Sunday Reads: Of Cannibals and HandmaidsPosted: April 30, 2017
As I write this post I am watching the Hulu presentation of The Handmaid’s Tale…for the third time. I’ve wanted to write about this series, but the situation of late has been so depressing that watching hours of a possible futuristic society for our daughters…has not been high on my list of priorities.
I’ve read the book, ages ago. So long in fact, that I can’t remember much of the specifics. Certain things stick of course…but several changes have been made to transition the book to the screen.
When Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she gave the world a dystopian masterpiece: the story of a woman named Offred who’s only purpose in the theocratic Republic of Gilead is to get pregnant and be a surrogate for her new owners. The book is back in vogue in a big way, thanks to a certain U.S. president (his name rhymes with Grump) and a new TV adaptation that premieres in Canada this Sunday. Here, aspiring Atwood aficionados, we pinpoint five major ways that the two-hour premiere differs from the novel. Spoilers ahead—obviously.
Be sure to go and read the other changes but I wanted to point these out:
Ofglen gets fleshed out
ON PAGE: Little is known about Ofglen, the Handmaid assigned to accompany Offred on all her errands (Handmaids always walk two by two). Still, she becomes a compelling character as a member of Mayday, the covert resistance against Gilead, whose survival instincts and knowledge help Offred. Eventually, Ofglen is discovered as a member of Mayday, and she hangs herself rather than enduring Gilead’s torture.
ON SCREEN: Alexis Bledel’ Ofglen gets a meatier storyline, which gives ol’ Rory Gilmore a chance to shine—she displays a surprising mastery of delivering subtext through little more than meaningful glances. The added information is both excellent and deeply sad. Ofglen tells Offred that she used to be a college professor, and that she recently attempted to escape to Canada with her partner. In the show, Ofglen is gay, which is forbidden. It adds an extra layer of horror when she is caught by The Eyes, Gilead’s secret police.
Handmaids once used Tinder
ON PAGE: Atwood provides very few details that hint at when The Handmaid’s Tale takes place or how long it has been since the U.S. dissolved into Gilead. This makes Gilead an eternal threat: the revolution could happen any time.
ON SCREEN: Flashbacks feature Uber, Tinder and artisanal coffee shops, making it far easier to situate Gilead in the modern era—perhaps just a few years from now. The Eyes also have earpieces and sharp black cars, instead of the horses and truncheons they use in the book. It’s an astute change: it’s a lot more terrifying for audiences to imagine Offred being taken out of today’s world than the distant past.
I do think that bringing it up to present day makes it more immediate…in that sense of desperation. That this sort of life is something that could happen just around the corner.
The much-anticipated Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel from 1985 does not disappoint expectations; in fact, it delivers an aptly horrifying and prescient treatment of the story’s increased relevance. You see, for women, the personal is the political, and vice versa. I was reminded of this while recently re-viewing the excellent documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which chronicles the birth of the women’s movement of the late 1960s. In recent months, American women have seen rising complacency about sexist behavior as well as the normalizing of misogynist rhetoric. There is also a threat to our hard-won reproductive rights. The chatter around this new series has been enlivened by its eerily-accurate reflection of our present situation, which may yet escalate into a future not unlike the one depicted in this television adaptation.
Atwood’s novel was published to rave reviews and devoured by feminists, science fiction fans, and curious readers around the world. In the Republic of Gilead, in the not too distant future, women have lost all rights to their bodies, their reproductive autonomy, their livelihoods, and even their names. Atwood’s novel is narrated in the first person by Offred, a young woman whose name at first seems a comment on the bright red robes — flamboyant yet puritanical — that she and others like her are forced to wear. We soon realize women are referred to by the names of their fathers: “Ofglen” or “Ofwarren.” They have no jobs, are not allowed to own property, read books, or watch television. And oh, by the way, the young fertile ones are forced to bear children for complete strangers.
