The Visceral, Woman-Centric Horror of The Handmaid's Tale

The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.


Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)

The cult status of the novel—which imagines an America in which Christian fundamentalists have staged a coup in the wake of a plummeting birthrate, forcing fertile women to bear children for powerful men and their wives—can be felt in how it’s transcended the realm of fiction to become a kind of cultural shorthand for female oppression. At the Women’s March on Washington in January, a number of signs read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.” In March, women in Texas dressed up as handmaids to protest bills undermining abortion rights in the state.

But though the book is often interpreted as a dystopian warning from the future, it’s rooted in historical realism. When Atwood was writing it in Berlin in 1984, she determined that she would put nothing into it that hadn’t already happened to women somewhere on earth. “Handmaid’s Tale is not a fantasy,” she told me. “It is a reality-based book. I call it DJ-ing reality, condensing reality into a mashup.” The novel has its origins in the 17th-century Puritans who settled in America, and in contemporary Afghanistan, and in Romania’s Decree 770, which dealt with a plummeting birth rate in the 1960s by outlawing contraception and abortion. That so many women feel so keenly attuned to it now demonstrates an acute awareness that the impulse to police women’s behavior and reproductive systems is as old as history itself.

In the face of this much advanced hype, many freshman shows might be tempted to slink quietly away, acknowledging that there’s just no way to meet these kind of expectations. But The Handmaid’s Tale has somehow managed to surpass them. It’s an astounding work of television, with a distinct visual palette that makes it seem as instantly authoritative as the book. The show’s creator, Bruce Miller, along with the cinematographer Reed Morano (who directed the first three episodes), have conjured a world whose aesthetics and strictures are rooted in and defined by womanhood. To call it “feminist horror” doesn’t do it justice, but there isn’t another genre that it quite fits. This is a world in which the cruelest oppressors are women who elect to subjugate other women to preserve some semblance of their own power. And the ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale explores this dynamic while expanding the world of the book reveals how visionary television can feel when it immerses itself in the experiences of women.

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One of the most immediately distinctive things about the show is that, like the book, its early episodes are experienced entirely from the point of view of its central character, Offred (played here brilliantly by the Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss). Information is parceled out in pieces, leading to a disorienting and oppressive sense of confusion, followed by the creeping horror of comprehending Offred’s reality. On the first page of the novel, Offred describes sleeping with groups of other women in a gymnasium, resonant with the nostalgic echoes of sweat and school dances and expectation. They lie on army cots, patrolled and indoctrinated by “Aunts” (women with cattle prods slung from their belts), and isolated from men, who can’t be trusted not to help them when coerced with the promise of female sexuality.

The premise of the book slowly unspools. A fertility crisis sparked by environmental degradation and antibiotic-resistant disease has led to the replacement of American democracy with a repressive theocratic regime in what’s now called the Republic of Gilead. Divorced women, gay women, and older women have been sent to clean up the “colonies”—nuclear-ridden wastelands that bring prolonged, excruciating, certain death. But women who are still fertile are conscripted to become “handmaids,” assigned to bear children for wealthy and powerful men and their barren wives. The origins for this arrangement are in Genesis 30: “And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die … And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

Handmaids sit beneath bodies hanging from The Wall (Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, when the new Christian right and the Moral Majority were ascendant after Ronald Reagan’s reelection. The same year, Mary Pride published The Way Home: Beyond Feminism Back to Reality. Pride, a conservative evangelical Christian and a leader in the burgeoning Quiverfull movement, outlined in the book how adopting a lifestyle of biblical patriarchy brought her happiness and fulfillment. “Childbearing sums up all our special biological and domestic functions,” she wrote. “God intended women to spend their lives serving other people … we are responsible for keeping society healthy and human. And for this, we get respect.” The ethos of Pride’s book can be summarized in its most brazen quote, a rebuke to second-wave feminism couched in its own language: “My body is not my own.”

Gilead, then, is a society built on right-wing Christian rhetoric that has gotten exactly what it wanted, thanks to a crisis that has enabled fundamentalists to label infertility as a plague from God. Offred is raped once a month by Commander Fred Waterford (her name is a patronymic signifying ownership—she is literally “of Fred”), while lying in the lap of Serena Joy, Fred’s wife, a former televangelist. Handmaids, Offred explains, are “two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” They’re women reduced to their most basic evolutionary capacity, and enlisted into sexual servitude.

The premise, on its face, is plausible and chilling enough that The Handmaid’s Tale has never gone out of print, and was recognized almost immediately as a 20th-century classic. But the book’s conceit is also provocative enough that it was untouched by Hollywood for more than 27 years. In the late ’80s, the playwright Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for a movie adaptation that few actresses wanted to be involved with, and few studios wanted to touch. Finally, the German auteur Volker Schlöndorff signed on, and the British actress Natasha Richardson was cast as Offred. The movie was a failure, but a fascinating one. Pinter, Atwood told me, wrote the script incorporating Offred’s inner monologue, and Schlöndorff and Richardson filmed it as such. But in editing, Schlöndorff cut the voiceover that Richardson had recorded, making her performance seem flat, and her character’s motivations hazy. Offred had been robbed of her voice.

