The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most successful television shows airing today, and it's easy to see why. This spectacular Hulu series is an adaptation of the classic Margaret Atwood novel that manages to flesh out the horrors of Gilead and examine and explore their characters and stories with riveting nuance. The show has now gone far beyond the original book, but has still managed to capture the spirit of the original story while building this world into something much larger and more intricate than Margaret Atwood's original book.
However, the novel The Handmaid's Tale was a landmark achievement for a reason, and Margaret Atwood is an extremely clever writer whose work is absolutely flooded with subtext. While the television adaptation is brilliant, there are some things that simply cannot be translated from page to screen. So, which elements of The Handmaid's Tale can only fully be understood and truly make sense if you read the book?
10 The Clothes
Obviously, the clothing on The Handmaid's Tale is very striking and clearly denotes the differences between classes of people, but the show never really explains all of the motivations behind the clothing in the way that the book does. For most of us who exist in the real world and not this dystopian nightmare, clothing is an expression of our personal taste and individualism.
Which is exactly why Gilead wants to take away those choices. When it comes to the clothing of handmaids in particular, their entire uniform is designed to take away their individuality and hide them from the world.
9 Their Bonnets
The clothing choices (or lack thereof) in Gilead are all about robbing the wearer of their individuality and marking them as a particular class of person, but the bizarre, lampshade-like bonnets that the handmaids have to wear every time they go out in public were designed with something else in mind.
Handmaids are condemned to a life as handmaids specifically because they're sinners, and because they've sinned they have to hide themselves from the outside world. Because handmaids are viewed by most as little more than harlots, they don't want them to be able to show themselves off in public and "tempt" those around them.
We all know that the handmaids of Gilead have to take on the names of their commanders, but there is a really clear wordplay when it comes to the title of Offred that doesn't really translate to screen all that well.
Of course, Offred can be directly translated to of Fred, but it's also obviously a play on the word offered, because of the way that Offred is offered up like a sacrificial lamb. It can also be read as of red, in the same way that all of the handmaids are women in red and branded with a scarlet letter, minus the actual letter.
June is the protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale's television adaptation, but it's actually never even made clear what Offred's real name is in the book. A lot of the book's readers surmised that Offred's real name was June just based on the context clues (a number of handmaids are listed off in the book, and "June" is the only name that doesn't belong to another character) but Margaret Atwood left it intentionally ambiguous.
It's easy to understand why. Of course, it's good to know June as a protagonist, but the whole point of being a handmaid is that you're forced into anonymity and in theory anyone can be or become "Offred."
6 There's A Balm In Gilead
Even the casual viewer of The Handmaid's Tale could come to the conclusion that the Republic of Gilead borrows its name from the Bible. In the book, however, Margaret Atwood references a specific line that refers to a "balm in Gilead."
Now, on the surface, the obvious meaning of this is that Gilead is meant to be a place of healing, but as Offred mentions in the book, "a balm in Gilead" is a homonym of "a bomb in Gilead." The allusion here is clear: Gilead wants to appear as a safe haven or even an idealized world, but it's a world of violence and destruction underneath.
5 Why The Birth Rate Collapsed
On the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, the abrupt and precipitous birth rate drop is the excuse that is used to justify forcing these women into reproductive slavery (in addition to their supposed past sins, of course), but the show never clarifies exactly what caused that drop. In fact, they have treated it like a mystery that has yet to be solved.
That's not the case in the book, though. It's made clear that the sharp increase in infertility is driven by toxic radiation and environmental pollution that is affecting the health and reproductive ability of all of Gilead's citizens.
4 Everyone Thinks The Handmaids Have It Easy
The Handmaid's Tale explores the entire world of Gilead, but its main focus is obviously June and the rest of the handmaids. As any viewer would obviously know, the life of a handmaid seems indescribably awful. While the handmaids in the book receive a lot of the same treatment as the handmaids in the TV show, the reputation of the handmaids doesn't reflect their reality.
Most people in Gilead society regard being a handmaid as an almost unfairly easy job, and a lot of the other classes of Gilead's citizens think of being a handmaid as a job that only requires one day a month of work.
3 The Eyes
The TV version of The Handmaid's Tale has explored the concept of the Eyes quite a bit, but still has lost some of the nuance that the Gilead secret police force has in the books. The Eyes are essentially meant to spy on any and all aspects of Gilead society, for the sake of maintaining order and ensuring that the country remains as godly as it can be.
However, the show has never referred to them by their full title, the Eyes of God. It's not shocking that Gilead would call their spies this, but there's a whole lot of subtext to the fact that spies for the government are literally called the Eyes of God.
2 Gilead Is Within You
This is a concept that has been established and demonstrated dozens of ways in dozens of scenarios with nearly every character in the show, but it's something that the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale has never stated outright while the book has: Gilead lives within you.
Every character that the audience sees on the show has been utterly and irrevocably transformed by their experience in Gilead, and, in many ways, that means that even if a citizen of Gilead manages to escape this horrific regime physically, it's something they can never escape mentally and psychologically.
1 Prejudices Don't End With Women
Show runner Bruce Miller has gone out of his way to explain why he decided to make the changes he made when it came to adapting the novel as a television series. Margaret Atwood's treatment of anything "other," though, honestly makes a lot more sense in the book.
In the book, Offred makes reference to the Sons of Ham, the citizens who were essentially separated from the rest of Gilead society. She also states that although people of other religions either had to convert or die, Gilead supposedly allowed Jewish people to leave Gilead and go to Israel.