The novel is a modern classic and rightly so. Atwood’s rich prose and complex characterisation lifts off every page, bringing a story to life that feels both modern and medieval at the same time. Offred’s sense of isolation in the novel is striking: the book concentrates almost solely on her reaction to what happens to her, plus her helplessness. As a feminist text, The Handmaid’s Tale draws on how patriarchy is bad not just for women, but for ALL of us.
We learn very little about Offred’s life before Gilead; we don’t even know her true ‘shining’ name (though many believe it is June. This is based on the first scene when she and the others arrive at The Red Centre, a training place for handmaidens. Atwood has refused to corroborate this, but says readers can believe this if they wish). But in real terms, we know only she was the second wife of Luke and the mother of a girl child. In Gilead, all divorces are nullified, so Offred and Luke are adulterers and their child a bastard. This is illegal, so they’d tried to flee and failed. During the chase Luke was (presumably) killed and Offred was captured and drafted, the child was forcibly removed from her.
In the book, Offred is surrounded by a myriad of differentiated and memorable characters. It’s clear, from the beginning, there is a line drawn in the sand between her and mistress of the house, Serena Joy. Offered is young and fertile, but Serena Joy is old and essentially past her sell-by date, drawing on patriarchal ideals of what being a ‘real’ woman means. The Commander is quiet, reserved, watchful, but strangely reckless. His desire to connect with Offred on an intellectual level, playing scrabble with her and giving her forbidden objects like magazines hints at his dissatisfaction with the new life he finds himself in.
The two main secondary characters who signify resistance, both literal and metaphorical, are Moira and Ofglen (#1). Moira is a lesbian, but has been able to hide this in the new society (homosexuality is forbidden in Gilead). In the book, it’s hazy just how friendly Offred was with Moira before America fell; it’s possible they only met at The Red Centre. During the course of the story, Moria acts as a mentor to Offred, counselling her on what she needs to do in order to survive, though she inspires Offred when she successfully escapes The Red Centre.
Ofglen #1 also offers a similar dramatic function in the novel by introducing her to MayDay – a resistance against the Commanders of Gilead. Both are thwarted in the book: Moira ends up at Jezebel’s, a brothel, entertaining The Commanders; Ofglen #1 kills herself when she is discovered and taken by The Eyes (Gilead’s secret police).
Duty is a keystone of Gilead society. The Waterford’s driver (and Offred’s lover) Nick might be a man in this new society, but he is low status and as much of a pawn as Offred is. Even the fact he is an Eye does him few favours; he is at the mercy of his masters The Waterfords, just like Offred. Other handmaids create obstacles, either directly for Offred (such as Ofglen #2, who warns her to stay in line) or Janine (aka Ofwarren, whom Offred meets at The Red Centre, who creates drama / issues for The Handmaids generally, especially as they are training).
In comparison, The Marthas are those infertile, low status women who must wait on the households and Rita and Cora, the Waterford’s key servants are brought forth to deliver this. They are cool with Offred, preferring to barely connect with her, treating her as an object on order to cope with what is asked of them. A common litany is ‘blessed be the fruit’ — Offred is essentially just a uterus on legs, a host.
The exposition of the storyworld is expertly hidden and doled out; there are no big dumps of information about the new world order in terms of The Commander, the handmaids, the Marthas, the Econowives, The Salvagings, UnBabies, The Colonies and so on. After all, there is no reason for Offred to re-explain Gilead as she finds it to herself … She knows what is going on, she is living it!
*That* ending would be abrupt anyway, but it is made even more so by the addition of a final chapter by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, offering supposed ‘Historical Notes’ for what *really* happened to Gilead, which we understand has already fallen. The professor gives a talk about the narrator’s story, which he has painstakingly transcribed and formatted into The Handmaid’s Tale.
Professor Pieixoto offers details about the origin of this text and its authenticity while lamenting how little can be learned about the narrator. He also offers possible identities for the Commander. Some reviewers have confessed to feeling perturbed by the inclusion of these notes, questioning why they are needed. For me, I think they are justified: had we ended the story with Offred getting into the Eyes’ vehicle, it would have ended on a very dark, hopeless note. But by making us realise Gilead is already dead and buried, the story ends with a sense of hope, even if Offred is also dead. This means The Handmaid’s Tale is less diary and more of a final testimony. In real terms, we don’t know exactly what happens to Offred – but I HOPE she is dead, as this is her only ‘escape’ from such a torturous existence.
