This article discusses plot points from The Handmaid’s Tale book and first three episodes of the Hulu adaptation.
Strap on your white bonnets, and don’t forget your scripture—The Handmaid’s Tale has arrived in all its sun-dappled, prophetic glory. On April 26, Hulu released the first three installments of its gorgeously filmed 10-episode series, based on the award-winning dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. We here at The A.V. Club want to explore how the show, starring Elisabeth Moss as the titular Handmaid, compares with Atwood’s masterful source material.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s disquieting world remains largely unchanged from page to small screen: In its speculative future, the United States government has been overthrown by a theocratic, totalitarian regime, whose operatives, or Eyes, silently patrol the region’s streets in black vans, ready to secret away dissenters with death or banishment. Due to plummeting birth rates and increasing birth defects caused by pollution, women of childbearing potential are forced to serve as Handmaids to the regime’s commanders and their barren wives, with Moss’ character, Offred, and others like her valued solely for their ability to carry these men’s children.
Despite these similarities, a number of differences between the book and the series jump out, even within the first three episodes. Some are merely a function of the show’s creators needing to translate a ruminative, first-person novel into an action-based drama. Others are more drastic, like an additional, fuller storyline for Handmaiden Ofglen (Alexis Bledel).
To start things off, I’d like to ask which such departures—be it moving a particular plot point earlier in the story or ratcheting up Offred’s voice-over narration—have worked the best for you all so far? Which didn’t?
Casting Elisabeth Moss goes a long way toward making the changes work. I think the heavy voice-over wouldn’t play so well in a less-capable actor’s hands, but Moss’ raw delivery makes Atwood’s writing work when it’s spoken out loud. The first episode contains a small deviation from the book that is a significant signal of the shift in approach: Offred tells us her real name. In Atwood’s novel, the final chapter is an academic speech discussing the tapes recorded by Offred after she escapes Gilead; she probably never gives her true name, the lecturer guesses, to protect the identities of her daughter and possibly still-alive husband. So the “My name is June” line that closes episode one is a small thing, but it speaks to the fact that the show will be dropping that particular conceit of the book in favor of something—I would think—a little more comprehensive.
There’s much to be said about the effect of seeing Atwood’s dystopia in the flesh—it’s far more chilling in a way than reading it. To that end, I think Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia may be one of the best characters to grace the small screen in a long time: Like in the source material, Aunt Lydia is a true believer on the front lines of Gilead’s psychological and physical torture of the Handmaids, but Dowd’s portrayal makes her one of those “love to hate” characters. She’s magnificent in her cruelty.
Laura, what’s standing out to you after watching the first three episodes? Did the “My name is June” line give you chills like it did me?
The “My name is June” line didn’t quite give me chills, but it did make me hopeful: The book’s epilogue made me actively angry, and I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll abandon that attempt to give closure where none should exist. (Or, more likely, they’ll create closure specific to the TV show, which I’m also cautiously optimistic about.) In general, I’m enjoying—a strange word to use about a show that’s so emotionally difficult to watch—the show more than the book, which is unusual for me. Atwood’s retro-futuristic language is a small annoyance, and one that’s easily overlooked, but the show’s ability to give real-world context to Gilead’s religious totalitarianism does give me chills.
Even if we weren’t living in a country slowly (or not so slowly, given the last 100 or so days) creeping toward our own version of authoritarianism, there are signals in the show that made me dizzy. Moira talking to Offred/June about how they should have seen this coming is also in the book, but it’s far more accessible when it occurs at a modern, normal-looking kitchen table. The women laugh a little bit, like people who can’t believe this is happening, people who believe that somehow life will keep going on like it always has. The most chilling moment for me was after the women at June’s job were fired, and as they exit the building, a black-clad militant says, “Under his eye.” June looks at him like he has 10 heads and says, “Excuse me?” It’s the response any of us would have in that situation. What the fuck did he just say? What the fuck is happening?
There are a number of moments where I wish the show had digressed even further from the book. For instance, when Rita and Serena Joy suspect that Offred is pregnant, why on Earth doesn’t Offred play along? This is utterly baffling to me. In Gilead, the correct answer to “Are your breasts tender?” is “Maybe a little bit, now that I think about it.” After Aunt Lydia cattle-prods Offred, and Offred then starts her period, it would have been easy as pie to pass that off as an early miscarriage.
The other point I’ve had to suspend disbelief over is that the Handmaids aren’t given any additional duties, something that’s brought into more relief on the small screen. Surely the architects of this world order believe that idle hands are the devil’s playground, and shopping does not a day fill. They couldn’t give the Handmaids some knitting or something? They do live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after all.
