Margaret Atwood published “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her novel about a near-future, totalitarian patriarchal theocracy, in 1985. It was right in the middle of the Reagan years, and as a Canadian she was looking south across the border at a resurgent American Puritanism, exemplified by the so-called Moral Majority and a flogging of “traditional values” in the face of various liberation movements. American fascism, she reckoned, would wear a holy face.
The book has been adapted a number of times — as a 1990 film directed by Volker Schlöndorff with a screenplay by Harold Pinter — but also for the stage, for radio, as an opera and as a ballet. Now, as all things must, it has come to television, worked by Bruce Miller (“The 100,” “Eureka”) into a studiously handsome, generally impressive 10-part series that begins streaming Wednesday on Hulu.
With Oklahoma state Rep. Justin Humphrey — sponsor earlier this year of a bill that would require “the written informed consent of the father” to obtain an abortion — referring to women as “hosts,” and the vice president’s much-publicized habit of calling his wife “mother,” Atwood’s 32-year-old novel of enforced childbearing feels oddly, disquietingly contemporary. Indeed, apart from the series’ odd 21st century reference (Tinder, Uber, salted caramel ice cream), not much has been changed.
It’s a sort of quasi-post-apocalyptic story, in that a toxic environment has made sterility widespread, with other sorts of human activity chipping in: “Birth control pills, morning-after pills, murdering babies,” spits overseer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), “just so they could have their orgies, their Tinder.” (See above.)
Elisabeth Moss, of “Mad Men” and “Top of the Lake,” plays Offred, a handmaid — that is, a fertile, potential surrogate mother — in the home of new-order bigwigs “Commander” Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). (“Handmaid” is a biblical reference, to the story of Leah and Rachel.) Offred — her slave name, essentially, combining “Of Fred” — has ceremonial sex with Waterford in the presence of Serena in their hopes that he’ll get her pregnant. The future here is full of ceremony, as imagined futures often are, some involving public execution. (As imagined futures often do.)
The book is told in the first person, with relatively little dialogue, so there is a lot of voice-over narration from Offred and time spent gazing into the face of Moss, an actress who can embody complicated, contradictory inner states in a single look.
Generally speaking, the performers — including Samira Wiley as Moira, Offred’s friend from earlier days, Max Minghella as a driver in the Commander’s household and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, a fellow handmaid and pipeline to a possible resistance — push against the deadening tastefulness of the production: the chiaroscuro, shallow-focus photography; sound design that sometimes sounds like a long subway train is passing underneath a scene; the blandly expensive set decoration.
There are the usual interpolations and reordering of events for dramatic impact and variation, some reconfiguration of characters — Fred and Serena are younger than their counterparts on the page, for instance. But the three episodes available for review are essentially true to the book, and what additions and emendations as have been made would seem to have passed muster with the author, who was a consultant on the series and has been out helping promote it.
With very occasional exceptions — the attempted escape to Canada that opens the series, a “particicution” (a portmanteau word I will leave you to work out for yourself) — its pace feels slow enough to read chapters of the novel between lines of dialogue. That of course may be the point; a suffocating stillness is in the spirit of the book. How it will play out in later episodes, I can’t say — the novel is presented as an incomplete fragment of history uncovered in a future even further off, and by the end of the third hour, Miller has filled in a few blanks himself, shown us scenes that Atwood did not put on the page. Certainly, you are waiting for some comeuppance, a counterrevolution.
Atwood takes details both from American slavery and the Holocaust to describe her female-unfriendly future, and the viewer will have no trouble hearing current-day resonances in lines like “We’re pulling together a march for Thursday morning” and “This can’t last,” as the twisted Christian Republic of Gilead supplants the United States of America.
“When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up,” Offred remembers. “When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. " It might have seemed whimsical once, but every day brings new surprises these days.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)The Handmaid’s Tale
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd