Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE, a Hulu Series based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. Content warning: Mature themes of violence and sexuality.
Margaret Atwood writes in the preface to a recent edition of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale — currently a hit series on Hulu — that she disagrees with some critics who claim the work contains anti-Christian themes … unless, of course, in her dystopian world, Christianity has morphed into something it was never intended to be: a religious police state that dictates fertile women slave away as surrogates for the barren wives of government officials.
The story’s fictional country of Gilead, thus, resides at the center of the story as a theocracy. The semiotics of Gilead conveys the externals of religion, but little to no internal conversion has actually taken hold among the ruling populace. And no true conversions will be permitted — as, in the first episode, a cassocked cleric, presumably of Catholic persuasion, hangs over the city walls with other enemies of the state.
The show’s first season confirms what I’ve always suspected about even the subtlest appropriating of religion. Think of European flags. While some nominally Christian countries incorporate the cross into their national flag, this may actually be a way of keeping the transformative power of the Gospel in its place, relegating faith to historical signage.
Atwood’s novel ends in the same ambiguous way as season one of the Hulu show: June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), the voice of the story enters a van. Will it take her to safety in Canada, or merely transfer her to another host family in another part of Gilead? Subsequent seasons of Tale, are thus original to Hulu. (BTW, this September, Atwood releases a sequel, The Testaments picking up the story 15 years later.)
What interests me the most is the show’s continual juxtaposing of sincere and artificial faith. The second season reveals the van indeed took June to freedom. She holes up in the abandoned offices of the Boston Globe, which have been repurposed as a safe house, until she acquires transit out of Gilead. With time to explore, she discovers the bullet-riddled and blood stained walls where Gilead soldiers executed Globe journalists. Acting seemingly on instinct, June lights a series of candles and lines the wall with them. The scene reminded me of All Souls’ Day and marked a moment of spiritual truth to redeem Gilead’s suppression of journalistic truth.
I referred to instinct as June’s sole motivation, because her faith had not been revealed until season three. A subtle praying for the dead seemed to be the decent thing to do for the kind, decent character June is. In hindsight, there was now a mustard seed planted in June’s backstory.
In the season-three episode called God Bless the Child, handmaids and their newborns gather in a compulsory religious ceremony. A few participants show fervent zeal, most others stifle feelings of unease. The big set piece contrasts with flashbacks from June’s daughter’s private baptism. The only ones gathered for this intimate sacrament are June’s mother, the father of the child, a godparent and the priest.
The handling of personal freedom marks the difference between the two rites. In Gilead, the heavy-handed government forces religious observance. In a formerly free America, June and her fellow faithful present the baby for baptism of their own volition.
So, to Atwood, who created this sci-fi world, I say, “Bravo.” To the showrunners of seasons two and three, who added a layer of authentic faith to subvert Gilead’s fake one, I offer a full-throated, “Praise be.”
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