'The Handmaid's Tale' is brilliant. It will break your heart

Commentary: Hulu's TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel is as perfect a take as we could have wished -- even when it goes off on its own.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read

"There are to be no toeholds for love. We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices."

-- Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's Tale," 1985

When Hulu started making a TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale" in 2016, the studio couldn't have known how terrifyingly apropos it would become in the first half of 2017.

The story of conservative religious values taken to their logical extreme conclusion -- and the ramifications thereof for women -- feels way too close for comfort.

I watched the first three episodes, and I was transfixed. "The Handmaid's Tale" is brilliant. It's harrowing. And it will break your heart.

Like Atwood's novel, the story takes place in an alternative America. It's now the Republic of Gilead, under the control of Christian fundamentalists who launched a revolution, killed the president and suspended the constitution. Men and women have been sorted into classes. Women can't work or own property, and due to a combination of disease and chemical warfare, most people, men and women, are infertile.


Elisabeth Moss as Offred.

Take Five/Hulu

Men of the highest class, Commanders, are therefore allocated "Handmaids." These are women whose fertility has been proven with the birth of a healthy child after fertility started to decline, and who committed "gender crimes," thus justifying their reproductive slavery.

That's the role of our protagonist, Offred, played to perfection by Elisabeth Moss.

Her name is literally "Of Fred," the naming convention for Handmaids indicating who their "owners" are. They're no longer considered human, but possessions, to be disposed of when they demonstrate a repeat inability to provide a child. Her position is a precarious one.

In the novel, there's a sparseness to Atwood's language, the paucity of freedom and lack of trust reflected in the grudging delivery of information. Much of Offred's story must be inferred by reading between the lines. It's a narrative that unfolds, not a linear one.

One of the challenges with adapting a literary work for screen is capturing the tone the language conveys and translating that to a visual medium. This is where director Reed Morano has excelled. The tones are cool, even the brilliant scarlet of the Handmaids' shapeless robes. The lighting is sharp and bright. It's a harsh and cruel world Offred has found herself in, violent and intolerant and treacherous. Anyone can report anyone else for an infraction. No kindness can be trusted -- everything has significance and anything could have a hidden price.


All this is offset by the contrast between Offred's inner monologue and external reality, narrated in confiding tones by Moss. She masks her expressions, does as she's told, pretends to accept the showy generosity of those above her, tries to appease others by seeking safety in meekness. All the while, though, she lives a rich inner life in which she curses and makes observations about the people around her she could never voice aloud. She also remembers her past life in aching snippets.

There are small moments of incredible beauty, too -- the camera panning to an overhead view of a group of Handmaids consoling one of their own, their embrace turning into a red-and-white flower of compassion.

Initially, the series, set to run for 10 episodes, sticks pretty closely to the events of the book. There are a few changes -- Serena Joy, the Commander's wife, for whom Offred is expected to bear a child, is younger and prettier, played by Yvonne Strahovski. The Commander, too, is younger and prettier, played by Joseph Fiennes. Both bring a pathos and relatability to their roles, hinting at a much more complex Gilead. Even for those at the top, the chains of oppression rankle.

Events have shifted position in the narrative, and it's not long before new material starts to thread its way into the story, mainly to do with Offred's shopping partner, Ofglen, played by a sombre Alexis Bledel. This can be a tricky thing to do well. The creative team for "The Handmaid's Tale," however, includes Atwood as a consulting producer, and that's made a difference. The new material is seamlessly integrated.


The story is also updated with more recently revealed atrocities. As Atwood said in a Reddit AMA last month, there's "nothing in the book that didn't happen, somewhere." She was inspired by "what some people said they would do re: women if they had the power (they have it now and they are)."

Seeing that on screen, seeing it now, seeing it brought to life, is shocking. And yet, at the same time, it isn't. It's so easy to slip into Offred's red shoes and consider how easily we could slide into this state a little at a time. Death by a thousand cuts.

A woman's right to reproductive choice is still a topic of hot debate in the US, with lawmakers and the new Trump presidency seeking to take it away. Women are still blamed for sexual assault, and there's even a contingent -- albeit a small one at this point -- who believe women shouldn't work, or own property, or be allowed to vote. There are parts of the world in which these things are already happening. By recontextualising them in an American setting, "The Handmaid's Tale" shows us that these restrictions and oppressions aren't as far as we might like to think.

In the 30-plus years since it was first published, "The Handmaid's Tale" has been adapted into a film starring Natasha Richardson, a radio play, a stage play and even a ballet. This is, in my opinion, the best adaptation to date, and it still stands as a deeply disturbing cautionary tale. We'd be foolish to ignore it. I can't recommend it more highly.

"The Handmaid's Tale" launches in the US on Hulu on April 26.

Solving for XX: The industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."

Special Reports: All of CNET's most in-depth features in one easy spot.