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Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is timely, cautionary today

April 22, 2017

Few modern novels have been as acclaimed, or as often adapted, as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The 1985 work of speculative fiction became a movie in 1990, an opera in 2000, a stage play in 2002 and a ballet in 2013. Next is a 10-episode television series, arriving Wednesday on Hulu.

With its themes of feminism, fascism and fundamentalism, “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels as significant today as ever — and as chilling.

But 30 years ago, those themes “seemed, even to me, fairly outrageous,” Atwood writes in an introduction to a new paperback edition of the novel, released along with the Hulu series. (She’ll undoubtedly talk more about this Sept. 19 when she accepts the St. Louis Literary Award.)

“Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States of America had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?” she initially wondered — a dictatorship “built on the foundation of 17th century Puritan roots.”

But Atwood, who is Canadian, was overwhelmingly convincing in drawing a picture of the Republic of Gilead, the former United States, where the government imposes Old Testament practices, strictly defined and coldly enforced. Women are either Wives, “Marthas” (house workers) or “Handmaids,” the name for those charged with bearing children at a time when infertility is epidemic.

Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss in the Hulu adaptation, is a Handmaid. Dressed in blood red, with a white cap that both hides her face and obscures her vision, she waits for the call of her Commander (Joseph Fiennes). Her job is to let him inseminate her, giving him and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a baby.

The inner Offred is defiant, but externally, she blankly follows orders. What else can she do?

Her unspoken narrative brings viewers into “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is told entirely from her point of view, as is the novel. Moss (Peggy on “Mad Men” and a detective in the Australian drama “Top of the Lake”) conveys volumes with her eyes while keeping the rest of her face completely empty, hiding the sadness of the life she lost.

Outside the Commander’s house are the Aunts, the order-keeping disciplinarians, equipped with stun guns that they will use on the Handmaids if provoked. (Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia, is a scary delight.)

Offred makes a tentative friend in Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), with whom she’s allowed out to shop, and renews acquaintance with a college pal, Moira (Samira Wiley).

Samira Wiley (left) and Elisabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Hulu

Her closest connection, though, may be with Nick (Max Minghella), the Commander’s driver. But every relationship is fraught with danger; there are Eyes everywhere.

On Hulu, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is beautiful, with deep, saturated colors and scenes that could be paintings, even when the subject is a line of hanged men. Extreme closeups on Moss continually make clear that she is our focus.

Life (and death) in Gilead is depicted in painstaking detail by executive producer Reed Morano (“Meadowland”) and director of photography Colin Watkinson (“Emerald City”) and feels eerily real, if sometimes almost excruciatingly slow. Morano directed the first three episodes, which stream beginning Wednesday; the remaining seven arrive one per week.

Atwood, in the foreword to the new paperback (Anchor Books; $15.95), says she is frequently asked whether “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a prediction, especially “as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984,” when she was writing the book.

But no, she says, because “predicting the future isn’t really possible; there are too many variables.”

Still, Atwood says in the foreword, written in February, “fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades and indeed the past centuries.”

Viewers and readers may understandably see “The Handmaid’s Tale” as cautionary.