Review: 'The Handmaid's Tale' On Hulu The adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian 1985 novel is a horror show revealed in slow motion — and the true horror of its brutal, patriarchal future theocracy is how possible it seems today.
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Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Compelling — And Chilling

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Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Compelling — And Chilling

Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Compelling — And Chilling

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

"The Handmaid's Tale" debuts today on Hulu. It's an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel. I saw her once with fans. People love this story even though it is so troubling, a story of authoritarian rule and female oppression of a sort that some people may find disturbing even within this review. Here's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hulu's excellent adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" is a horror show revealed in slow motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

DEGGANS: "Mad Men" alum Elisabeth Moss is compelling and relatable as the lead character, a woman we see running from security forces with her daughter minutes before they're both captured.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Got her.

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Offred) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Mommy.

MOSS: (As Offred) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Take her.

MOSS: (As Offred) No, you can't. Please, please don't take her. Please...

DEGGANS: Then time jumps forward to the near future. We learn Moss' character's now a handmaid, a woman forced to have babies. She sits in a simple room in a mansion. She wears a white bonnet, blood-red dress and a shroud of melancholy like a thick, suffocating blanket.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

MOSS: (As Offred) At a window with white curtains. And the glass says shatterproof, but it isn't running away they're afraid of. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. My name is Offred. I had another name, but it's forbidden now.

DEGGANS: Fans of Atwood's novel know Offred has only begun to describe the hideous world she's living in. A brutal, totalitarian theocracy has replaced the U.S. government as sterility is rising and fewer women can have babies. Fertile women are captured and forced to serve as handmaids to society's leaders. Offred's name denotes the commander she serves, Fred Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes.

Once searing scene features Offred's memory of Aunt Lydia, the abusive headmistress who trains new handmaids, explaining their duties as breeders.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

ANN DOWD: (As Aunt Lydia) You girls will serve the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives. You will bear children for them. Oh, you are so lucky.

DEGGANS: Hulu's show depicts women stripped of husbands, children, jobs, their own money and control over their sexuality. The scenes depicting the ceremony in which handmaids copulate with commanders is emotionally brutal without being overly explicit. Even the most mundane activities come to carry the weight of dread.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

MOSS: (As Offred) A bath is required before the ceremony. I am to make myself clean, washed and brushed like a prize pig.

DEGGANS: In this nightmarish world, both prisoner and oppressor are forced into a brutal, dehumanizing ritual which pretends to be edifying. Atwood's book was written in 1985, but its themes about reproductive rights resonate with today's generation, as seen in signs of the women's march in January saying, "The Handmaid's Tale" is not an instruction manual. Given that undercurrent, it's tough to imagine a better time for Atwood's story to come to television. It's a cautionary tale on how quickly liberties can vanish. It's a meditation on how much of a woman's freedom can be connected to control of her reproductive rights. And it's a horror story for modern women who can see characters just like them have their independence ripped away.

As this speech by Aunt Lydia to the new handmaidens proves, it's all the more horrific for the way it seems absolutely normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

DOWD: (As Aunt Lydia) I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now. But after a time, it will.

DEGGANS: In a country where sexual harassment scandals regularly land on the front page, the patriarchy of "The Handmaid's Tale" doesn't feel so far-fetched, which is the most horrific thing about it. I'm Eric Deggans.

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