With more networks and streaming services getting into original programming everyday, the demand for televised content is greater than ever. In Adapt This! we spotlight a piece of previously unadapted material we’d love to see become a TV series and even suggest a potential network and creative team.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Source Material: Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel features one of the most chilling dystopias ever created, one that — at the time and still today — functions as a powerful and necessary argument in favor of women’s rights.
Thumbnail Synopsis: Unhappy with America’s increasingly progressive direction, a devoutly right-wing faction of the government successfully executes a coup that results in the founding of the Republic of Gilead. In this brave new world, women are subjugated to the will and authority of men and divided into eight distinct classes. Wives are perched atop this government-mandated social strata, followed by daughters and then “handmaids,” a concubine class tasked with the job of continuing the human race, as sterility is on the rise. Atwood’s narrative is framed as the life and times of one particular handmaiden, Offred, who, in another life before the fall, had a family of her own. Now, she lives in the unhappy home of the high-ranking Commander and his bitter wife, Serena Joy, a one-time televangelist who preached the gospel the men of Gilead claim to be honoring.
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Why It Would Make Great TV: For starters, Atwood’s prose is so vivid, you can see the television series in your mind’s eye while reading the book. And then there’s Gilead itself, a multi-layered world that’s idyllic on the surface and rotten at the core. During the course of the novel, the author expertly peels away the lies and hypocrisies this society is founded on, while at the same time setting Offred on a journey towards empowerment. It’s a slow-burn arc that benefits from the kind of breathing room that a limited series can provide. Each episode could take the time to flesh out the conventions and customs of Gilead, from “The Ceremony” (the union of Commander and Handmaiden, where the latter lies on top of the Wife while the man attends to business) to the schools where stern “Aunts” train the next generation of concubines. Entire episodes could also be given over to key chapters in the novel, including the elaborate preparations for one handmaiden’s ritual birth, as well as the Commander’s night out with Offred at a brothel, where she encounters a familiar face from her past. With more screen time comes more opportunities to preserve the rich details and nuance in Atwood’s prose; that’s one of the many reasons why the deservedly forgotten 1990 movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale failed. That film, which starred Natasha Richardson as Offred and Robert Duvall as the Commander, efficiently recreated the broad outlines of the world described on the page, without really communicating what makes Atwood’s dystopia so unsettling — the notion that it could happen here.
Given that it was written in the mid-‘80s, when the so-called “Moral Majority” was in its ascendency and strictly enforcing traditional definitions of marriage and gender roles, The Handmaid’s Tale should ideally feel a relic in an age where American society has made enormous strides towards true equality between the sexes. And yet, the pointed belittling of female politicians (be it Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin), the dwindling access in certain states to lawful reproductive rights, and the challenges women face in reporting sexual violence on college campuses continue to illustrate Handmaid’s relevance. (The parallels to some of the more theocratic Middle Eastern societies are all too apparent and timely as well.) The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 are often yoked together because their respective dystopias hold a mirror up to our own past and present. But where the dominant emotion in 1984 is terror, Offred’s rebellion is ultimately driven by anger — anger that her body, her history, and her personhood has been reclaimed by a male-dominated ruling class more concerned with dictating her behavior than their own.
Creative Dream Team: The big-screen version of The Handmaid’s Tale was a stolid, stiff adaptation, but the series can’t and shouldn’t be that coldly clinical — even if Gilead prizes dutiful restraint over forceful individualism. Enter Jill Soloway, creator of Amazon’s breakout series Transparent and the uneven, but deeply felt indie film, Afternoon Delight. Both are constructed around the idea of women — Kathryn Hahn’s frustrated stay-at-home mom in Afternoon Delight and Jeffry Tambor’s evolving Moppa in Transparent — butting up against society’s expectations of them. Purposefully messy and imprecise, Soloway’s work achieves the lasting resonance you’d want from an adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Given their past collaborations, Hahn would seem like a natural candidate for Offred, but she’d actually make a better Moira — an important friend from the heroine’s past. That clears the lead role for Sarah Paulson, freeing her from the American Horror Story machine and handing her the role that will finally win her an Emmy.
Ideal Network: HBO is the only logical place, seeing as how they have the budget this kind of adaptation requires, as well as the tradition of prestige miniseries based on popular books (see also: Mildred Pierce and The Casual Vacancy) and the interest in provocative sexual content as demonstrated by all the boobs ‘n’ butts on your average episode of Game of Thrones.
The Handmaid’s Tale is available for purchase (or as a free Kindle edition) on Amazon.