Topic: The Box Office
I should have seen this coming, really: Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been adapted for television. In the Age of the Demon Trump, it seems, no dystopian screed, however crude, is quite stupid enough to be passed over.
The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for the big screen in 1990, starring Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and the late Natasha Richardson. One wonders why, after reading the novel and perusing the script, they nevertheless signed on. Atwood’s tale is set in a near-future America, some time after a cabal of religious fundamentalists calling themselves the Sons of Jacob toppled the US government and raised in its place the Republic of Gilead. The new regime is militant, militarized and totalitarian, and one of its first orders of business is to strip women of their rights—going so far, even, as to forbid them to read. As well, environmental contamination has drastically lowered human fertility. Thus one class of subjugated women in the new society is the Handmaids, women of child-bearing age conscripted to serve as stand-ins for the mostly barren Wives (capitalization intentional) of the all-male ruling group. The Handmaids are in effect slaves, attached to the households of the elite ruling class, closely supervised, and required to participate in a bizarre ceremony of intercourse for the purpose of producing children. The penalty for disobedience, resistance or failure to produce a child is death.
Atwood is Canadian and her patent dislike of the Colossus of the South perhaps explains the sheer preposterousness of The Handmaid’s Tale. Not that the basic idea—the rise in America of a fundamentalist religious dictatorship—is a bad one. Robert A. Heinlein used it for his 1940 novella “If This Goes On—” But he took pains to make his tale plausible. The First Prophet—the man who led the fundamentalist revolution that toppled constitutional government, got his start as a radio and TV evangelist. And though the office of president has been replaced by the Prophet Incarnate (whose personal regiment of guards is titled the Angels of the Lord) West Point, the Hollywood Bowl and Time magazine are still there. Heinlein's dystopia is still America, albeit an America that took a wrong turn. But Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, though existing in our near future, is virtually unrecognizable as America. And she takes no pains at all to explain how a nation of 300,000,000 diverse individuals could possibly have been reduced to the condition she depicts: in thrall to a small group of religious fundamentalists who make the most hard-shell Southern Baptist look like a left-wing liberal. Her scenario is, in the strictest sense of the word, incredible.
Now of course one could say the same of “If This Goes On—”But Heinlein, an accomplished professional, knew how to make his imaginary America appear plausible and besides that was mostly concerned with telling a good story. Atwood, alas, is addicted to progressive finger wagging and she hits all the mandatory stops: anti-American, anti-religious, feminist, environmentally conscious, etc. and so forth. The suspension of disbelief so necessary for the success of a story of this type never happens for The Handmaid’s Tale. Consciously or not, Atwood was preaching to the converted, for whom the racism, sexism, religious insanity and militarism of the United States of America are all givens. To satisfy that audience, plausibility was hardly necessary.
And this brings us to the zombie-like reappearance of The Handmaid’s Tale in the form of a Hulu original series for TV. One can readily understand why this lame and dated example of dystopian literature has been dredged up at the present moment. The series was announced in April 2016 and now here it is, almost precisely at the one-hundred day mark of the Trump Tyranny. Critics have of course describe it as “timely.” Gail Pennington of the Detroit Free Press opined that “Viewers and readers may understandably see The Handmaid's Tale as cautionary.” Well, of course. Dictatorship! Sexism! Fundamentalist religion! The Bible-thumping far-right barbarians are at the gates of progressivism! It’s time for a wake-up call and The Handmaid’s Tale…The Handmaid’s Tale…
Well, The Handmaid’s Tale is just about the last dystopian vision that anybody with an ounce of discernment would pick to criticize the Age of Trump. Here we have a president trailing two ex-wives and a pride of girlfriends, a product of the New York City celebrity culture, whose references to God and religion seem as casual as “Have a nice day,” whose vulgarity carries the taint of fanny-patting sexism—and he is supposed to be the target of this Atwood revival, a jeremiad against religious fundamentalism? Please!
Nevertheless it may be that The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV series, will succeed after a fashion. Though the novel itself is a tiresome piece of dreck, the 1990 film version did possess a certain entertainment value—providing that one chose to regard it as a parody or farce. So with good production values and a decent cast, this new TV version may actually be worth watching. The Walking Dead isn’t plausible either, and up to now it’s done pretty well. But as a cautionary tale, as an attack on America, religion, conservatives or Trump it’s bound to fall flat, just like its predecessors.
Just the other day the New York Times published an op-ed that more or less directly advocated the revision of the First Amendment so that it no longer covers that nebulous category of expression, “hate speech”—otherwise known as “statements and opinions that liberals, progressives and leftists don’t like.” The op-ed was written by a professor at New York University. And recently Howard Dean—that stupid man who used to be governor of Vermont, DNC chair and a Democratic presidential candidate—has been running around saying more or less the same thing. And they’re not just blowing smoke.Threats, intimidation and actual violence have been employed by academic leftists to prevent conservatives from speaking on campus. Pretty much explicitly, the broad Left has embraced a concept of group rights that has no patience with traditional civil liberties like freedom of speech. In that abandonment, it seems to me, may be discerned the germ cell of totalitarianism in contemporary America. And thereby hangs a tale that will never be told by Hulu.