I am a big fan of the book. I know a lot of people studied it at school and that may have spoiled it for them in some ways, but I didn’t read it until my late twenties and I think I could understand and appreciate it a lot better. Most importantly to me it was a good story, with an intricate universe, well developed characters, and a carefully paced plot. It doesn’t matter how strong your message is if it’s not a book that I want to keep picking up. I never felt like I was being overwhelmed with the message at the heart of the book, I wasn’t being lectured at or told off, just calmly shown a way that things can go which was terrifyingly believable.
In praising the book, I praise the TV series, because it has captured everything that I thought great about the book and made the most of all the opportunities that television offers. I can’t remember enough details from the book to know if the story is exactly recreated, but it gets all the big things right – the message and the feel. It’s certainly not an easy show to watch, but I still enjoyed it – there’s enough character and humour in it to make it something that you want to watch, not just something you should watch.
What the medium of television adds is the visual. I’m not someone who reads a book deliberately visualizing what I’m reading, I couldn’t describe what I think people look like or what the light is like, even when the book describes that explicitly I tend to skim it or forget it. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautiful to watch though, the style of the world so complex but simple – the future and the past, austere but luxurious. The framing and the grand spectacles could feel contrived for the sake of an eye catching shot, but they fit right in with the controlled nature of Gilead.
The other visual that you get of course is the body language and facial expressions of the actors, and so much is said without words by this incredible ensemble. Elisabeth Moss (who will forever be President Bartlett’s daughter to me) is phenomenal. Aided by an occasionally unnecessary (but often laugh out loud funny) voice over, there is never a moment of doubt as to how she’s trying to pretend to the world around her and what she’s really feeling. But the rest of the cast is also fabulously nuanced, Joseph Fiennes as Fred is charmingly creepy (or creepily charming) but it’s Yvonne Strahovski as Serena that I actually actually found the most interesting character – trapped yet in control, powerless yet proud. As with any great film making, it’s often the moments and scenes without words that have the most effect and that’s down to everyone involved – actors, directors, lighting, music and sound; some of those moments have remained with me for a long time (the circle of handmaids with stones, the march on the bridge, Ofglen’s face, the letters, the walk in the last episode).
The level of sexual and emotional violence makes it a very hard watch. The horror of the situations are not often clearly spoken aloud and that could be taken as an excuse to ‘not see’ what is really happening – as of course many of the characters are choosing. When it is spoken, and people finally use the word rape, it is devastatingly powerful, but there are other, more intimate and emotional tortures that are not verbally acknowledged, words that even this programme shies away from which nags in the back of my brain somewhat. It’s a show that cries out to be discussed, but at the same time you don’t want to talk about it because it’s so awful. This hits on all levels – the emotional connection to the individual characters, the depressing impact on the society and the how believable it is that small deviations from our own world (increasingly small sometimes) could credibly lead to their world.
There are miss-steps in the series. The pacing doesn’t always work, sometimes spending too long in flashbacks, or too long with other characters. It feels a little like Walking Dead sometimes when you spend too long away from one group of characters and find yourself disconnected from everything. However overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is stunning. Both in the sense that it’s a beautiful piece of film making craft; and the sense that the emotional punch leaves you stunned. One of the best television series I have seen in years.