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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ After Margaret Atwood’s Novel: A Future Imperfect Foretold
May 30, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t treading uncharted emotional territory as it reaches the midpoint of its harrowing, nerve-inducing second season — not exactly, anyway — but it’s charting new ground just the same, and doing it boldly and with confidence.

Sooner and more quickly than Game of Thrones writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were compelled to advance novelist George R.R. Martin’s original source material for their multiple Emmy-winning epic, The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller has found himself facing an even more daunting task: Namely, advancing Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 dystopian novel to its next, logical post-novel step.

As those who’ve been watching the harrowing second season already know, this Handmaid’s tale is darker, more troubling and more violent — emotionally, as well as physically. Atwood has suggested her original novel was loosely inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in context if not precisely in content. Even so, a 14th-century contextual blueprint aside, so much could have gone wrong with Miller’s efforts to go where not even Atwood had gone before.

It helps that Atwood (right) herself has offered to be a sounding board for the small-screen version’s new direction, but a sounding board only: Atwood had said that while she has more than a passing interest in where The Handmaid’s Tale goes from here, she does not have veto power. In other words, this is Miller’s tale to tell — or ruin, as the case may be.

Improbably and against early expectations, The Handmaid’s Tale won the Emmy for outstanding drama series in its first season, over a field that included Better Call Saul, The Crown, Westworld, and Stranger Things, to go along with a Television Critics Association award for achievement in drama. Without the blueprint of a Booker Prize-winning novel to work from, Miller faced a conundrum in his second season.   Margaret Atwood is no shrinking violet and had he done anything — anything — to annoy Atwood he would have heard about it.

Now that the streaming service Hulu has officially announced a third season — confirmation came just three weeks ago — the pressure can only grow from here.

Even as audience habits morph and change, the small screen has never seemed more topical and relevant than it is right now. It’s as if the new platinum age of television has morphed into something even more effective, even more connected and wired into our modern world, in ways not even the big screen screen could have imagined in its heyday in the early 1970s, when groundbreaking films like Easy Rider, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Conversation and too many others to name here both mirrored and reflected a fast-changing society driven by the civil rights movement, student protests against the Vietnam War and shifting cultural, social and moral attitudes.

Bruce Miller, the streaming service Hulu — not even Margaret Atwood herself — could have foreseen the new Handmaid’s Tale coinciding with the 2016 election results and the current US White House administration. There must be moments when Miller, Atwood — and the countless viewers who continue to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on a week-by-week basis — ask themselves, what happened here?

The Handmaid’s Tale is hard to watch, never more so than it is right now, midway through its second season. It’s the antithesis of TV-as-escapism. The idea of TV as a fun way to relax and kick back after a hard day at work — or the DMV licensing office, or trapped in gridlock traffic, or a slow-moving Starbucks line, or wherever you happened to get stuck today — has never seemed more remote than it is while watching Offred

In a Tale practically bursting with bravura performances, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role right now than Elisabeth Moss (top), a young actor with an almost uncanny ability — eerie, even — to convey hidden and yet deep-rooted, heartfelt emotions with just the faintest flicker in her eye or a passing shadow across her otherwise seemingly impassive face. Moss’ performance as Offred is arguably one of the finest performances ever committed to the screen, big or small — at least, that’s how it seems to be to me. It’s the subtlety that gets me. And TV, as a medium and as an acting platform, is not typically known for its subtlety.

Neither is Atwood, for that matter. As a novel, The Handmaid’s Tale was clear and blunt about the tale it was telling. While not a polemic exactly, it was not hard to guess what Atwood was trying to get at.

And yet, for all the TV version’s emotional violence, despite the allusions — some obvious, some not so obvious — to our present political climate, there’s a lot about this Handmaid’s Tale that’s understated. And it’s those understated moments that have a way of staying with one.

I didn’t think TV could get much better after Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, Fargo, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul — but damned if it hasn’t done exactly that.

Talking to the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, showrunner Miller confirmed he had several detailed conversations with Atwood about the characters’ future life paths following the first season, in ways both small and big, good and bad. Atwood had often asked herself what happened to these characters after the book — it’s been more than 20 years since her novel was first published, after all — so it wasn’t as if Miller was bringing these questions up for the first time.

The present political climate is not lost on Atwood.

“I don’t want you all to come to Canada right now, because I want you to stay here and vote,” Vanity Fair quoted her as saying last month, during an appearance before attendees at the New York Times’ inaugural TimesTalks Festival.

Atwood herself has found the second season to be absorbing and visceral — and intense. Collaboration only goes so far, though, she told Vanity Fair; Miller won’t let her see any second-season episodes “until he thinks they’re ready.”

The Handmaid’s Tale’s new season would not have been any different had Hillary Clinton been elected, she told the Times’ Tina Jordan, but it would have been perceived differently.

Interestingly, according to Atwood, not one script was changed after election night, Nov. 8, 2016.

“Nothing about the show changed,” she told the Times. “But the frame changed.”

Atwood likened her original novel to a form of “witness literature,” in which witnesses to — and victims of — torture and life under an oppressive regime keep secret journals of what’s going on, often at great risk to themselves. Atwood told Vanity Fair that she was struck how, at the end of the late Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, every person at the end of the book has memorized a book.

“There are pluses and minuses to that,” Atwood continued. “Kill the person, you kill the memory.”

In the recent episode, the portentously titled First Blood, the sixth of 10, there are the first tangible signs that the new world order of Gilead is about to tumble.

The signs can be read into the episode titles to come: This week’s follow-up to First Blood is called After; the June 20 episode is called The Last Ceremony, and the season finale — timed for July 4; read into that what you will — is called Postpartum.

Hard to watch, harder still to like — but easy to admire — this newly reinvented version of The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of television’s most demanding yet rewarding experiences, poignant and profound in equal measure, by turns harrowing and uplifting, often when least expected. Time will judge, of course, but right now it looks like a monumental achievement.

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