When it comes to dystopian novels, few equal the attention that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has garnered, especially since the premiere of the TV adaptation on April 26, 2017. While first assumption is that “ the book is always better”, such is not the case here. While the first season is by and large faithful to Atwood’s original novel, there are definite upgrades that make the story more relatable in this day and age. Atwood herself serves as a writer and consulting producer for the show, so it comes as no surprise that she approved these changes given the recent cultural and political landscape. Much has changed since 1985.
First and foremost is the fact that Offred reveals her birth name as June, which was never explicitly mentioned in the book. This is her first act of defiance and defines her character as much stronger than the book suggests, making her much more relatable to the modern day feminist. Much like her mother’s pro choice rallies in the 60’s, June participates in a women’s right march that ends in gun violence, giving us a rare glimpse of how the nation fell so quickly beneath the Gileadean thumb. There is no concrete backstory in the book of how Gilead came to be.
The sexual and racial diversity of the show also lend a modern day flair we do not see in the book. In Atwood’s novel, the “Children of Ham” (people of colour) are relocated elsewhere outside of Gilead, whereas television’s version of June’s best friend, Moira, is black. So too is her husband, with whom they share a mixed daughter. These allusions to America’s tortured history of black enslavement emphasize that the whole story is indeed about slavery in every form. Handmaids are not allowed to read, go outside on their own, speak out of turn, and are raped monthly in what is call the “ceremony”. Nothing more than sexual servitude.
Unlike the book, the show also gives us openly gay characters with Ofglen being the most obvious. For her crimes she suffers genital mutilation which is something far more gruesome than in the pages of Atwood’s novel. There are suggestions that Moira is gay as well but nothing is concrete.
One of the main differences between the series and Atwood’s novel are the distinct back stories we get of the main characters’ lives pre-Gilead: How June and Luke evolved from randomly meeting at a hot dog stand, to becoming parents and their eventual separation while trying to flee the country… and the fates of her husband and daughter beyond. We learn of Ofglen’s (Emily) fall from a prominent position in University to lowly handmaid, and a far more complicated history of June’s best friend, Moira, than was suggested in the novel. We also get a glimpse of Serena Joy- one of the more complex characters on the show- contribute to the rise of Gilead and her subsequent fall from grace in the eyes of Gilead authorities. After all, she is a woman in a patriarchal society. These backstories lend a certain depth to prominent players in the show, something that is somewhat lacking in the novel. This depth allows us to feel for these characters, empathize with them on a much deeper level. Such is the case with Nick and June; a tortured love story emerges along with some moral questions. Is their relationship wrong? In the eyes of Gilead it is but what about the reader’s? And Serena Joy practically leaps off the screen to make us feel, anger, hate, and sympathy all in one episode. Kudos to Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, and Elisabeth Moss for giving these characters a more profound presence that resonates with us long after the episodes are over.
There are other subtle differences as well. Everyone in the days before Gilead walks around with a smartphone with references to such things as Uber, conceptions and devices that obviously didn’t exist when the novel was written. Moira is given a larger and more important role in the show as June’s story is fleshed out, but also with some distinct differences from her novelized persona. Moira is black and Serena Joy is much younger and prettier on-screen. Janine loses an eye, instead having her feet mutilated and almost kills herself and her baby because her Commander did not run away with her as planned.
However big or small these changes are, they all support the TV adaptation to be an improvement on an otherwise dated novel. Atwood seems to end her story too abruptly and the creators of the series give us a better look at what happens to June along the way. It also gives Atwood a chance to pick up the story where she left off all those years ago. Nominated for several awards, it has given Elisabeth Moss a Golden Globe and it seems like June’s story does not end here as it has been renewed for a third season.