This last week has seen two rather different books adapted for television. In order of their release, we’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale then American Gods.
Although it’s very much first impressions, I’ve seen the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, which were released in a clump before reverting to a more traditional one per week and only one episode of American Gods they both seem like good adaptations.
Like the source material, I wouldn’t describe The Handmaid’s Tale as comfortable viewing. Some of the changes, like the disappearance of the racism from Gilead, I find I’m ambivalent about. It highlights the true brutality and horror of the institutional hatred and reduction in status of women without the parallel story of racism which, in these post-Ferguson ￼#BlackLivesMatter times might (inaccurately) come to dominate. I'm not even trying to make the case that racism is trivial and should be ignored, but it's not the core of what The Handmaid's Tale is about. However, it feels a little odd to me to see people of colour in Gilead. At the same time, they have cast the Commander and his wife far younger than they are in the book, which makes some of the scenes, particularly between the wife and Offred take on a different tone where there difference in status is more emphasised than in the book because of their similar ages.
But, most telling, and to my mind successful, is the decision to make this near future. Offred remembers the changes that drove the USA of today to become Gilead, going on protest marches against having her rights taken away and the like. This is not Gilead as a far-future dystopia, this is Gilead as Trump and Pence turned up to… 12 maybe? It’s not a huge step from their anti-abortion, anti-family planning, anti-LGBT stance, combined with the current MRA attitude we’re seeing online to imagine the events portrayed coming to pass.
Attwood has always said that the policies and ways to dehumanise woman depicted in the book are all drawn from reality, it’s just they’ve never all be applied in the same place and time. The TV adaptation has updated some of the ways that women are subjugated to show ways a Western audience is more familiar with now than it was then, but otherwise it has not changed that core impact. But showing the slide from modern America into Gilead somehow makes it more scary on one level, makes me as a watcher wonder just how far away it really is. The other thing that the TV adaptation does is leave me feeling bruised. The Handmaid’s Tale is an important read, but not exactly a light, easy read. But while I’m good at taking what I read and visualising it, my mind also filters the worst of it out. Watching it on TV those filters aren’t there. The real heft and horror of each and every scene strikes home full force. Although I’m generally a fan of binge watching, I ended up watching the three bulk-released episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale over four days. That’s not a reflection of the quality (which is excellent) or my available time - it’s a reflection of simply needing time to process the impact of each episode and feeling ready to watch the next.
American Gods, by contrast, feels almost frothy, which is not something you get to say very often about a show that opens with a bloody battle between vikings (complete with dismemberment), follows up with the main character in jail getting (slightly) early release to attend his wife’s funeral and ending with him being rescued from a lynching just in time. I’m less convinced by this adaptation than I am The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s somehow too garish for me which is, perhaps, fair given the subject matter but didn’t come through to me so strongly in the book. However, we haven’t met too many significant characters as yet, but I’m loving both Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday in terms of their casting and i’m willing to give the show some time and see how it develops. I don’t watch much that’s on Starz but I’ve started chunks of various shows. They have a visual style of which American Gods both reminds me and fits into smoothly. While others may rhapsodise about this, for me it’s not a good thing - that ‘too garish’ comment I made above comes to bear again. It’s not bad enough I’ll stop watching yet, but it could get that way, which is a shame because I love the book.
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