How Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale Improves on Margaret Atwood's Novel

TV Features The Handmaid's Tale
Share Tweet Submit Pin
How Hulu's <i>The Handmaid's Tale</i> Improves on Margaret Atwood's Novel

I tried. Really. An extremely bookwormy child of the 1970s who’d never watch TV at all if books were an option, born in counterculture ground zero and raised by constitutionally defiant people, educated at the first college for women in the United States and in one of the first creative writing MFA programs in England… and I could not make myself love The Handmaid’s Tale.

That’s an understatement. I’m going to be real here and say if you’d asked me, at, say, 20 years old, to say why I didn’t like Margaret Atwood’s most famous and (forgive the etymology) seminal book, there are words I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to try and avoid using, words that would likely have provoked a brawl at any dorm dinner table at Mount Holyoke.

Militant. Shrill. Hysterical.

Paranoid.

All of those are weird words before you even get into the identity politics embedded in our vocabularies; they’re weird esthetically in the context of Atwood, a writer I’d generally describe as “glacial.” There’s something remote and abstracted about much of her work, and even the bits that are truly beautiful are beautiful the way an icy mountain peak is beautiful: You know it’s there, you know it’s real, and you know it’s really huge, but you’ll never be able to do more than gaze at it from a distance and admire the way the light hits the snow. I always admired her. Still do. (And I bitterly envy her prolific multi-genre output.) But that novel annoyed me. My reaction to her dystopian throwback freakout world where women were forced to bear children for wealthy sterile couples in a completely psycho post-apocalyptic Boston-of-the-brainium where creepy Judeo-Christian fundamentalism had replaced freedom of expression, control over one’s own body and banana nut pancakes, where you’d be eye-gouged and hanged as a warning to the feisty if you dared to resist?

Yawn.

Atwood has commented that a certain recent incident in American politics, in which a presidential election was totally confused with a reality TV show about power-mongering morons, has nudged sales of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a literary novel published in 1985, so the fact that it still sells enough copies to make an uptick noticeable is already a thing, and probably ticks a box in the “it’s me” column. I found myself thinking: Yeah, maybe it was just ahead of its time. Hulu’s adaptation of the book, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, the woman commandeered to be ceremonially raped by a wealthy government official whose wife, like most women in this universe, cannot have biological children, certainly seemed timely all of a sudden. It got me thinking about why I’d found the book so off-putting. Privilege bubble? Youthful inexperience? I mean, I turned 13 in 1985. I was a 9th grader in 1985. I was, developmentally and intellectually, more than capable of reading the book, just as I could read Lorca or Eugene O’Neill without having lived in their skins. But also, I was from a white, middle-class family in a metropolitan area famous for its intolerance of intolerance, and I was getting an upper-quintile education. And there were things that simply hadn’t happened yet. I mean happened to me: Atwood would be the first to point out that nothing depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale is without some historical precedent. (It was largely inspired by the Islamic Revolution in late 1970s Iran, and the American Christian Right.) What was radical about it was how it made the future look like the past’s Ugly Greatest Hits, and made it seem inevitable. Maybe it was the inevitability element that made me chafe. I’d been taught to believe no one could stop me from being whoever, whatever, I wanted to be. I was years away from that belief being meaningfully challenged.

Let’s just be genteel and say: Not any more. I have learned that when you believe someone or something is out to get you, you might or might not be correct. And it’s a totally separate question from whether you’re paranoid. Or hysterical. So when Hulu launched its adaptation and people were raving about it, I decided, almost thirty years later, to reread the book. Actually, I reread it twice, once before and once after binge-watching Season One.

Guess what? I still can’t love the book. I can admire its competence, its deft use of religion and myth, its grim understanding of hierarchies and fear, and especially the thing I’ve always liked most about Margaret Atwood’s novels: her spectacular anatomies of women’s treacheries against other women. But love it? No. Feel it? No. Experience that weird fusion of souls that happens when you find a novel or a novelist you just sense is writing from inside your own head? Absolutely not. We’re closer to Gilead now than we were then in a lot of ways, and let’s just say I understand a thing or two about sex, pregnancy and power that I didn’t in ninth grade. Yet I still find the novel chilly rather than chilling, obvious where it needed to be subtle, militant where it would have been better to be nuanced. Icy where it should have been hot, and on ice skates when it needed to put on scuba gear. And yes: Say it. Paranoid. Even seeing what I see, even knowing what I know, the book comes across not as timely and shockingly relevant—it presents as a paranoia patient in need of a shot of Haldol and some me-time in a safe place until it feels OK about removing its tinfoil hat.

And yet the series blows my hair back. I was not expecting that.

Much if not most of the time, it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to adapt a literary novel to, say, a feature film and not lose a ton of important stuff in translation. The constraints and features of the two media simply disable faithfulness, usually with the movie version suffering from a relative lack of complexity, character development and absorbing language. Of course, there are exceptions, though most aren’t what academics would call “literary” fiction. (Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is pure pulp; Coppola’s film is a masterpiece.) Usually, seeing the movie version of a great book is a recipe for woe (lookin’ at you, The Golden Compass and Bonfire of the Vanities; there’s an example of four hours I’ll never get back and that’s just off the top of my noggin). Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale was made into a movie in 1990. Have you seen it? I bet you haven’t, even if you’re a huge Atwood fan. Because no one did. Folks, it tanked. Despite being stocked with Hollywood royalty, a screenplay by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, music by demigod Ryuichi Sakamoto, and a budget of $13 million, it was an utter turkey that died at the box office like a Gilead-style Unbaby.

Television has lately proved itself shockingly capable of picking up some of the slack, utilizing the incremental, chapter-like form of the episode to give good books reasonable onscreen lives and in some cases making slackly written books with a few good core ideas look better than they ever did on the page. (At risk of alienating legions of diehard George R. R. Martin-ites, I will forever defend my position against any and all who claim HBO didn’t clean up a hot mess with Game of Thrones.) Atwood’s novel never remotely suffered from Hot Mess Syndrome; I just don’t like it. And Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller, has certainly grabbed the zeitgeist by the coattails. But that’s not why I love it. My patience with fandom-by-zeitgeist is easily strained.

I love it because it takes off the ice skates, and puts on the diving gear. There’s a whole rich ecosystem under that ice.

It retains the somewhat cold heart of Atwood’s book, its faithfulness and attentiveness to history, to religion, to mythography, to power politics (and its disaffected style) intact. It keeps (even expands) Atwood’s scrupulous attention to the onion-layers of women-on-women violence, betrayal and subjugation, which is far more pernicious and frightening than paramilitary goons with dicks and guns, though an armed man with the authority to shoot you on sight simply for being who you are is inherently threatening. But it abstains from her impulse toward extreme interiority and limited POV, both modernizing and and extrapolating the world of Gilead and the inner worlds of characters who are peripheral in the novel.

I definitely support the wise decision to recast it in the present near-future, rather than making it a period piece; references to cell phones and Uber and online dating increase the stark contrast, as well as the frighteningly thin line between our current world and the Draconian world of Gilead. In 1985 the Soviet Union was on its way to collapse, the Cold War seemed like a technicality, and post-nuclear dystopias were starting to feel (at least to some of us) the way UFO invasion flicks must have felt in the hippie 1970s: more quaint than prescient. I don’t know how “disturbingly timely” the show would have been if they’d kept it in 1985’s near-future. (“Remember when women were allowed to watch The Breakfast Club?”) But in a moment of extreme anxiety about eroding rights (and an increasing inability to tell real from manufactured events), the series definitely strikes the “paranoid” chord in a way that feels right rather than stretched. The idea of a United States in which women were not allowed to work, or read; where not only was Roe v. Wade reversed but ritualized rape of the dwindling population of fertile women was normative because ecological cataclysm had set the stage for a terrifying “back to basics” movement in which fertile women became chattel because they were humanity’s last hope against extinction: Some of that stuff is just a little more real at the moment. But the series also does a better job of making it real—of realizing a vision of society that’s insidious enough to be genuinely scary—than the book.

Instead of a nuclear cataclysm, there’s a vague sense of general environmental degradation and climate change that have rendered most women (and men) infertile, sparked wars and food rationing, and turned the greater Boston area into the fundamentalist Republic of Gilead. In the novel, Offred’s mistress, Serena Joy, can’t have children because she’s older; here, they’ve made Serena (played by Yvonne Strahovski) roughly the same age as Offred, providing a much greater scope for bitter sexual competition. (Women’s distrust, machination and violence against other women is an overarching theme in many of Atwood’s novels and it’s a preoccupation she handles with deft and unflinching honesty). More importantly, in this version, Serena Joy Waterford isn’t just the infertile wife of a high-ranking government official. Rather, she played an instrumental role in creating Gilead (in her backstory, she seems to be a conservative sociopolitical shit-disturber, something like Ann Coulter). For Serena this has become complicated, as she now has to live with what she created. Her baby is a world in which she isn’t allowed to read, in which the book she had once written has been burned, in which her education counts for nothing. So all she has left is power over Offred and the other servants of the house. And she wields it, viciously. It’s clear the irony isn’t lost on her for a second.

