So I think we can all agree that The Handmaid’s Tale is both a timely and important piece of television, given where we are right now as a society. And I should also admit I have not read Margaret Atwood’s novel, so I’m not exactly a Handmaid Expert. But as I was watching the first two seasons of this series, starring Peggy Olson of all people, I found myself not liking it very much. This then caused me shame, for surely something that everyone agrees is Very Important ought to also be something that I like, right?
But I didn’t. And I think there are basically two reasons for this. The first is that this is difficult material to adapt. Really tricky. Atwood’s book primarily takes place inside Offred’s head, so the world of Gilead is interpreted for us through her perceptions and thoughts. This is very difficult to translate onto the screen because you can’t access an actor’s internal monologue. If they are a good actor, some of this can be bridged through, you know, good acting, but there is a limit to how much internality one can get from the screen. Most people trying to solve this problem end up relying quite heavily on voice-over to do the heavy lifting, and there is quite a lot of that in the Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe too much.
This is just a tricky problem inherent in any adaptation like this, which is so much about the way this particular character is experiencing events. In the book, the world-building is done through what the character is going through, but that doesn’t work quite as well when you try it on television. The world of Gilead that Atwood created is truly interesting, sprawling, bizarre and disgusting. But Offred’s centrality to the narrative, and as our narrative lens, deprives Season 1 of opportunities to really explore this world (Season 2, freed from the source material, does explore the world of Gilead much more broadly). It would have been nice, perhaps, to explore this weird theocratic shit-hole in more depth, rather than just being trapped in a room with Peggy Olson narrating her internal monologue for much of Season 1. That’s why adaptations are tricky; you have to make tough decisions about fidelity to source material and what will work and what won’t and it doesn’t always play.
The second reason I didn’t like the show is more straightforward. I absolutely hate the way it is filmed. It is almost 100% tight close-ups and shallow focus. Many, many people have heaped praise on the show’s aesthetic, so I may be in the minority here but I just don’t care for the visual look of it at all. I understand why they chose to shoot it this way - it’s meant to emphasize the suffocating nature of the Gilead regime, it’s meant to convey a sense of claustrophobia and oppression. Aright, I get that. But it still looks like shit, because you can’t fucking see anything that’s going on in the frame ever. It’s usually just one or maybe two giant heads or bonnets bobbing around the screen. Is Paul Greengrass a consulting producer on this show? I just don’t like the way it is filmed. At all. And that turned me off.
I do think the themes that the show deals with are interesting, and the ideas are also quite fascinating. But I just don’t quite agree with the choices the team made in adapting it for the screen. In my opinion, this story probably works better, and conveys its ideas more sharply, as a book. In Season 2 the show started branching out more, exploring more of the world of Gilead and introducing more conventional plotting than we saw in the first season (suicide bombings, a delicious season finale cliffhanger dripping with hints of Charles Bronson-style vengeance).
These things make the plot more interesting, in a conventional way, but also move it further away from what the book was doing, which was exploring the personal hell this woman was being forced to endure. I bet in the next couple seasons it turns into a fully-fledged Hunger Games shebang about a violent rebellion or something. Sure that would be more interesting (there will be more explosions) but it gets away from the subtle, nuanced exploration of women’s rights and how oppressive regimes can grow up around us (although it never really sold me on that because the show plays very fast and loose with the details of HOW exactly these theocratic weirdos gained power).
I will probably watch Season 3, because one must watch shows that all of society agrees are Very Important, and also I’m curious to see if Peggy kills Fred and his awful wife. I just hope that as the carnage starts to rain down upon these heathens, the show will shoot it using wide angle lenses.