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Bruce Miller, the creator of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, is aware of the deficiencies some might ascribe to him for adapting such a canonical book. After what was originally a Showtime/MGM project ended up with Hulu, Miller was approached as a potential showrunner. “I had the disadvantage of being a boy,” he told me, “but the advantage of having enthusiasm.” He’d been an avid fan of the book since college, and his proposal for the television adaptation was to moor it in the world of the novel. His resume is studded with fantastical shows (Alphas, The 100), shows set in distinctly American locales like Alaska and Colorado (Men in Trees, Everwood), and shows centered around compelling female leads (Medium, In Plain Sight). “One of the things that’s most memorable about [the novel The Handmaid’s Tale] is that you’re frustrated when it ends, you want to know what happens,” he said. “So in some ways you just follow that curiosity.”

The show’s richness lies in the juxtaposition of its spare, cogent language, and its lush, painterly visuals. Miller and the executive producer Warren Littlefield interviewed a number of directors, but they were most compelled by a meeting with Reed Morano, a cinematographer who’d worked on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the HBO show Vinyl. Although her resumé was light on directing experience, she presented them with a 60-page lookbook for the show, capturing the exact tone and emotional state they were aiming for.

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) sits in her bedroom (Hulu)

The book’s pre-Gilead scenes, experienced in flashbacks, have been expanded, and are set in a recognizably contemporary America, complete with smartphones, Uber drivers, and athleisure. All of this only makes the contrast with Gilead more striking. The aesthetics of The Handmaid’s Tale are part-Kubrick, part-Vermeer, with sweeping shots of Offred’s environment, and scenes that are as meticulously arranged as portraits, painterly in their precision and detail, particularly with regards to light (some walls were apparently repainted four times in order to achieve the right contrast with the characters’ color-coded clothes).

This visual precision came out of a reading of Gilead as an artificial and inorganic sort of place. “The world in Gilead is curated,” Miller told me. “It’s intentional. People have made that world the way it is, and the way it looks is someone’s understanding of the perfect place to live. So the first thing you look at in creating this world is looking at the intentions of the people who made it.” This affects everything from color-palette decisions (the wives of the commanders wear green in the show, not the original blue of the novel) to props: The cars, for instance, are hybrids, because one of Gilead’s founding principles is to reduce pollution by returning to a simpler way of life.

The TV adaptation, crucially, retains Offred’s inner monologue. Moss plays Offred as a mesmerizing, unshakeable presence; she was shot in such intense close-up that the camera reportedly banged into her head several times while filming. Moss said she also grounded her performance in the novel. “The book itself is all you need, it’s all there,” she told me. “It’s like someone wrote a giant essay on the character you’re playing, and spelled out what she’s thinking right now, and what she’s feeling. Anytime we were doing a scene from the book, which was 95 percent of the time, I could go back and look at it.”

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Though Offred’s voice defines the ways in which viewers experience the early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the show also pays solicitous attention to her primary antagonist. Atwood’s book is full of doubles: opposites, and parallels, and words with multiple meanings. “Offred” means “of Fred” but it also implies something “offered,” like a gift, or a sacrifice. The “Salvaging” events the Handmaids attend, at which they’re encouraged by the Aunts to beat prisoners to death, imply that souls are being saved, but also guttural, animalistic savagery. Handmaids walk everywhere in pairs, their faces obscured by oversize bonnets, giving them the appearance of twins. Offred’s oppositional force in the house of Commander Waterford, meanwhile, is Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), although the two are strangely united in their quest to provide the Waterfords with a baby.

Serena Joy is perhaps the most indelible character in the novel after Offred. A prominent singer and Christian activist, she’s undone by the very manifestation of the message she once preached. Recognizing her from TV, Offred recalls how “her speeches were about the sanctity of home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.”

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) sits in her bedroom (Hulu)

In the novel, it’s implied that Serena is past childbearing age, and in the 1990 movie she’s played resplendently by Faye Dunaway, who emanates ennui and disdain. Perhaps the biggest shift in the Hulu show is that Serena is younger, closer to Offred’s age, and more resentful of her as a result. “It sharpened the edges of what the dynamic between them would be,” Littlefield told me. “It added an element of competition and there but for the grace of God go I to every time they were on camera together.”

