The Handmaid’s Tale, Critical Debate and Adaptation

Literary adaptation is a problematic art form and is very much a hot topic at present with the runaway success of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). Taut, politically astute and imbued with dread the adaptation does not adhere strictly to the text and yet is paradoxically faithful to it in terms of capturing the nuances of Atwood’s cautionary tale.  

The adaptation has come at an apt moment and eerily reflects critical examples of state violence and oppression that are current. FGM, radical evangelicalism, homophobia and attacks on women’s reproductive rights are starkly presented and have their seeds in the novel. Atwood famously used precedent for everything she presented in the novel from the role of the handmaids to the salvagings. Since the publication of the novel in the 1980’s, Atwood’s novel has come to reflect the reality of many women’s lives rather than become an anachronism of a time now past. In this way it shares similarity with Orwell’s 1984 that has never also never dated or lost its impact. 

I was curious to observe and participate in discussion forums about The Handmaid’s Tale and have spent a week or so making occasional comments and reading posts. I have now withdrawn from that.  In part, life is just too short but also I found the level of some – not all – comment facile. I appreciate and support the right for everyone to take part in debates and to express opinions and clearly the adaptation has ignited a great deal of passionate conversation. However, when a particular thread was asking  ‘are you team Nick or team Luke’ I felt deeply uncomfortable.   THT is a serious novel. It is not chick lit. It is not romantic.

Luke was Offred’s husband in pre-Gilead. In the novel his fate is unclear. In the adaptation he escapes to Canada. In either scenario he is lost to Offred.  In the novel and the adaptation Offred mourns him. Nick, the driver in the Commander’s household is first used as a tool by Serena Joy to get Offred pregnant. Her body is for his use as a means of reproduction.  

In the novel Nick is ambiguous in terms of his position in Gilead. In the adaptation he is an Eye, a member of the horrific secret police. As he and Offred embark on a sexual relationship, in the novel he says ‘no romance’ and he is right. There is no romance. Like for Winston and Julia in 1984 sexual love endangers both of their lives. However, for Offred her status makes the danger worse for her. In the language of Gilead, women are whores, temptresses and responsible for the provocation of lust. The inequality in Nick and Offred’s relationship is a stark emblematic reminder of the abjection of the handmaids and the powerlessness of women. It is not something to be celebrated however much comfort it appears to give to Offred. Remember it is she, not Nick who is taken by the secret police at the end of the novel. We assume she survives at least long enough to record her story and we know Gilead falls but that does not mitigate against the horror of her life or the certainty of the violence used against her. So, ‘team Nick,’ no thank you.  

In truth, I have a problem with team anything. Superficially it’s fine to nail your colours to a mast and come out in support of a position. As evidenced by the recent UK General Election it is sometimes very important to sign up to a movement, to get behind someone and work collectively to make a difference.  However,  to do it uncritically is to put oneself under the thrall of the ‘they’ and to abdicate personal responsibility for thinking about issues that are complex and nuanced.  

In my professional life I have seen the ‘team’ principle in action and it is a business practice linked to corporate values. With the increasingly managerialist and bureaucratic culture pervading professional and public life the notion of ‘team’ is sinister. To me it’s about subsuming individual identity within the value system of a corporation or organisation. To use the language of Star Trek, I have no desire to be assimilated.

Once one accepts the subsuming of self and adherence to the values of the ‘team’ one accepts authority. The problem with authority is it leads to authoritarianism and authoritarianism is on the continuum towards totalitarianism. This is the trajectory of THT. Corporate America with its neoliberal values, tolerance of extreme right wing Christian fundamentalism and obsession with women’s bodies and reproduction gives way to Gilead. Gilead is one possible end point of a political system that was in train in the 1980’s in America and which is still in motion now. Hence the timely arrival of Hulu’s adaptation. The cast are quoted as saying their work is activism. This is why the level of debate around it is important. 

As I have said, everyone is free (ironically given the context) to express their view and engage in whatever level of debate they so desire. I want to explore this ‘team man’ idea a little deeper. Slash fiction, fan fiction and ‘shipping’ – appropriating a relationship to characters in fiction that does not exist – is a pop cultural phenomenon that started with Star Trek fans imagining a homoerotic relationship between Kirk and Spock. It’s fun and light and can be hugely creative. However, shipping also gave the world 50 Shades of Grey.  Born out of the horribly misogynistic Twilight saga, 50 Shades presents a deeply dysfunctional and abusive relationship as a romantic BDSM fantasy. The internalised misogyny in that novel is breathtaking. It was a runaway success on the back of an anti-feminist backlash. Twilight struck me – and many others -as a neo-Con, illiberal riposte to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Buffy was a series that placed feminist values at the heart of its story arc and which dealt with rape and violence seriously. It was deeply depressing to see the ascension of Twilight sweeping away the empowerment that Buffy had brought to the small screen and to see the young women I was teaching at the time wearing ‘Team Edward’ t-shirts.

Post Buffy, post Twilight the zeitgeist has lost its appetite for the supernatural and has turned to dystopian literature. Art always reflects life and in a world where there is perpetual threat from terrorism and from government it is unsurprising that THT is so powerful. There are women in the United States dressing as handmaids to make political protests, drawing attention to the violence against women’s’ bodies being committed by legislative practices. Anti-abortion laws, the religious right, the retrograde and downright dangerous Trump administration are clear and present dangers. In the UK, a filthy and discredited government is so desperate to cling to the dying embers of its power it is brokering a deal with a political party, the DUP,  that does not believe dinosaurs existed, upholds legislation that makes abortion an imprisonable offence and actively promotes homophobia. Dark times.

Offred in THT is not only a singularly oppressed woman imprisoned in a state that sentences her to constant rape and reduces her personhood to the viability of her ovaries, she is a symbol, an icon even, of oppressed women everywhere. The handmaid is the ultimate objectified woman, invisible and irrelevant except for her reproductive capacity. The brutality that is used to enforce that subjection is unflinching. The adaptation goes further than the novel. Following the episode in which Emily/Ofglen underwent a forced cliterodectomy as punishment for her sexual relationship with a woman, I could not sleep as I was so horrified. The world over, there are preachers speaking in favour of FGM as a way of controlling women’s sexuality and it is still accepted ‘cultural’ practice in too many places. There is a war being waged against women all of the time and there are those who will persist in their endeavours to roll back hard won rights and freedoms. THT is part of the fight, a cultural phenomenon that makes a challenge to power and spotlights the grotesque inequalities that women still face and which are a stark reminder that without vigilance and rigorous debate and readiness to fight,  rights and freedoms that do exist are not a given.



Photograph copyright @ McLelland and Stewart



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