Scary, timely 'Handmaid's Tale' is Hulu's best original yet

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Elisabeth Moss as Offred in "The Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu.

When Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985, no one knew from Hulu.

The streaming service on Wednesday will present the first three episodes of a 10-episode first season based on Atwood's book. And so much of that sentence once would have seemed as outrageous as her dystopian story of a post-U.S. theocracy in which women have been stripped of their civil rights, with some sentenced to reproductive slavery.

In the ’70s and ’80s, most people watched television one episode at a time, and network TV was  the place viewers came to for stories that began as books. Alex Haley's Roots, Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, James Clavell's Shogun, and Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, all got the sweeping mini-series treatment.

But as mass audiences fragmented, scattering to cable and beyond, the business model changed, and now when broadcast executives talk about mining their "IP" -- intellectual property -- they're usually referring to a TV version of a movie the network's parent company owns.

Books, though, remain the gold standard of intellectual property for those of us who first fall in love with characters on the page, and we can probably thank HBO's Game of Thrones for leading so many cable and streaming platform programmers back to the library.

These are boom times for bookworms who like to watch, but with the exception of PBS, whose book adaptations tend to come to us courtesy of the British, most of these stories come at a cost. So how do you allocate your TV dollars so you'll have enough left over to buy the occasional hardcover (or e-book)?

Starz, which followed its Philippa Gregory adaptation The White Queen with The White Princess, will present Neil Gaiman's American Gods on April 30. The third season of Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling series, is expected in September.

HBO this weekend brings us Rose Byrne (Damages) and Oprah Winfrey in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Based on Rebecca Skloot's best-selling book about the long-dead woman whose remarkable cells have fueled decades of medical research worldwide, it's moving television that sent me back to the source material to learn more. (If you miss its 8 p.m. Saturday premiere, you can catch it at 7:25 p.m. Sunday, or in one of its many other repeats.)

HBO's also the home of  The Leftovers, whose first season, at least, came from a novel by cocreator Tom Perrotta, and Big Little Lies, from the Liane Moriarty best seller. On May 20, it will premiere the Bernie Madoff movie The Wizard of Lies, based on a book by financial journalist (and former Inquirer reporter) Diana B. Henriques and starring Robert De Niro as Madoff.

Read more: Big Little Lies,  Good Fight show what the money's for

Starting Tuesday, Genius, the National Geographic Channel's new anthology series from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, will begin its first season. Based on Walter Isaacson's biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, it stars Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein.

On the streaming side, Amazon has Bosch, starring Philadelphia's Titus Welliver. Based on the novels of Michael Connelly about a Los Angeles police detective, it was to premiere its third season on Friday.

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black sprang from a 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman, and A Series of Unfortunate Events and 13 Reasons Why came from the fiction shelf.

Hulu, which began as a way for the broadcast networks that owned it to repurpose their reruns online, is now a subscription service competing with Netflix and Amazon by developing its own programming. One ambitious project last year was 11.22.63, starring James Franco as the teacher trying to save JFK in Stephen King's time-travel story. 

Unlike 11.22.63, which, like the mini-series of old, had a beginning, middle, and end, The Handmaid's Tale -- which has already been a 1990 movie, a ballet, an opera, and a play -- is envisioned as a continuing series. 

Three episodes in, it looks like Hulu's best original yet.

Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss stars as the title character, Offred, whose name, issued to her by the Republic of Gilead by virtue of her service to the Commander (Joseph Fiennes), comes from his first name. Considered to be figuratively, if not literally, of Fred, she's been brought into his household to try to bear the children his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), can't, widespread infertility being a feature of the world in which the story's set.

Alexis Bledel (The Gilmore Girls) plays another household's handmaiden, Ofglen, and Ann Dowd (The Leftovers) is one of the older women known as Aunts, who are as complicit in the subjugation of their sex as any man. Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black) is Moira, a friend of Offred's from the days when she was still known as June.

"The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet," Atwood, who has a cameo in the Hulu production, writes in a new introduction to her book. Some fundamental Christians may bristle at the picture The Handmaid's Tale paints of a country ruled on biblical principles, but Atwood's tale, adapted here by Bruce Miller, is about the perversion of religion, not its practice. To judge Christianity by Gilead would be to judge all Islam by ISIS.

(Gilead, to be fair, has a better wardrobe department, and it's hard not to be a little bit enchanted by the scarlet outfits that make the handmaidens look like chic nuns.)

The Handmaid's Tale, nevertheless, read like a cautionary tale in the Reagan era, and it plays like one now. It had been decades since I'd read the book when I saw the premiere for the first time in January, but I knew the story. It still gave me nightmares.

Moss is a fine actress, but her casting here is particularly apt. Mad Men viewers saw her, as Peggy Olson, challenging a system that demanded her subservience to gradually claim her own power. Now we can see her as a modern woman who's lost everything in a breathtakingly short time, forced into a servitude she never imagined possible, fearful that any misstep might end in death.

Offred's will to survive, and to somehow reclaim her stolen daughter, drives a narrative that might otherwise feel hopeless and that makes The Handmaid's Tale what every serialized show should be: a page-turner.