Books have acted as rich source material for theatre, movies, and television for decades. From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, often visual media give fans an opportunity to finally see their favorite fictional worlds come to life. It’s a thrill for anyone to see their most beloved characters come alive in a translation from text to image. However, book adaptations are as unevenly received as they are numerous, and critics rarely offer the final word on whether or not a book adaptation is “good.” Even if most mainstream critics adore a movie based on a book, for example, there will undoubtedly be countless fans disappointed with the various inaccuracies and idiosyncrasies within that adaptation. For television shows, this process of determination becomes even more complicated, as the quality of adaptation can vary from season to season or even episode to episode.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s bold new take on the iconic novel of the same name penned by Margaret Atwood in 1985, has been positively received by critics and fans alike. The book, which has a rich scholarly and political history as one of the most important feminist works of our time, has been long overdue for a successful adaptation. Luckily, so far, Hulu has provided just that: The Handmaid’s Tale conveys the dire political stakes at play in the original novel, while successfully updating the circumstances for 2017. The series follows Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss), a Handmaiden who has been conscripted into sexual slavery for a prominent family in the dystopia Gilead. One of the few fertile women left in their ex-American society, June is expected to bear a child for her Commander and his disillusioned wife (Yvonne Strahovski). June tries to cope with her new circumstances, despite the loss of her daughter and husband, and reminisces on the events leading up to her enlistment as a Handmaiden.
The series is, for the most part, a stellar example of well-made, politically relevant storytelling. Unlike the original novel, the show works to incorporate multiple characters of color and underscore the dire circumstances at work for gay men and lesbians in Gilead. In many ways, the show also pulls fewer political punches than the book. With direct references to extremist religious groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and skilfully-placed modern nods to things like Tinder, the series successfully sells the terrifying possibility of Gilead.
That’s not to discount the importance of the book, however, which occupies syllabi from high school to grad school for a reason. The captivating-yet-horrifying reality Atwood presents in her novel, aside from its salience, contains fascinating characters and a rich backstory. The show teases out and embellished many of these elements — with varied success. Now, with a season two on the horizon and season one about to close, it’s unclear whether the show will be able to shoulder the magnitude of Atwood’s work for another season.
As happens with any adaptation, there are some noticeable differences between the book and the show. Some of these creative liberties build on the story, as with the show’s modern touches and character-centric episodes. Other changes, however, detract from the novel’s potential original intentions. For instance, June’s illicit relationship with Nick, her Commander’s driver, has been significantly played up and romanticized, though the book depicts it with equal parts mystique and ambivalence. In addition, the Commander and his Wife have been aged down for maximum hotness — an especially befuddling move, since those two are the show’s chief antagonists (so far).
Perhaps the show’s biggest departure from the book, however, is a more general manipulation of its pacing. Given that the original novel barely pushes 300 pages and the show’s first season consists of ten hour-long episodes, the Hulu original displays some growing pains. The show focuses more intently on June’s past, particularly her family (though it notably leaves out her radical second-wave mother), and embellishes some of the book’s more minor characters. The Commander’s Wife and June’s husband have both been afforded their own episodes, in a move that has so far strengthened the series. However, certain characters receive short shrift. June herself has been pepped up, made palatably feisty, despite the original character’s simultaneous shock and resignation. June’s dear friend Ofglen/Emily meets an unkind fate by the show’s second episode — something that doesn’t occur in the book until the final twenty pages. In some respects, it seems TV sensationalism outranks the show’s duty to the original source material. Sex and action are easy ways to get viewers emotionally invested in your story. So far that combo is working for The Handmaid’s Tale, but is that really for the best?
With twelve episodes left to go after tonight — possibly more, if a third season gets green-lit — it’s hard to see where else the show has to go. Many key plot points from the novel have already been exhausted, and it’s hard to imagine the show borrowing from its source material for much longer. While that could be a passable reality for other shows (it’s worked okay on Game of Thrones, for instance), the stakes here are arguably too high. If The Handmaid’s Tale is left floundering with only brand-new screenwriting to determine June’s fate, its writers could make some key missteps and undercut the importance of the show’s intended message.
Because not only is The Handmaid’s Tale an incredibly important work of literature, particularly for women, it’s also a purposefully ambivalent and dark story. Much of the novel relies on mood and vignettes, rather than discrete sensational plot points, to move forward. That makes it a difficult work to translate to television, especially given the murky nature of its protagonist’s fate. That very ambiguity, however, is one of the book’s key strengths, as it serves to amplify June’s hopelessness and desperation. To see the show end with June finding asylum, while potentially cathartic to fans, would be an inherent disservice to the book. It’s difficult to imagine the series ending any other way, though, with the way this season’s been progressing. Given that the show has done so well with the story’s politics thus far, it’s scary to think about how far it has to fall in the next season.
In a perfect world, The Handmaid’s Tale could find a way to continue on forever. The series does great things both on-screen and behind-the-scenes, like hiring unsung female directing greats like Reed Morano (Kill Your Darlings, Lemonade) and Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways, Daredevil) to direct multiple episodes. Its political message could not be more relevant or skilfully crafted. Its visuals are beyond stunning. A show like The Handmaid’s Tale could be more than just a miniseries — but The Handmaid’s Tale itself might not be the right show for the job.
Given the fraught nature of book adaptation and the iconic nature of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu may have been better off cutting its losses instead of green-lighting another season of the serial adaptation. Money talks, but this source material deserves more than an overwrought, too-long page-to-screen translation, and that might be just where season two is headed. As the show’s first season prepares to wrap up later on in June, it’s hard to imagine what bits of the novel will be left to work with for season two — leaving us to wonder if the show should even continue that far in the first place.
A new episode of The Handmaid’s Tale premieres every Wednesday on Hulu.