Any fans of the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel would have been waiting anxiously for the Channel 4 TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Even those who haven’t read the book will no doubt have been intrigued by the bizarre dystopian concept Atwood has imagined.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of this ten-part series has been that the 32-year gap between the novel’s publication and its arrival on the small screen is barely detectable. What Atwood suggested would be at the forefront of our concerns all those years ago is frighteningly applicable today.
The preliminary feelings provoked whilst watching are stronger than your usual drama – fear, tension and even rage. Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian future unlike any other; women’s fertility has become an exchangeable currency, both male and female sexuality has been repressed and is dictated by biblical scripture, with modern day technology all but disappeared. Indeed, you would almost believe that Atwood was imagining a society of the past and not the future.
However, what is so eerie about seeing this society on screen is that the similarities between this fictional world and our own are palpable. Through flashbacks of the protagonist ‘Offred’ (Elizabeth Moss) the story of how our world collapsed into the ‘backward’ society of Gilead is told. A puritanical Christian government takes over, every woman’s back account is blocked and fertile women are kidnapped and ‘re-educated’ into the importance of giving up their freedom for the greater good and used as breeding machines.
It provokes a question which is increasingly relevant today. In a world with a rising population, a woman’s right to deny having children is a popular aspect of forward-thinking feminism. However, The Handmaid’s Tale takes this question and places it in volatile territory: if mankind was facing extinction, would a woman maintain that right?
An unrealistic future to question? Perhaps. But as plenty of the characteristics of Gilead exist in reality (women covered from the male gaze, the normalisation of rape, the repression of sexuality – all dictated under the guise of religious teachings), can the potential realism of this be denied? As mentioned, the morals of Atwood’s society seem to be something of the past that Western society believes it has moved on from – but The Handmaid’s Tale serves as an eerie warning of how easily we can slide back.
After all, is the idea of a rising western power who isolates and segregates one portion of the population so implausible? Additionally, a power that argues against the rights of women to possess this choice? Yes, there are plenty of ‘walls’ in Gilead. And regardless of whether you draw similarities between Atwood’s dystopia and Donald Trump’s policies, the sharp rise in book sales for The Handmaid’s Tale the day after Trump’s inauguration suggests that, for many, Gilead amplifies their fears for the future.
Whatever the answer, it is a reminder of the biological chains which will always be tied to women and however much they are loosened, there is always the opportunity for someone or something to pull them tight. And as we see in a particularly heart-breaking and brutal slow motion scene of police-violence, it doesn’t matter how many men and women stand up for equality if those in power are against it.
What’s more, the concern of environmentalism provides an underlying tension throughout. Whatever your stance on climate change (unless you are one of the niche thinkers who believe it isn’t happening), it is hard to ignore the didactic undertones on this subject: in order to move forward, mankind irrevocably charged towards the collapse of its own world. And even for those who hope we will get a grip on global warming before it consumes us – is the idea of a decaying environment, where resources are so scare they are replacing currency, another unimaginable future?
In short, The Handmaid’s Tale is more than just a drama in an imaginary world. It is a terrible autopsy into the public conscious and probes at what we fear for the near future. Whereas the most popular dystopian futures we witness through entertainment often seem too far away to move us (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100), The Handmaid’s Tale always maintains itself in some way or another within touching distance of today. And it is this uncanny feeling that Gilead is just a little too close that makes it more than an imaginative fantasy-drama – it is as much a horror.