The TV Series (2017)
As you might expect with a modern classic novel, there have been numerous adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale over the last thirty years, including a movie, an opera, a radio drama and a ballet. Critical response has varied, though the most recent Netflix/Hulu adaptation starring Elizabeth Moss as Offred, Joseph Fiennes as The Commander, Yvonne Stahovski and Max Minghella as Nick has received almost universal accolades. So, for the purposes of this blog post, I will concentrate on this version.
The Handmaid’s Tale is incredibly faithful to its source material: so much so, Margaret Atwood even appears in it! (She’s the woman who slaps Offred’s face in The Red Centre). Basically, everything that was present in the book appears here, such as from the ‘main’ story points such as The Ceremony or Offred’s affair with Nick, through to Moira’s escape; Janine’s initial rebellion; Moira’s secondment to Jezebel’s , Ofglen’s horrible fate and beyond. Offred’s original name is even – and as a nod to fans of the book – ‘June’.
Crucially however, this is an adaptation for a TV series, rather than a book. Whilst the book is fabulous and one of my favourites, it’s hardly plot-driven. So, here is what they do:
1) Offred’s Voiceover
Literary in style, the book focuses on Offred’s thoughts and feelings, rather than her actions. She is incredibly passive in the book and this does not sit well with screenwriting generally, especially when there’s approximately ten hours of screen-time to fill, a there is here, in The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation! But the makers get round this brilliantly, offering up a complex voice-over for Offred: she will present her meek, pious face to the Waterfords and the rest of Gilead, but in her mind she is raging. This feels authentic and real, because Offred is doing what she has to, to survive … but that DOESN’T mean she has to like it!
2) Serena Joy
Serena Joy is Offred’s main antagonist in the adaptation, but crucially she is considerably younger than in the book. This adds a whole new layer of conflict, taking away somewhat stale notions of fertility and what being a woman means, which we have seen lots of in the decades since The Handmaid’s Tale was published). Instead, the conflict between Offred and Serena Joy is that Offred is a usurper, which is much more modern and feels fresher.
In addition, in the TV series, Serena Joy is also the architect of Gilead and actively helped set it up with Commander Waterford … but ironically, by rejecting feminism and embracing old school ideals, has made herself obsolete. This is masterful and the way Yvonne Strahovski plays her – so frustrated, so enraged – makes her a convincing doppelganger for Offred in real terms. This also gives her much more ‘story space’ in future series too, as the show runner Bruce Miller explains HERE.
Barely in evidence in the source material, Luke is fully realised character in the adaptation. From Offred’s memories of him in the book, the screenwriters take him into storylines of his own; this includes an entire episode that depicts what happens to him after June hears the gunshot in the woods. It would have been very easy to cast men as ‘the enemy’ in this adaptation, but Luke’s inclusion in the story as a whole – including his fight in Canada to try and get his family back – is sympathetic and feels real. The way they’ve made him a real, holistic character is just fantastic.
Moira’s place in Offred’s old life is played ‘upfront’ here, with no room for ambiguity. Both women know each other and are great friends, which adds to the pain of the journey they have to undergo, first at The Red Centre, then separately. Unlike the book, Moira tries to take Offred with her when escaping; unfortunately they are separated and Moira escapes alone. This means their reunion at Jezebel’s – faithful to the book – is even more bittersweet, so when Moira manages to make it to Canada and find Luke, we hope (unlike the book), that husband and wife will be reunited too.
4) The Commander
The Commander is probably the most faithful characterisation to the source material. He is reserved and watchful, but reckless: there is a great scene when in The Ceremony he starts looking at Offred in a heated, sexualised way and Offred’s voiceover begs him to stop. Fiennes plays him seemingly sympathetic one moment, an authoritarian the next … He is exactly how I imagined him in my mind.
