Reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and related work

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985Text)

Margaret Atwood (writer).

Read in 2018.

The exemplar of literal English-major science fiction. It combines the awkward, aching physicality and implausible motivations of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) with constant fragmentation and meditation on words and social nuances. Some of the portmanteau neologisms are silly: “prayvaganza”, “particicution”, “econowife”.

Thankfully, Atwood provides a few scenes to describe how the theonomist (“monotheocratic”) takeover happened, but it doesn’t make sense. Where were the few socially liberal Second Amendment militias? The police? The FBI? The judiciary? The world’s best funded military? Business leaders losing nearly half the workforce? State governments? Even in the epilogue, written by an in-universe historian, they’re never mentioned.

For that matter, where are the environmental activists who prevented the toxic holocaust in reality? Why did theonomy emerge instead as the accepted solution, given that infertility due to chemical pollution is not religiously stigmatized even in the case of the handmaids themselves? The drastic effects of pollution and the violent dudes on every street corner are pretty schlocky without an explanation.

The leaders of Gilead are so hypocritical that they run a whorehouse while misquoting The Bible (ca. 110 CE), not allowing it to be read. Oddly, they don’t seem to be full-on Nineteen Eighty-Four-style totalitarians for the sake of it. It is as if Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptists suddenly started running the country because of 9/11. It doesn’t connect, even with a CIA playbook for regime change. The worldbuilding seems to be an effort to combine the horror of Iran’s theocracy, Ceaușescu’s “heroine mother” decree, the Lebensborn programme, the heritage of US Puritanism and what Lawrence Buell would later call “toxic discourse” with worthwhile feminist musings, putting credibility somewhat in the back seat. For grandly feminist 1980s post-apocalypses, prefer The Postman (1985).

The protagonist’s despair is convincing on its own level. The narration is consistently rich and smart. It makes Offred seem realistically flawed and eerily reasonable to chicken out of active resistance. Like Winston Smith, she is largely ordinary, which makes for a good dystopia.

References here: Children of Men (2006), The Hunger Games (2012).

text fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017Moving picture, 10 hours)

Seen in 2018.

Review refers to the first season.

Modernized from the novel.

There are attempts to preserve the literary aspects of the original, but the style and plot gradually depart from that template. The Mexican trade delegation in episode 6 is the first major departure: There is explicit talk of how Gilead has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and of global warming wreaking havoc.

This adaptation was made in and for the presidency of Donald Trump. In episode 6, Fred Waterford—whose identity is a topic of speculation in the book’s epilogue—talks about upcoming terrorist attacks in a movie theater like a /pol/-trained neo-Nazi and his tradwife. She is a capable co-conspirator who helps author the laws of Gilead yet is surprised to find they apply to her. This sort of timeliness caused the show to win its Emmys, including the first streaming “best drama”.

Reading the show as a warning to its time and as Žižek’s “nostalgia for the present”, the implication is that somebody as regressive as Mike Pence, as venomous as Stephen Miller and as grim as Steve Bannon conquered all democratic institutions and all other resistance in one presidential term. However, the takeover appears to have happened just as suddenly as in the original, plunging a modern society with Uber and pervasive fourth-wave feminism directly into Atwood’s dystopia in one violent false-flag coup d’état.

This is not a Ziblatt-Levitsky scenario of democracy eroding from within through short-termist loyalty. Climate change, though it is acknowledged in that first major departure, does not seem to have been a real driver either. People of colour and gay characters are even more common than they were in the novel, further emphasizing progress made since the 1980s while pretending this progress adds no resilience.

The writers had plenty of room to treat this weakness. They chose to fail. Episode 7 seeks another new territory, a generic apocalyptic picaresque about the protagonist’s lost husband, presumed dead in the book. Episode 9 goes from there into soap-opera spycraft. Episode 10 adds a feel-good girl-power twist to the novel’s ending, a mismatched heroism to signal that the show is on the viewer’s side against tyranny. Atwood is better than that. Having run out of novel to steal from, and unable to emulate the original, the writers strand themselves.

References here: Story of Science Fiction (2018), Rapport från 2050 (2020), Night on Earth (2020).

moving picture adaptation fiction series