Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published more than 30 years ago, and after being adapted for online television on Hulu in 2017, it won five Emmys.
The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t the only Atwood novel adapted for a series format. Netflix picked up Alias Grace, which was published in 1996.
Though those stories were published decades before Hulu and Netflix were interested, the adaptations have relevance in today’s age because of their reflection on society and gender.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian future in which fertile women are stripped of their basic rights and are there only to bear children.
Alias Grace takes place in the Victorian Era when gender dichotomies were stricter and more prevalent.
The two novels address those gender issues, Heather Edwards, an associate lecturer of English, said.
When the novels first came out, people were aware that there was still sexism and gender roles women still felt restricted to in relation to the generation before them, Edwards said. In different ways, the women in the novels are trying to find a voice in an atmosphere that discourages them from doing so.
Even now, the series brings attention to how gender roles can be restricting in the 21st century.
“There are aspects of that series that feel more real now than they did in the ‘80s,” Edwards said. “Part of the reason people are interested in them now is the way that we are being reminded that we actually haven’t moved that far ahead of the 1980s.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is “super topical” given the current political climate, Eve Ng, an assistant professor of media arts and studies and women and gender studies, said. The women in The Handmaid’s Tale are stripped of their legal rights, and critics have made a parallel between the show and a conservative government coming into power, Ng said.
“Feminist sci-fi writers … often write in their dystopian world about how gender inequalities continue in new ways,” Ng said. “Even if the Hulu series hadn’t been as well written or as well acted as it was, I think it still would’ve resonated because of the political context.”
Adriana Navarro, a senior studying journalism, watched The Handmaid’s Tale during the summer and said the show is powerful. The show presents a worst case scenario that highlights a “fear of society.”
The gender implications in the show highlight real problems in today’s society but in an exaggerated way, Navarro said. The exaggerations are there to make a connection to the viewers.
“It shows that even though we are further ahead in time, we haven’t really changed all that much,” she said. “It’s showing the irony and that in this world, this other world in the show as well, that even though they think they are more advanced, that they are basically stuck in the dark ages in terms of gender, sexuality and … civil rights.”
Edwards likes Atwood’s mastery of the craft and thinks she is a great storyteller in general — aspects that help translate well to the screen.
“She pulls you into her world,” Edwards said. “I’m always drawn to her too because she does often write about women and thinks through women’s experiences in interesting and nuanced ways.”
Mae Yen Yap contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this report misstated where The Handmaid's Tale was adapted. Additionally, a previous version of the photo caption misstated the title of The Handmaid's Tale. The article and caption have been updated to reflect the most accurate information.