The review discusses an overview of the first episode of the series, but this is what I want to cut to:
One reason The Handmaid’s Tale (written by Bruce Miller, who also co-produced sci-fi series The 4400 and The 100 and is working on Jenji Kohan’s new series about the Salem Witch Trials, The Devil You Know) resonates strongly today is that the flashback scenes (memories of the world referred to as “Before”) take place in what looks very much like the present day: hip hop music plays on iPods, cafes serve complicated low-fat coffee drinks, an intimidating military presence makes use of semi-automatic rifles and wears black knit hats in the mode of Colorado hipsters, people buy used Volvos on craigslist. But there are differences: fascism is approaching, but the characters can’t quite believe it is taking place. When anger builds and there are marches and demonstrations, the police/military (there’s no real separation between the two anymore and, if you doubt this, see the recent documentary Do Not Resist) shoot unarmed protesters with impunity. Women are finally rounded up and reassigned according to their utility: as domestic servants (Marthas) or incubators (Handmaids). Known lesbians may be punished with “mercy” or “redemption”—I won’t spoil a particularly moving and harrowing scene by explaining those euphemisms further.
This article also brings up a change in the series from the book that is also of note:
The Handmaid’s duty is completed via bizarre ceremonies and rituals that center on impregnation and birth; the arrangement is strange, intimate, and humiliating for all involved. The overarching purpose is to serve God; but religion is an oddly cold and distant presence here. Offred is frequently heard speaking to God for help; but the constant anachronistic phrases uttered by the denizens of Gilead (“blessed be the fruit,” or “go with grace” or “praise be,” or even “under His eye,” which also refers to the “eyes” of surveillance) ring hollow given the violence and tyranny that govern America’s hypocritical culture. Those who managed to escape to Canada when things started changing are the lucky ones. In Atwood’s novel, Japanese tourists come to gawk at the strangely dressed and morally backwards citizens of Gilead. In one of several bold — but intriguing — changes to Atwood’s work, this society is a multi-cultural one. June and Luke have an interracial marriage, white June’s best friend Moira is African-American. In the 1985 novel, the new regime “rounded up” people of color and relocated them to Midwest camps.
I wondered if the change from Atwood’s novel could have been more powerfully done. After all, racist policies are currently being directed towards American immigrants; it would make sense that Gilead’s brand of authoritarianism would attempt to control to all expressions of the Other, not just women. Still, there are examples of the indignity of social rank, based on socioeconomic and class status. The handsome driver who works for Offred’s “Commander” is of “such low status” that he has not yet been “assigned a woman.” Meanwhile, the treatment of the people who protest the government — men, women, young, old, every race imaginable — is egalitarian. The spray of bullets that sends them fleeing for cover is remarkably democratic in its range and efficacy. As Offred says, “There will be no mercies for members of the resistance.”
Yet the most terrifying parts of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are the flashbacks, to a time very much like ours.
Before the coup, Offred has freedom, a job, Uber. Then things start to change — little things. Women are having trouble conceiving. The government becomes more reactionary. One day, a coffee shop clerk, unprovoked, calls her and her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), “sluts.”
Something primal and angry is awakening. Some people are exhilarated: Finally, they can say what’s on their minds, without the PC thought police cracking down! The show is also attentive to how progressive men can back-burner the concerns of women. Offred’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), for instance, is convinced that the craziness is bound to blow over.
It doesn’t. An intermediate layer of flashbacks finds Offred, Moira and a class of future handmaids at a re-education center being indoctrinated, with homilies and a cattle prod, by Aunt Lydia (a coolly imperious Ann Dowd). “This may not seem ordinary to you right now,” she tells them. “But after a time it will.”
The line is terrifying because it rings so true. You may not believe that anyone, in real life, is actually Making America Gilead Again. But this urgent “Handmaid’s Tale” is not about prophecy. It’s about process, the way people will themselves to believe the abnormal is normal, until one day they look around and realize that these are the bad old days.
And I think that scene in the coffee shop is one of the most disturbing, for me…because it is something that we are seeing nowadays…with more and more frequency.
Offred thinks, “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists, and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either.” Yowza. Dystopian nightmare fulfilled.
Flashback to June and Moira jogging in the city, earbuds in, as Peaches‘, F**k The Pain Away plays. Seems like a normal enough thing, but when they jog by a woman on the street, she looks them up and down and gives them the dirtiest look. And I realize, mmm no, all is not well.