Indeed, the TV Serena is just about as real to us as Offred, and they are not simply master and servant. Serena’s as trapped as her Handmaid in some ways, and she knows it and is infuriated by it. Neither wants to be dependent on the other but they both are, entangled in a shifting, morphing, and often seriously scary power struggle that could upend either of them, or end them completely, at any moment. It’s much more dynamic and compelling than a woman who is kept as a brood mare by another woman who is basically an abstraction. They’re paranoid. They’re militant. They’re hysterical. They’re out to get each other. And they have to help each other whether they want to or not. All of it is true simultaneously and that’s the real, inescapable, terrifying nature of power: It’s not hierarchy that rules; that’s an optical illusion. What really runs the power game in human society is entanglement.

The series greatly alters and expands other characters as well, notably Offred’s pre-Gilead bestie, Moira (Samira Wiley); her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle); and Janine (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid who’s driven insane by the brutalities of the system. (Aunt Lydia, played by Ann Dowd, gets a lot more flesh in the TV series, too.) Offred tends to tip her hat much more to her pre-Handmaid identity—a flawed, intelligent, funny, opinionated young woman named June—which removes some of the… well, remove. Our greater investment in the secondary characters, a function of our ability to see through eyes other than Offred’s, makes everything a lot scarier and weirder, and the high-saturation color—those amazing scarlet cloaks and bowed heads marching through the snow; they almost look like inside-out nuns—underscores the series’ psychotically stratified society. The horrors of the nameless, faceless conformity in which these women live, whose only human value is viable ovaries, almost overwhelm us. Then June says, in a wry voiceover, “They should never have given us uniforms, if they didn’t want us to become an army.” (Cue swelling, swaggering Nina Simone track—boom.)

That line isn’t in in the book (I double-checked), and in the Season One finale it’s absolutely pivotal. June begins to see power as well as subjugation in her forced conformity. She sees herself and the other Handmaids as a battalion rather than as people who’ve been made interchangeable, made non-people. At the beginning of that episode, June learns she’s pregnant (good news, bad news) and she knows it gives her a degree of immunity from bodily harm, which emboldens her to defy Aunt Lydia and lead a refusal to “salvage” poor, destabilized Janine by stoning her to death. She knows there will be some kind of retribution, but she’s been released from fear of it. She sees, and uses, what her novel counterpart never had time to: She has an ironic but formidable power. (The word “power” comes from Latin, and shares a root with “potency.”) Both words connote being enabled in a generative sense. Power is the ability to make things happen, to bring things into being, to engender—and a pregnant woman is a heavy-duty exemplar of that. In the book we fade out without knowing whether Offred’s liaison with chauffeur Nick has in fact resulted in pregnancy, and while that decision was in keeping with the book’s general sense of wild uncertainty, for the series it’s a crucial point of attachment and a choice I vastly prefer. Not only because it gives viewers something more to be invested in (though it does), but also because it explodes the power dynamics of this universe, makes Offred both more precious and more vile to Serena, and more protection-worthy and more dangerous to Aunt Lydia. It changes the power balance in the Waterfords’ marriage, and it presents a huge range of internal conflicts for Offred.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s coming for you.

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has managed to extract a very current, very of-the-moment narrative from a thirty-year-old piece of speculative fiction. It captures the collective anxiety about societal roles that seems to be gripping just about everyone right now. On my second tour of the book I was surprised to see a reference to “fake news.” The severe reversion of LGBTQ rights to a state in which queer men and women are called “gender traitors” was bad enough in the Reagan years, in a time when legal gay marriage was a pipe dream and in the dawn of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now, when we seem to have made a good deal of progress (“bathroom laws” and rage-oholic wedding cake bakers notwithstanding), it’s far more shocking and painful to watch. We’re in a moment at which the potential to slide backward into some kind of psychotic fundamentalism, to abandon civil rights to this vicious a degree, feels more possible than it did in the 1980s, which my ninth grader has quipped was “the last optimistic decade.” But they couldn’t have done it without a more rebellious, inwardly defiant, conflicted Offred, and both the writing and Elisabeth Moss’ performance give us that. The series has a lot less, “Look, this could happen to women in the blink of an eye at any minute without eternal vigilance!” and a lot more humanity.

Season One ends roughly where the book does. Season Two, on which Atwood has continued to consult, will be an extension rather than an adaptation. And I can’t wait to find out what happens. The book ends in the right place—for the book. But the series opened a lot of doors the book didn’t, and now some of them demand to be walked through.

Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Wednesday, April 25 on Hulu.



Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Recently in TV
More from The Handmaid's Tale