Why The Handmaid’s Tale’s Voice-over Works So Unusually Well

By
Offred, screaming on the inside. Photo: Hulu

So much of the impact of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale adaptation comes from its stunning, overwhelmingly effective images. It becomes hard to focus on much else. Offred’s wing-like bonnet fills the frame, partially revealing, partially obscuring the visual field. The interplay of red and white, the way we follow Offred’s line of sight hovering beneath Serena Joy’s, the way the camera’s eye shifts between obsessively intimate full-face framing and shots from a distance that utterly obscure individuality — The Handmaid’s Tale’s legacy will be largely visual, and for good reason.

In fact, it takes a visual identity that strong (established by Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes) in order to pull off the feat this series accomplishes: The remarkable visuals almost entirely obscure the series’ first-person voice-over narration. Voice-overs can work, but they can also be so clunky and overburdened and overly expositional that they turn the most thoughtful, carefully drawn, ambiguously wrought character into a blunted, hollow stereotype. They are the epitome of telling rather than showing; they flatten. Even on series where they’re used to carefully unreliable effect — think Mr Robot — voice-overs can quickly become a frustrating barrier between the viewer and the story. I don’t want to hear you ask yourself whether the world is real anymore, Elliot! I got it! You’re confused!

So it doesn’t just feel nice that Offred’s present-tense, first-person narrative voice works well in the new series. It feels like something closer to miraculous.

It’s hard to conceive of a Handmaid’s Tale adaptation that could work without some version of Offred’s inner monologue. It’s fundamental to the structure of the story. It’s a way of linking together past and present timelines, and of focusing our attention through this woman’s subjective experience. It’s also crucial to the more abstract themes of the novel. How fully can your thoughts and feelings be policed? What does it feel like to be an individual inside a system that desperately seeks to wipe out individuality? Where is the line between resistance in thought and resistance in action? In text, that first-person voice is proof and demonstration and individuality all at once. It’s also a (deliberate, self-selecting) limitation. For the bulk of the novel, we only get Offred’s point of view, and that’s an argument in and of itself: Here’s what it feels like to be a person caught within this oppressive system, the novel contends. There’s no way to escape it.

That overwhelming inescapability of Offred’s novelistic narrative voice just doesn’t hold the same way when The Handmaid’s Tale becomes visual. Your readerly attention is stuck with her mind, but your viewer’s eye could go anywhere, chasing after details like a Martha preparing to bake bread, or the covers on Offred’s shoes, or the titles of the books on the Commander’s shelves. And you want to escape, because the series’ visual world is so painstaking and thoughtful, and because Offred’s mind is such a crushing place to exist.

Part of the genius of the series’ direction is that it rarely gives you that opportunity, voice-over or no. The camera perpetually follows Offred’s face and her line of sight, often filling the rest of the frame with the wall (or shield, or curtain, or veil) of her massive white headpiece. It’s what Anne Helen Petersen so deftly describes as “bonnet view,” a claustrophobic, radically blinkered tunnel vision of the world. Offred can only see a small portion of her own life; she is alone with her thoughts and whatever tiny slice of the world appears directly in front of her face. Frequently, thanks to Morano’s direction and the series’ potent, painstaking cinematographic language, that’s all we can see as well. Even when we’re not hovering under the cover of her bonnet, Morano tends to use an extraordinarily shallow depth of field so that only Offred’s face is in focus.

Given that kind of radically restricted visual space and Offred’s overwhelming centrality, you can see how any voice-over could so easily come off as blunt and distracting. And it does, when it’s supposed to. Especially in the beginning, Offred’s inner monologue plays in direct contradiction to the smooth, perfected exteriors of the series. Her voice and her language are often a shock, especially as they come woven among so much highly ritualistic, symbolically empty conversational platitudes. “Offred, are you okay?” asks Ofglen. “Yes,” Offred says out loud. “Pious little shit,” her voice-over interjects.

Offred’s mind can give us the kinds of necessary expositional information we need to navigate the world of Gilead — “She’s not my friend,” Offred tells us of Ofglen. “She’s my spy, and I’m hers.” (This is one reason the voice-over fades as the series develops. We know the world and need fewer Gilead info-dumps.) The narrative also orients us inside who Offred is — there’s no doubt about how much she loathes what’s happened to her. The Handmaids gather inside a grocery story to ooh over a new shipment of oranges. “I don’t need oranges,” Offred confides in voice-over. “I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.”

The voice-over is how we can measure the yawning chasm between what we’re seeing and what’s actually happening from Offred’s perspective. And because of that, the voice-over is exclusively linked to Offred in the present. There’s little need for voice-over in the past flashback sections — in her past life, June could say whatever she needed to say out loud. There’s no need for a secret self until she became Offred. The necessity of and purpose of her voice-over is built into the premise of the series.

Any account of why the narration works so well here has to also include Moss’s performance, which is a huge piece of what allows the voice-over and the visuals to blend so seamlessly. There’s no line between what we see and what we’re hearing because Moss embodies both of them, something that’s no doubt the result of her huge investment in tying those two elements together. Vulture’s profile of Moss includes the detail that she memorized the narration and “ran through it in her head for each of those scenes,” which meant that “the visuals and words would line up perfectly” in the final product.

That’s certainly true of the way Moss plays Offred, and her astounding range of emotional expression are crucial to making the voice-over feel like an organic piece of her character rather than something laid haphazardly on top. More broadly, though, that idea of the visuals and the words lining up is a statement about how thoroughly the role of the voice-over is conceived in partnership with the show’s visual language. Every shot of the series dramatizes the fraught relationship between what we’re looking at, and what we can’t see. In keeping with that idea, the voice-overs are not a problem of telling rather than showing — they’re an illustration of precisely how messy and incomplete that idea is. They show us how little we can ever know about someone else’s inner life.

“I want to scream,” Offred tells us, while placidly shopping for oranges. And later, “someone is watching. Someone is always watching.” She’s right — we’re watching her. But it’s even more devastating that we can hear her, too.

Why The Handmaid’s Tale’s Voice-over Works So Unusually Well