At a coffee shop, a mouthy little jerk of a cashier, harasses Moira and June after June’s credit card is declined for insufficient funds, which makes no sense to her since she just deposited her paycheck. He calls them “f*cking sluts.” And then tells them to “Get the f*ck out of here.” So I guess this is the moment when the “it” that happened starts to happen. Clearly, this dude’s feeling himself with a dose of extra strength straight-white-male-privilege.
And what is worse, that behavior is something that is not being called out, rather it is being egged on by a population led by the “Grab your pussy” President and elected officials…(I’m including the asshole Sanders in that mix as well.)
Image below is a still from the coffee shop scene.
In Trump’s America, everything is political, and all of pop culture becomes commentary, whether it wants to be or not. From the beginning of 2017, TV shows from Scandal to The Young Pope to Big Little Lies have been mined for insights about our new political reality, despite having been written and filmed well before the election. But you won’t see a more timely or essential onscreen story this year than Hulu’s extraordinary rendering of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, reimagined as a fundamentalist nightmare for the Mike Pence era.
Full disclosure up front: my experience with The Handmaid’s Tale extends to the three episodes made available for review. We’ll have plenty of coverage for those familiar with the book here at Pajiba over the upcoming weeks, but I think a show should stand on its own, regardless of source material. If you have to have read the book/seen the movie/followed the Instagram account in order to fully understand the television adaptation, then that adaptation has failed. It undoubtedly means certain scenes, certain interactions, and certain imagery in those episodes will resonate differently for those who have read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. But absolutely no power was lost upon this particularly newbie to this dystopian world.
If I could sum up the overwhelming subtext of this show, it would be this: “We are not doing nearly enough to prevent this from actually happening.” The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t take place in a future far removed from ours, and at times feels as if set tomorrow. This is a show that suggests The Women’s March on Washington this past January was a cute digression on the path towards the inevitable subjugation of women, a path forged by men via nuclear fire in order to clear the path for a return to a more “civilized” time. This isn’t a show in which the right side initially wins: Ideological purity trumps the concept of compromise little by little, until the ground falls out completely beneath those that had no idea just how rocky the terrain had become.
I use the verb “trump” there intentionally, because it’s absolutely, positively impossible to not view The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of the last year. There’s a scene early in the third episode in which a barista, newly emboldened by the government’s increasingly sexist legislation in the days before the shit truly hits the fan, feels free to call two women who have just gone for a run “sluts.” They aren’t wearing anything particularly revealing: They are in what one might consider “normal” workout clothes, but they do show a bit of skin, and that skin is glistening with sweat, and that’s enough at this point in the narrative’s timeline for that to be the new benchmark. The word “slut” is uttered as much in relief as in hatred, as if this person has been holding it in for decades and feels happy to finally say it. It’s not hard to link this scene with the rise of those emboldened by Trump’s victory to overtly and publicly say things meant to demean other races, sexualities, cultures, customs, and anything that doesn’t look the same when viewed in the mirror.
Interview with Atwood:
Things like this are creepy to read about:
There’s a women’s march that occurs in The Handmaid’s Tale, which was filmed before Donald Trump was elected president and well before the actual Women’s March on Washington.
Image above is a sketch by Margaret Atwood.
Just a few more links on the series:
Found on Facebook:
Yeah, just to tie into the whole patriarchal thing….and threats.
“I want to thank Ambassador Nikki Haley for her outstanding leadership and for acting as my personal envoy on the Security Council. She is doing a good job. Now, does everybody like Nikki?” Trump said, according to reporters present at the White House event. “Otherwise she could be easily replaced, right? No, we won’t do that. I promise you we won’t do that. She’s doing a fantastic job.”
‘It was criminal once before, and it is their intent to make it criminal again,’ says Dr Willie Parker
And a few more disgusting shit stories for good measure:
We bring you now the “Women are Objects” section of the thread:
(Er…the whole damn post is women are objects.)