Laura and Caity, what did you think of Janine in the TV show? In the book, she was pitiable, but in the show she’s been heartbreaking, maybe even more so than Ofglen. What do you think will happen to her?
Janine is one of the characters who I don’t think has changed much from the book to the show, even though she’s given more to do in the latter. There’s that scene, for instance, in episode three where she tells Offred that she and her Commander are in love. This and her cracking up in the Red Center make me nearly certain that something awful will happen to her, as she’s not savvy enough to break Gilead’s totalitarian rules without putting herself in severe danger. We see in the same episode what happens to Ofglen when rules are broken, and she strikes me as far more cunning.
Caity, I was also really interested in Moss’ “My name is June” line, though I didn’t find it to be a small thing; I read that as a huge deviation from the book, one that I saw as having more to do with the degree to which Offred will rebel throughout this particular telling of the story. For most of the novel, Offred is extraordinarily careful—e.g., it takes forever for her and Ofglen to speak beyond their prescribed religious greetings and platitudes—because she wants to survive for her daughter. Offred revealing, insisting on, her real name so early is a form of personal resistance, which she also manifests in other, more public ways (as in the cattle-prod scene with Aunt Lydia).
This is strange to say, but I’m disappointed that Offred has been so defiant this early in the show. One thing I really loved about the book is that Offred’s experience is so (within this particular world) normal. She puts her head down and does what she can to stay alive, while eventually working up to greater rebellion. That progression felt very real to me. While resistance is satisfying to see, not every dystopian story should have a Katniss Everdeen right out of the gate. What do you think, Caity? How does the heightened degree of resistance in the show strike you?
I see what you’re saying, Laura, and I agree that part of what makes Atwood’s novel so singular is that the protagonist is a very average woman who remains average under the extraordinary new circumstances of Gilead. A more typical dystopian entry might make Ofglen the central figure, as she’s far more exciting and daring than Offred. The adaptation is having its macaron and eating it too by bringing Ofglen into greater prominence—we don’t learn much about the trajectories of other characters’ stories after they leave Offred’s story in the book, and by expanding the perspectives the show keeps the focus on Offred while still showing us the horror other women experience under the regime.
It might be a byproduct of transferring this story from page to screen, but I’m okay with Offred’s more ready rebellion. The show already relies heavily on Offred’s voice-over, but the new medium requires a bit more action to give the story its forward momentum in lieu of Offred’s inner monologue. Nuance always seems to be lost when adapting books, and well-done as this show is, it can’t possibly retain the richness that is Atwood’s prose.
Other than showing us what happens of Ofglen in episode three, these first episodes have stuck pretty close to the book. But just this morning we found out that Hulu has renewed The Handmaid’s Tale for a second season. This worries me. I want season one to tell the complete story of the book, which, really, does not cover a lot of time and focuses very narrowly on Offred’s time at the Waterfords’. Laura, since TV is doing what TV does and stretching out a good season that’s well-received, what would you like to see in season two? Do you want to stick with Offred, or would you rather spend more time with the characters on the periphery of her story, or maybe meet some new people suffering under the authoritarianism in Gilead?
I also wish this had just been done as a single miniseries instead of a multi-season show, but I still think there’s plenty left to explore in a second season. I also didn’t love the book as much as either of you did, so maybe I’m less cynical that the show could ruin its source material. Perhaps Handmaid will go the Orange Is The New Black route and fill out a season with other characters’ backstories. We’ve just talked in person about Janine, who for me is a far less annoying character in the show, and I think she could have an interesting backstory. Ofglen, of course, but also Aunt Lydia, or one of the Marthas. I could imagine even more terrifying parallels to our own reality coming through those stories. I do hope that they continue to focus on the women—the last thing we need is a version of The Handmaid’s Tale that focuses on the plight of Nick or the Commander.
I’m also personally curious in the structure of this new government and new world, though I wouldn’t want to see it fill up an entire season of television. We know Gilead includes only Massachusetts and Alaska, and that there is fighting in Chicago and Florida, and that there is toxic sludge seeping over what used to be the United States. It’s also curious to me that the Republic Of Gilead seems to rely solely on an Old Testament reading of the Bible, while creating a sect that’s evocative of extreme Christian fundamentalism. And, of course, the book ends with a scene that doesn’t lend itself to a cut-and-dry interpretation, so there are plenty of opportunities beyond the last page.
Already, this adaptation has proven fertile ground (sorry) for discussion, both in our office and on this website, and I’m both excited to see where Hulu takes us and also grateful that they’re only releasing episodes once a week from here on out. Until we have more to discuss, nolite te bastardes carborundorum.