As in the book, the most memorable villains in the Hulu Handmaid’s Tale are women: Strahovski’s enigmatic Serena, Ann Dowd’s vicious Aunt Lydia. Dressed all in brown and stalking the gymnasium like an oversized bird of prey, Aunt Lydia has the zeal and sadism of a true believer, recalling some mix of Magdalene sisters and Soviet SPECTRE members. Her fervent faith in Gilead is matched only by her capacity to inflict physical violence on the girls in her care. But, Miller said, he and Dowd agreed that her interpretation of the character would rely on a sense that she’s doing the right thing. “She has a duty, and a job she needs to do that she really believes in,” he said. “But giving her a motivation that we can all relate to only makes her more villainous. How did she get from there to here?”

The complicity of many wealthy women in the tyranny of Gilead is another aspect of the show that sharpens its topical relevance, particularly after an election in which a majority of white women voted against a female president. But casting women as co-oppressors in the novel, Atwood told me, was merely another way of remixing history. “They’re the roles that women have always played,” she said. If someone were creating Gilead from scratch, she said, the most intuitive thing to do would be to enlist women in the policing of it, offering them limited power over other women. “There are always takers for that.”

The relationship between Offred and Serena is heightened in the TV adaptation to the point that it becomes the show’s most intriguing relationship. Serena’s resentment over having a younger woman in the house becomes a pathological hatred of a sexual interloper who’s also a reminder of Serena’s deficiencies as a woman. Yet her frustrated maternal instincts lead her to treat Offred with a kind of patronizing infantilism, telling her to finish her food so she can “join the clean-plate club,” praising her when she’s a “good girl,” and doling out cookies as treats.

Offred, in turn, fluctuates between antipathy for the woman who locks her in her room, and a reluctant sympathy. Filming one scene in the second episode, “I had this profound sense, as Offred, of empathy for her, of seeing the pain she was in,” Moss told me. “In any other world or society, they could have been friends. The most interesting thing for us to explore was how they’re two different sides of the same coin, and she could help Offred, but she won’t. ... I think Offred wants to believe that Serena will have empathy for her, and as you see more of the show, you realize it’s not possible.”

Strahovski’s performance is as sharp and as unpredictable as Moss’s, and together the two actors expertly mine the gender dynamics of Atwood’s book. Miller recalls Strahovski explaining, when she accepted the role, that she’d been offered strong women characters before, but never “a strong woman like this.” Serena’s fierce authority within her home is matched only by the fact that she has no real power at all—a fact explored in detail when her backstory is expanded later in the season. The relationship between Serena and Offred also sheds light on the question of how the story relates to contemporary womanhood, with its questions of intersectionality and white feminism. “In what universe have there been no class divisions among women?” Atwood asked. “They’ve been there in every society we’ve known anything about. So if you have a fairly exalted position like that, why would you jeopardize it?”

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There’s a reason technology is virtually nonexistent in Gilead: The regime is dependent on confusion. Were the handmaids or even the wives to have access to broad information about anything outside their own insular communities, it would destabilize the system. Which raises a question: How timely is The Handmaid’s Tale, really? Could a theocracy like this one really rise in a world of Facebook groups and Twitter protests and online organizing? Doesn’t the fact that so many people are anticipating the Hulu adaptation demonstrate that women are more highly sensitized now to their rights being taken away than they were 30 years ago?

Like any work of horror, The Handmaid’s Tale functions better as allegory than as realism. Gilead is founded on the back of events with contemporary parallels—climate change, disease, terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic fundamentalists—but the book itself is very much an analysis of history. That doesn’t mean parts of it don’t acutely resonate in the 21st century. “When I saw that witch and demon imagery being applied to Hillary Clinton, I thought, ‘We’re still in the 17th century,’” Atwood told me. Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to have dinner with women who aren’t his wife, for example, smacks of the same kind of Puritanism that saw women condemned as witches and harlots just for the virtue of being born female.

Handmaids walk toward their seats at a Salvaging (Hulu)

But just as horror stories reflect the distinct anxieties of their eras (zombies stand in for immigration, irradiated beasts for fear of nuclear fallout), the timelessness of Atwood’s story is hard evidence of how persistent hostility toward women has always been. Gilead is a world out of time, but also a world that has the ability to reflect each new society that encounters it. A scene in the book where the character of Janine is excoriated by the Aunts and the other handmaids for being gang-raped at a party, is an example of slut-shaming that was written by Atwood in 1984 before the term even existed. These instincts are as old as humanity, The Handmaid’s Tale tells us.

Perhaps, though, to be aware of them is to make them less insidious. The 1990 movie of The Handmaid’s Tale was received by (mostly male) critics who saw it as hysterical, criminally unerotic, and a symptom of the author’s misandry. The Hulu adaptation, thus far, has been met with rapturous praise. Atwood’s book was indeed prescient, but not because it predicted what a future American society might look like. Rather, it anticipated how much future readers and audiences might still, decades later, be able to learn from it.