The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4, Sundays, 9pm) isn’t an easy fit for the small screen. It’s the story of Offred, a woman living in an American dystopia called Gilead. Here, infertile nutcases harvest fertile women for surrogate breeding, under the guise of religious fundamentalism.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel is told entirely from Offred’s point of view, which means we see Gilead from just one, limited perspective. Put Gilead on telly, however, and as the camera pans out we spot the flaws in Atwood’s creation. Who does all the work? How does Gilead feed itself? How, in the middle of a war, does everything stay so weirdly clean?
As a smart Twitter critic said, this novel was a fable, not a prophecy. The TV version is being read by some as an indicator of where America is going – as if Donald Trump was a Christian ayatollah. But Trump’s theology is childlike; he’s the most socially liberal Republican president since Gerald Ford. The Evangelical right is liberalising, not getting more conservative. It hates Islam, which it doesn’t understand because it never encounters it, but is increasingly pro-gay and even feminist. Gilead is much more like Raqqa than latter-day Alabama – but liberal fans probably won’t appreciate the implied critique of Islam.
Atwood, I suspect, wouldn’t mind it. Gilead was never supposed to be Christian. Jesus is not mentioned (to my memory) and mainstream Christian denominations are persecuted. The rape of handmaids is taken not from the New Testament but the Old: the story of Rachel and Bilhah. There are sly digs at liberal feminists who hate porn and are willing to ally with conservatives to ban it.
All this is there in the TV version if you’re broadminded enough to see it, and the show is compelling. It’s missing something, though. There was an even less visually convincing adaptation made by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff in 1990 that at least benefited from stronger casting. The 2017 Gileadeans are creepy and reserved, a bit wooden. Schlöndorff’s were played by Robert Duvall and the brilliantly wicked Faye Dunaway. Go rent it for those two alone.
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