“I have the sneaking feeling things will get darker before dawn breaks…”
A year ago, Elisabeth Moss (Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu series) suggested viewers not binge-watch the episodes. Never one to play by the rules, that’s exactly what I did this month. I binge-watched. And then I started again from the beginning.
You see, I’m apparently the only human who didn’t dive into The Handmaid’s Tale when it first aired last April. Why not? Why did a lifelong fan of Margaret Atwood (and a woman who first read about the dystopian seas of Gilead back in 1987) refuse to watch the television adaptation? The answer is a simple combination of two factors: It was television. And it was an adaptation.
Atwood’s lyrical prose often reads more like poetry, so I feared an over-produced and rewritten hack job of the book. I even tried sitting through the first 10 minutes of episode one, my clicker poised like a drawn pistol in case my worst fears were realised. When the story began not with Offred imprisoned in a retrofitted high school gymnasium, but with a car chase scene, I clicked.
That was last year, and this is now. I’ve changed.
So what made me decide to give The Handmaid’s Tale another shot? For starters, I’ve a novel coming out that’s being compared to it. Although I think my book is quite different, there are those common patriarchal dystopian themes. The real persuasion, however, came from a talk I recently had with a television producer. Like me, this producer grew up as a film buff. Like me, she didn’t care for adaptations that depart from the original material. Unlike me, she’d kept an open mind.
I took an important message away from that conversation: you really can do a fine job with a television adaptation. Here are a few reasons why:
First, The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season is, in essence, the entire book. I suspect this was the initial plan, to run a 10-hour series and to include a beginning, a middle, and, finally, an end, very much in the way Atwood’s novel did. Rather than drawing a finite work out into a lengthy soap opera, the first season of THT has a satisfying self-containedness about it, but still leaves options.
We could end here, perhaps with an epilogue in the same vein as the book’s own, or we could fill in the space between Offred’s story and the eventual outcome, continuing for a second season. There’s plenty of white space to color in, plenty of gaps to be filled and questions to be answered. A second season now seems more necessary than superfluous. And with Atwood herself at the helm in the role of consultant producer, we don’t risk straying far from the main storyline.
As the novel was originally written for an audience in the Eighties, I’m especially interested to see where the directors take the blank canvas of season two, writing as they are for today’s audience. We’re witnessing exploding conversations around many aspects of feminism, such as the silencing of women and the #MeToo movement, to name only two. So attitudes and expectations from today’s audiences are clearly different from what they were when THT was published.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the cast becomes even more diverse: this is not a series about the plight of the white woman or the straight woman or the rich woman. The target is all women, and the skilled screenwriting and casting brings that to the foreground as it should. So I think season one laid a solid foundation for exploring any number of current issues in more depth.
Speaking of filling in gaps, I learned something new from my TV producer conversation. I learned to look at a television series not in terms of episodes, but in terms of hours. “Think of it as a movie, just longer,” she said. “Think of what doesn’t end up on the cutting floor.” In a feature film, how much time would be devoted to minor characters? Which details of Ofglen’s tragic fate and Moira’s heroic escape would we be permitted to see? To what extent would viewers be handed a world and asked to simply accept it?
There’s beauty in white space, I’ll admit. As a writer and reader of flash fiction (read: radically condensed short stories), white space whets our appetite, sketching out just enough details to allow our imaginations to run wild and explore. And Atwood’s novel is, at its heart, the handmaid’s tale, the tale told by a single character. This works well in literature, but when we transfer the story from page to screen, 10 hours seems a long chunk of time to focus on only one person, especially when Atwood’s rich world offers so many other focal points.
In this sense, I’m looking forward to seeing the Republic of Gilead (and, perhaps, its eventual fall) through the lens of other characters’ eyes. In particular, I’m sure Rita the Martha will shine a bright light on the nature of the resistance – on whether it is, in fact, a project to save the handmaids or to destroy Gilead. (These two goals could very well be in direct opposition.)
I’ve heard Ofglen Version 1.0 will be back, likely enduring a new life in the toxic colonies with the other Unwomen. Again, a story told from a single character’s point of view limits our own experience, so I do hope we get a taste of this other-world that Offred has heard about, but never witnessed. Luke and Moira, now reunited in Canada, will undoubtedly provide us with a glimpse into the international refugee scene. I won’t speculate on where their relationship will head, but I’m looking forward to watching the triangular and rectilinear relationships sort themselves out. And, of course, we’ll likely be seeing more of Serena Joy and Offred’s daughter.
Will there be redemption in season two? I don’t know. I have the sneaking feeling things will get darker before dawn breaks.
Now for a request: I took a chance watching the series. I risked being disappointed, and instead I was surprised. In my many conversations about The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve been asked a recurring question: Is the book good, too?
Yes. Yes, it is. And I hope that if you haven’t yet read Atwood’s masterpiece, you’ll give it a chance.
VOX by Christina Dalcher is published in hardback on 23 August 2018 (HQ, £12.99)
Images: George Kraychyk / Hulu