The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood and currently airing as a Hulu exclusive, is a 10-episode series by writer and creator Bruce Miller. Its story captures the never ending struggle for rights and control over our own lives with stunning visuals and a depth that doesn’t allow you to label any one character as a one-dimensional villain. However, it’s not cyberpunk, so why is Neon Dystopia reviewing it? Despite not containing enough cyberpunk elements to truly be considered bona fide cyberpunk, The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian as fuck in all the ways that I, as a cyberpunk fan, enjoy. In addition, we’re generally fans of Margaret Atwood as an author who has contributed to the cyberpunk genre with her other works such as Oryx & Crake, Year of the Flood and Maddaddam.
We’re just reviewing the first three episodes that were initially released, although more are out now. Follow us on social media if you’re interested in seeing reviews in the future, including an overall review of The Handmaid’s Tale at the end of the season.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes us to a dystopian future where pollution and radiation have caused fertility to plummet. In reaction to this and growing conservatism, women, gays, dissidents, and people who do not follow the Gileadean religion have been stripped of all rights. Some of the ladies lucky enough to remain fertile are forced to bear children to commanders and their wives. The story follows Offred as she starts her position as a handmaid in a new house, doing mundane chores such as going out and buying groceries for the household with a fellow handmaid (because handmaids go nowhere alone in this dystopia). Throughout the first few episodes we get flashbacks to the past, where everything looks quite familiar to the viewer while, inch by inch, people lose their rights, as well as flashbacks to the re-education center where Offred received her indoctrination in being a handmaid. It is at this re-education center where we get one of the most compelling lines of the book and series:
“This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will.”
The Handmaid’s Tale was originally written in the early 1980s, during a wave of conservative revival (sound familiar?) not too long after the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This movement was largely fueled by religious conservatives who criticized the excesses and hedonism of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. All of this served to raise fears that the freedoms gained in the previous decades, especially for women, would be reversed.
*Spoilers Beyond This Point*
I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read the book (seriously, I finished it in one night, it’s available on audiobook, not that I would know… but you can probably find it without even paying for it. Once you’ve had your fill of Neon Dystopia, go check out Margaret Atwood’s compelling dystopia).
The story closely follows the spirit of the book, if not the letter. The book is fairly short, I all but finished it in a single sitting, so exploring side stories, fleshing out characters and adding story details allows us to all study the horror Atwood imagined in more depth. Although certain scenes, quotes and all, follow the book quite faithfully, many are also out of order. For example, Ofglen is replaced in chapter 44 of 47 in the book, almost near the end, and Offred is told that she hung herself rather than be arrested. However, in the series, Ofglen is replaced in episode 3 and instead of ending her part in the story for the television series, it looks like Ofglen is going to get her own storyline. For serious nerds of the book, you will remember that in the final chapter, Professor Pieixoto admits that the tapes containing what became The Handmaid’s Tale were not numbered and so the researchers who originally transcribed the tapes had to guess at the order. Because of this, I give a lot more license to the order of the tale, as long as the themes are consistent, which they seem to be so far. My general opinion on deviations going from a book to a movie, or while doing a remake, is as long as it’s not a total retcon that significantly changes the plot or opens up major plot holes and as long as it keeps with the general themes and tones, it’s fine and often serves to make the story fit better in a cinematic context. But if it goes, for example, from a philosophical sci-fi to an action flick, I get really annoyed. The Handmaid’s Tale so far has not made me annoyed.
Another deviation to note: in the novel people of color were generally sent to live in the colonies. However, the series has decided to be more inclusive in its casting. Characters in the book who were implied to be white are played by people of color. I’ll leave it there as I am horribly under-qualified to comment on race, but if you’d like to read more about this topic, here is a post from Nerds of Color.
To some, elements in the story may come off as a bit too on the nose and dramatic in the current political climate, as the fight for abortion rights intensifies and authoritarian regimes rise, but remember that this story was written in the mid 80s, not last year, and this series was planned before Trump won the election. There’s a reason this book has never been out of print since it was originally published in 1985; we have always been fighting for every scrap of equality and freedom. Culture has been in a dynamic equilibrium with conservative and progressive elements. Personally, I am a child of the late 80s, so until recently, I had pretty much only experienced the progressiveness of the 90s. I did not see feminist issues as unimportant, but neither did they have a large impact on my life until after the election. I took Planned Parenthood for granted. I did not question my right to have a job. I happily celebrated wins for LGBTQIA communities and hoped to cheer on many more. Maybe I remember it with rose-colored glasses now, but even internet freedom and privacy laws were trending in encouraging directions. However, since the election, the tone of society has changed. I have been told that I shouldn’t have a job as a woman because I am taking a job from a man and violating gender roles. I now worry about access and cost of healthcare and birth control that I once took for granted. Things are much worse for minority groups of all kinds. And forget about your dreams of an open internet. Our rights and freedoms are more precarious than I ever knew. Under the current regime, this problem has seen a shocking flood into the light of day. This makes the book and series doubly horrifying and impactful for me. I started listening to the novel, when I couldn’t sleep one night and didn’t take a break until I’d basically finished it. It’s no bedtime story, but for the same reasons this book spoke to me, I think it’s going to be an important and timely series to watch.
Although lacking somewhat in cyberpunk themes and visuals, watch this show for the disturbing social commentary and because it’s fucking beautiful. There are some great scenes showing us the police state in action but most of the visuals, although gorgeous, have a retro 1950s vibe overlaid with heavy dystopian elements. A high contrast between the red cloaks of the handmaids set against a dystopian backdrop adds to the drama. In public, the handmaids wear stark red dresses and cloaks with large white bonnets which severely limit their peripheral vision. Some of the show is filmed showing only the handmaid’s face, framed by these “wings,” where we know little of what is happening and much of the story is told by facial expression. This works out wonderfully as it gives an idea of how the handmaids must feel, with their view of the world so limited, and Elisabeth Moss is excellent at telling a story with her face alone, or with the addition of snarky and intelligent inner monologue. Despite the frequent inner monologuing, the show does a good job of showing and not telling. We don’t hear descriptions of what we can see on screen, neither are we simply told how Offred feels (her face tells us all we need to know), rather, the inner monologuing gives us refreshing quips, relevant details, and timely transitions into flashbacks.
Overall, we can’t give The Handmaid’s Tale a perfect score without heavy cyberpunk visuals and themes but we strongly recommend it for anyone who loves a good dystopia (even without the neon). The acting, production value and story are all excellent and we’re personally looking forward to the rest.
The Handmaid’s Tale – 8/10
You can watch The Handmaid’s Tale over at Hulu, or get a copy of the book here. If you’d like to delve into Atwood’s cyberpunk works, you can find them here.
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