The Handmaid's Tale: finally – a film adaptation of a literary classic that doesn't piss everyone off
If this doesn't placate the literary snobs, I don't know what will
Sunday 30th July was a sad sad day. Not only did my boyfriend and I receive the news that we were no longer permitted to wear shoes in our flat because it was pissing off our neighbour (no, not even slippers), but it was also the day that the final episode of the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was aired on Channel 4 in the UK.
The Handmaid’s Tale explores female subjugation in the dystopian society of Gilead, in which fertile women are enslaved as handmaids and repeatedly and methodically raped by commanders in the sincere hope that they will fall pregnant and bear children for the men and their wives. The 1985 classic played a considerable role in my introduction to feminism years ago and, in that same respect, is just as pertinent today as it was back then. The distinctive red gown and white bonnet attire has now become a political symbol, with inspired ‘handmaids’ gathering in US government buildings to protest abortion restrictions and defend their pro-choice rights.
Given my attachment to the novel, I was stunned when I found myself so enamoured of Bruce Miller’s televised adaptation. More often than not, any reworking of a literary classic is met with a great level of public dissatisfaction. I have rather distinct memories of exiting through the cinema doors in the aftermath of the screening of The Great Gatsby accompanied by the wails of haughty disgruntled viewers exclaiming that not even Leonardo could do Fitzgerald’s masterpiece justice, and of my viewing experience of Bel Ami throughout which I could just make out the whispers of literary folk proclaiming that “Maupassant would be positively turning in his grave.” Obviously at least 50 percent of these grievances can be traced back to pseudo-intellectual tossers who just want everyone to know that they have read at least one book in their lifetime but, as a general rule, it does seem as though any film adaptation of a classic novel ends up being one big fat disappointment.
The most common source of this exasperation is, understandably, deviation from the novel’s plot and primary themes in an effort to be more ‘Hollywood.’ The 2000 adaptation of The Beach, for instance, attracted a lot of negative commentary for using a love story as the focal point of the film – an ingredient of no particular importance in Alex Garland’s original plot. In the same vein, Bret Easton Ellis - author of American Psycho - was far from enthused when his narrative was robbed of its trademark ambiguity once on the big screen (Christian Bale was an unmistakable psychopath). Bad acting can also be a huge deal-breaker – the Harry Potter movies were a hit despite this but the same cannot be said across the board, unless of course you enjoyed watching Kristen Stewart’s pained facial expressions throughout all five Twilight movies.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an exception to this unfortunate pattern. Not only is the acting utterly flawless – Elisabeth Moss plays one of the most convincing roles I have ever been witness to – but the series has a surprising contemporary twist, all the while remaining faithful to Atwood’s unparalleled narrative. Frequent reference to 21st Century technology, familiar scenes of clubs and bars, OH and of course the fact that the current president of the United States is intent on threatening the reproductive rights of women, all work together to render the dystopian adaptation chillingly believable.
From the least sexy sex you may have ever seen televised (and hopefully in reality too, for your sake) to the candour of the handmaids as they moan at the prospect of taking part in yet another stoning, each and every scene leaves you reeling yet still wanting more. Although not for the faint-hearted for the brutality depicted (scenes include a woman being forced to watch the hanging of her lesbian lover and handmaids being tortured with cattle prods), the internal monologue of protagonist, June (but branded ‘Offred’ after her commander, Fred), provides moments of essential comic relief and it doesn’t take us long to realise that she is in fact a total badass. And hey, Atwood herself - who has lauded the series despite aspects of the storyline straying from her original plot - even makes a surprise cameo appearance as a disciplinarian who slaps June in the face when she refuses to chant that the rape of a fellow handmaid a few years earlier was all “her fault.”
It’s certainly risky business creating a film adaptation of a much-loved novel. But Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, eerily relevant to societies today both near and far, is testimony that it’s not an impossible task. If this doesn’t placate the literary snobs, I don’t know what will.