Nick is another superbly realised character in the adaptation. Max Minghella plays him in an understated, morally ambiguous way. Unlike the book, where he feels like relief for Offred, Nick offers a more overt mentor function: like Moira in the book, he counsels Offred on what she needs to do in order to survive. It seems apparent he will do whatever it takes to ensure his own survival too, but he is pragmatic rather than dangerous.
6) Ofglen # 1
Ofglen # 1 has a much larger, rounded part in the adaptation. Like Moira, Ofglen #1 is also gay and found guilty not just of ‘gender treachery’ (lesbianism), but having a relationship with a Martha, rather than being a member of MayDay. This makes sense, as otherwise Offred would be found out too quickly; Ofglen’s brutal treatment is also what spurs Offred on into her own rebellion. Ofglen’s girlfriend is hanged, but Ofglen is sentenced to ‘Redemption’ – she is spared because she is fertile, though they remove her clitoris. Later, Ofglen returns to the circle of handmaidens, though she pretends not to know Offred before finally stealing a car and being carted away by The Eyes.
Again, Janine has a much larger part in the adaptation. As in the book, Janine arrives at The Red Centre full of (understandable) vitriol and is punished as an example to the others (in the adaptation she loses her eye, though this does not happen in the book). As time goes on, Janine’s grip on reality starts to waver. Janine in the book gives birth to a seemingly healthy baby, which is then declared ‘UnBaby’ and discarded later (with Offred losing track of her shortly afterwards).
The first half of this happens in the adaptation, but the baby stays in the Warrens’ home in the TV series. Janine believes erroneously her Commander is in love with her and that he will discard his wife and they will live as a family, together. When she is sent away to a new Commander, her sanity breaks. She runs away and steals the baby back, threatening to jump from a bridge. Offered is able to persuade Janine to give her the baby before she tries to kill herself. Before she jumps, Janine reveals she has been having sex with the Commander, which is forbidden; this leads to his downfall as well (he has his forearm removed in penance, the harshest possible sentence, at the request of his own wife).
8) Last major plot additions
The storyworld is much richer in terms of the ‘baby problem’ world-wide in the adaptation. There are numerous references to it in the past thread, such as when June tells Moira she’s pregnant in the queue (‘Well they say that’s the hard part??’); or when a nurse says most of the babies born that day had died; or when grieving mother steals Luke and June’s baby at the hospital, thinking it is her own. It’s much more apparent this issue not only pre-dates Gilead, it prepares the ground for it. I got a hint of this in the book, but not as strongly.
In the adaptation, a Mexican delegate comes to see Gilead and Offred is paraded in front of her. She asks whether Offred is happy (something tourists ask her in the book). Offred feels compelled to say yes, since Commander Waterford is there.
Later, it becomes apparent the Mexicans are not there to trade for oranges as Offred first assumes, but for handmaidens, so Mexico might try and repopulate. Offred rails against this with Nick and decides she will tell the Mexican delegate the truth. Unfortunately for her, the Mexican delegate tells her that her own hands are tied: she can do nothing for her. However, on leaving it’s revealed her assistant has a note for Offred, from Luke (and we discover, with her, he is still alive).
Lastly, Janine’s storyline comes to a head in the final episode and collides with Offred’s. A Salvaging is called and it becomes apparent they are being asked to kill Janine this time, for endangering the Warrens’ baby. It is when Offred says she won’t that all the other handmaidens follow suit and throw down their rocks. This is also why The Eyes come for her. The last shot is of Offred getting into the vehicle, just like in the book (though unlike the book, the story will continue in series 2).
I love the book, but it is quite slow and ends very suddenly, so I understand why some readers find it hard-going. It’s also possibly a story that is so deep in its meaning, that the reader has to be already ‘into’ its message (especially its warning regarding the paternalistic nature of some strains of feminism). On this basis, the book perhaps preaches to the converted a little.
In comparison (and as you might expect), the TV series is MUCH more accessible. Yet they’ve done it in such a way that is both modern *and* classic, yet has built on what is in the book AND added to it. It’s without question one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen, as it is both faithful and adds to the story world, bringing its meaning to a whole new audience whilst not alienating its core fans. No mean feat. Whether they can capture lightning in a bottle twice with series 2 will be very interesting.
So, my verdict? I think I actually like the adaptation better, because it has the potential to take Atwood’s message further in the long term. Bravo!