Hester Prynne is deeply engrossed in Hulu’s original version of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. So far, five episodes have aired with more to come. Hester had always been a bit disappointed in the 1990 film version, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. The performances were good but there was something underdone about it, as if the director was slightly embarrassed by the material and didn’t want to fully commit.
The TV version doesn’t have this problem. It’s fully committed, all right. Starring Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”) as Offred, the show revels in blood-red capes, strange winged hats, and hangings. In a world where most women are infertile, the few who can still give birth are both prized and enslaved. Offred, once June with a husband and small daughter, is kidnapped when she tries to run away (from a post-apocalyptic America into Canada). She is forced to attend a harsh school where “Aunt Lydia” and other matronly figures instill in her Puritanical values, including rigid self-discipline, frigidity, and shame. Then she is assigned, as are the other “handmaids”, to a rich and powerful but infertile couple. Her role is to become impregnated by the husband, “the Commander”, in a truly bizarre and Biblically inspired ceremony. Ritually raped, spied upon, and humiliated in every way, Offred, played superbly by the highly intelligent and incandescent Moss, must rely on every resource she has to maintain her independence and humanity. The performances of Moss, and the rest of the awesome cast, are augmented by poetic dialogue, haunting music, and precisely composed cinematography worthy of Vermeer.
Hester recognizes a lot of herself in Offred. “The Scarlet Letter” is a tale set in the past; “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in an imaginary, horrific future where women have no bank accounts, jobs or civil rights. But both are veiled stories of the present, speaking not of what may be but of what “is” already occurring, albeit in much milder and disguised forms. In Atwood’s world babies are everything but the women who give birth to them are nothing. New life is revered while any life–at least any female life–over the age of sixteen is pretty much shot to hell.