Mary McCarthy Was Wrong: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is Scary Because It’s True


“Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition,” Mary McCarthy wrote in her February 1986 New York Times review of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue.” But, she continues, Atwood’s book doesn’t quite fit the bill: “I just can’t see the intolerance of the far right, presently directed not only at abortion clinics and homosexuals but also at high school libraries and small-town schoolteachers, as leading to a super-biblical puritanism by which procreation will be insisted on and reading of any kind banned.”

McCarthy, who died in 1989, may have found it easy to dismiss Atwood’s book. Thirty-odd years after its publication, it’s hard to do the same. It’s impossible to ignore the book’s prescience in our current political climate, and particularly while the Republican-controlled government foams at the mouth at the thought of denying women access to health care. It also makes Hulu’s upcoming adaptation all the more relevant.

In novels, films, TV shows, comic books, and even music videos, post-apocalyptic narratives (and, perhaps more importantly, images) captured the public’s imagination long before Trump was sworn in as our 45th president. But the new series doesn’t taunt viewers with visions of onyx-black skyscrapers and piles of burning rubble. It’s the less sensational details that make Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale so chilling, and, despite McCarthy’s skepticism, so uncomfortably believable.

It should feel believable, because according to Atwood, everything she wrote has a historical precedent. There’s a reason her book has sold millions of copies since it was first published in 1985. The series (I’ve seen the first three episodes, which will premiere simultaneously on April 26) is harrowing in a slow, quiet way. The Handmaid’s Tale is scary because it’s true.

Unlike McCarthy, readers-slash-viewers today, particularly women, won’t find it so easy to brush off this vision of an America transformed by Christian fundamentalists. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” McCarthy wrote in her 1986 review of the book — the more things change, the more they stay the same. “But that cannot be the motto for a cautionary tale,” she concluded, “whose job is to warn of change.” Welp. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

If you haven’t managed to get your hands on a copy of the book (or if you went to one of the many schools that routinely ban it, even to this day), the story takes place in a future America that looks very different from the one we’re used to. After a terrorist attack justifies the implementation of martial law, the United States becomes the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic state that forces fertile women to become “Handmaids” and bear children for the leaders’ barren wives. In the series, Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred (“of Fred,” the name of the Commander she’s assigned to), a woman determined to survive for her young daughter, who was taken from her when she was forced to become a Handmaid.

On top of the obvious allegory to the current, frightening rollback of women’s rights to healthcare, there are other parallels to the “real world.” The reason women who can bear children are in such high demand is because ongoing environmental contamination has caused widespread infertility; gay people, scientists, and doctors are immediately demonized.

But in the TV version, the tensest, most heart-stopping scenes are smaller and more intimate than the kind of panoramic spectacle (New York City dressed up in swastikas, etc.) that The Man in the High Castle — another speculative-fiction adaptation about a future fascist America — indulges in. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a woman would produce a more lasting and harrowing version of this story, just as it’s unsurprising that women have been lauded as the leaders of the anti-Trump resistance.)

Interestingly, director Reed Morano — a sought-after cinematographer — uses harsher lighting in the scenes that take place in the past, while the present dystopia looks pleasant enough; because we see the world through Offred’s eyes, we see well-appointed homes and brightly-lit grocery stores — albeit filled with women in floor-length robes, red for the Handmaids, dusty green for the Marthas, or housekeepers.

A soft, heavenly glow fills the present-day scenes, which, particularly contrasted with the more familiar, contemporary-looking flashback scenes, adds an oppressive weight to the show’s interpretation of Gilead. Morano prefers similarly oppressive, tight close-ups of the actors’ faces, particularly Moss, who doesn’t wear makeup — which showrunner Bruce Miller thought would help the viewer pick up on even the subtlest facial tics. This series understands that the spectacle of a totalitarian state isn’t something to fetishize. The Gilead of the show is suffocatingly mild; it doesn’t look like fun for anyone. Dystopia on The Handmaid’s Tale looks and feels like a bad dream: The light is hazy, the edges are fuzzy, and you can’t seem to wake up.

The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26 on Hulu.