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!