That video is just plain disturbing on so many levels. Especially the freaky dude saying the sex dolls will cut down on rape and assault. WTF?
And as if all this wasn’t depressing enough:
In order to avoid males of the species bothering them for sex, female dragonflies fake their own deaths, falling from the sky and lying motionless on the ground until the suitor goes away.
A study by Rassim Khelifa, a zoologist from the University of Zurich is the first time scientists have seen odonates feign death as a tactic to avoid mating, and a rare instance of animals faking their own deaths for this purpose. Odonates is the order of carnivorous insects that includes dragonflies and damselflies.
In other sad news this week…we lost one of our best directors in film.
Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme died Wednesday in New York of cancer complications, his publicist told Variety. He was 73 years old.
Demme is best known for directing “The Silence of the Lambs,” the 1991 horror-thriller that was a box office smash, a critical triumph, and introduced moviegoers to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, a charismatic serial with a yen for chianti, fava beans, and cannibalism. The story of a novice FBI analyst (Jodie Foster) on the trail of a murderer became only the third film in history to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories ( picture, actor, actress, director, and adapted screenplay), joining the ranks of “It Happened One Night” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Though he had his greatest success terrifying audiences, most of Demme’s work was looser and quirkier. In particular, he showed a great humanism and an empathy for outsiders in the likes of “Melvin and Howard,” the story of a service station owner who claimed to have been a beneficiary of Howard Hughes, and “Something Wild,” a screwball comedy about a banker whose life is turned upside down by a kooky woman. He also scored with “Married to the Mob” and oversaw “Stop Making Sense,” a documentary about the Talking Heads that is considered to be a seminal concert film.
I loved Married to the Mob…it is one of my favorite films.
Jonathan Demme, one of the American cinema’s finest, most insistently humanist directors, has died at the absurdly young age of 73, from complications of throat cancer and heart disease.
It’s hard to imagine New York or the world or the movies without Demme in the house. How do you eulogize someone whose overriding aspect is aliveness?
I guess you start by simply naming some of his wonderful movies, in chronological order: Caged Heat, Handle With Care, Melvin and Howard, Swing Shift, Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Beloved, Rachel Getting Married, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, A Master Builder … Those are my favorites, but many of the others are vital, too — Swimming to Cambodia, Cousin Bobby, his Haitian documentaries, his brave and urgent remake of The Manchurian Candidate, his patchy but exuberant Ricki and the Flash …
In 2002, I wrote an article about Demme for the New York Times in connection with his loose remake of Charade, The Truth About Charlie — a difficult piece because the movie was plainly a dud. It was, however, a generous and overflowing dud, and an excellent prism through which to view the man the Times’ headline writer called “the Happy Hipster of Film.” For one thing, Demme’s camera was always swerving off the main actors to catch street performers or passersby or people he knew.
“There seem to be no extras,” I wrote, “only characters from movies yet to be made … Mr. Demme tries to cram in the maximum amount of life per square inch of movie screen.” (The “Mr.” thing is Times style and is reproduced accordingly.)
“Other faces that show up in Mr. Demme’s films are from his vast circle of acquaintances, business associates and creative influences – so that watching his movies is like looking through a scrapbook of his life. In The Truth About Charlie, Mr. Demme not only salutes Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) with an excerpt; he brings in its star, Charles Aznavour, to serenade the lovers.
Read that link in full…it has some good parts.
I know that I only focus on that one scene in the coffee shop. There are many other that spoke to me, as I am sure there are scenes that spoke to you. (The Salvaging being one of them.) But I thought it best not to go too fully into the series. I do think it is something that people need to see.
Even if the ones who truly need to realize the situation, and are the ones who would get the most out of the show’s message…still do not get their eyes open by the end of the third episode.
Yeah, from my experience…with my husband at least, he does not think a handmaid society is anywhere near within reach. Like the husband “Luke” in the show, who is a patronizing ass…he is completely complacent to the warning signs that seem to blare like the sirens and explosions that go on around him.
But it is all there folks. And what the fuck are we going to do, I don’t know how to get this message to the “Guardians” among us. Do you?
That is my offering today. It is depressing I know…but it is an open thread.