skittering out to safety in the beautiful deep channel, Eva sometimes sank back with her eyes closed and her teeth bared, as though she knew only too well.  

There was a real opportunity to bugger up the film version of this complex, emerging- from-the-chrysalis-of-youth story. And I hoped beyond hope that Winton’s masterful command of the undercurrent of impending tragedy, like a storm brewing on the horizon, wouldn’t be lost in Breath’s translation to the screen.

Thankfully it wasn’t.  The sense of foreboding was palpable in almost every scene, rendered in heartbreakingly beautiful images - like the white tops of heaving waves just visible over the sand bar behind which Pikelet and his father fish from their tinny, barely bobbing on the quiet river. Or how, after a severe wipe-out, Pikelet appears as a tiny, prone speck surrounded by white foam on top of a churning deep-blue ocean.

The backing track of pounding surf, Loonie’s hoot of triumph when he manages to catch hold of a passing ute for a drag-along on his bike; or the rattle of Sando’s combi van engine as it pulls up outside Pikelet’s house in a winter dawn, also plays an important part in this exquisite sense of dreadful anticipation. Coupled with a suitably efficient screenplay (thanks in no small part by Tim Winton’s input) Breath the movie certainly captures the foreboding undercurrent of the print version.

What it doesn’t do so well, in my humble opinion, is examine the vexing and multi-faceted nature of addiction, a powerful and devastating theme of Breath the book. While the references to addiction are frequent and obvious in the film, the relentless, life-threatening and ultimately life-ruining nature of addiction to processes (like extreme surfing and aerial skiing), as opposed to substances (such as Eva’s painkillers and perpetual hash-smoking) remains largely unexplored.

These are big issues, of course, and Breath is only an hour and fifty-five minutes long so one can hardly expect a dissertation. However, while I was slightly disappointed by this, my movie companion who had not read the book, was unperturbed. When she asked if the film was an accurate representation of Tim Winton’s book, what else could I say but yes?

Breath is a gob-smackingly beautiful and visually memorable film which I would advise you to see before you read the book. Peculiar advice coming from a publisher, I know, but there is method in my madness.  This way, when you come to read Breath (which I also strongly advise you to do) you’ll get a second, bigger hit from the story, which is probably the point Tim Winton was trying to make all along.

20180505 - Breath movie cover

Margaret Atwood's 'Alias Grace'

Be the first to comment on this post to win Jen’s battered-but-still-good copy of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. 20180122 - Alias GraceMaybe it's because I've just returned from a sojourn to the land of moose, mounties and maple syrup but I find myself, once again, under the spell of one of Canada's best-known and brilliant authors, Margaret Atwood.

Like so many others I jumped headfirst into Series one of the on-screen adaptation of Atwood's award-winning novel The Handmaid's Tale in 2017, noting with great pleasure at the time that the author had a steady hand on the tiller of her story as supervising producer.

While the narrative of any novel requires massaging and sometimes redirection in order to make a good screenplay, I was very heartened to see the central themes and tenor of Handmaids remained constant, thanks no doubt, to Atwood’s influence.

And now she's done it again with Alias Grace, a work first published in 1996 to great acclaim, including winning the Canadian Giller Prize and being shortlisted for the Man Booker. Interestingly, Alias Grace is the fictionalisation of the real-life 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in rural Ontario. Grace Marks and James McDermott, two Kinnear household servants were tried and convicted of the killings – McDermott to hang and Grace Marks to life imprisonment.

20180122 - the-handmaid-s-taleAtwood’s novel follows the story of the murders and convictions of the accused to the letter of what was reported at the time and subsequently written about by Susanna Moodie in her 1853 book Life in the Clearings.  But Atwood adds the the fictional Simon Jordan, a doctor of the psychiatric persuasion, who’s commissioned to write a report by a group of ardent supporters lobbying for the convicted murderess’s pardon.

As Dr Jordan descends into Grace’s story he becomes increasingly bewitched and bemused by this woman, eventually rendering him incapable of determining her innocence, sanity or whether she’s merely a cunning killer.

The book makes no bones (pardon the pun) about the true origins of the story. In fact, Atwood goes to great lengths to authenticate her sources and to explain necessary hole-filling due to the drying up of official historical trails.

However, the fact that Alias Grace is based on a true story is all but absent from the Netflix adaptation, a point well made in Kathryn VanArendonk's piece in Vulture. As an aside, if you’re looking for a detailed comparison between the book and the Netflix screenplay, I’d highly recommend reading this review.

20180122 - the-blind-assassin For my money, the really intriguing thing is the tone of the narrative and the visual renderings of Netflix’s Alias Grace and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale are so very similar.  This is despite the former being a period piece based on true events and the latter being a fictional, contemporary glimpse into a not-too-distant dystopian future.

I put this down to three things, the least of these being the Canadian-ness of both productions. I know I’m biased because I’ve just returned from a holiday in that great country and have long been an unabashed admirer of same. But I was pleased and gratified to see that both productions were shot exclusively in Ontario and, in the case of Alias Grace, the screenwriter is Canadian and the cast comprised predominantly of Canadian actors. That kind of orientation has Margaret Atwood’s fingerprints all over it, not that I’m complaining!

The second thing is the gritty feminist perspective that runs through all of Atwood’s written works, and how this is made grotesquely palpable in the diverse adaptations of Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale. Prior to darkening the doors of the Kingston Penitentiary, Grace Mark’s life is defined by being a young, pretty and lowly servant-girl constantly bombarded by the attentions and expectations of men – her masters, fellow-serving staff, the screws at the jail and even the doctors who attend the unfortunate inmates. Seeing vivid portrayals of all this on the screen compelled me, somewhat reluctantly, to ponder the hardships and outright horror of simply being a female at such a time.

Likewise, the institutionalised sexual servitude of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Offred, is a chilling treatise on a patriarchal, arch-religious, post-apocalyptic society run amok. Both books and screen productions drip with the stuff of feminine nightmares, the only difference being one happened a long time ago and the other could be our future if we don’t look out.

Last but by no means least, there’s the intimate involvement of Atwood herself in both screen manifestations of her written work, complete with pointed cameo appearances in The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace.

Here’s an author who seems to have successfully eschewed the overt Hollywood-isation of her already beloved written works and elevated the standing of her country of origin at the same time.

Margaret Atwood is clearly an author and now a screenplay collaborator and producer who sticks to her guns. One can only hope the Man Booker Prize-winning Blind Assassin is the next of her phenomenal works to hit the screen.  O Canada - I can hardly wait.

And remember, if you’re the first to leave a comment on this post on the For Pity Sake blog, you could win Jen’s own original copy of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace!

20180122 - Alias Grace - Jen's copy