The Handmaid's Tale: Differences Between the Book & the Show

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for The Handmaid's Tale


The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu's latest foray into original programming, is perhaps 2017's most talked-about new series - accused of being overly political by detractors, and praised as being eerily timely by fans. Starring Elisabeth Moss as titular handmaiden Offred, the series is set in a dystopian United States, renamed Gilead. A religious movement named the Sons of Jacob has taken control of the country and has stripped women of their rights. Due to environmental factors leading to rising infertility, women who are able to bear children are forced to serve as handmaidens, bearing children for wealthy and powerful men and their wives.

The novel, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, has led a popular life. It has graced the bookshelves of feminist scholars and the syllabi of college courses for years since it was published, and even had a (poorly received) film adaptation in 1990. While the new series looks to be faithful to the original novel, there are some changes that have been made in order to give the series a new life on Hulu.

One of the most notable changes in the first three episodes is that Offred openly thinks of her first name, rather than keeping it hidden from the reader. Over the years, readers deduced that her first name was June based on a scene where the handmaids in training list off their real names; June was the only name not accounted for. Atwood never intended for Offred to have a first name, and indeed doesn't know what it actually is, but June has become the go-to interpretations for readers.

The Handmaids Tale - Elizabeth Moss as Offred

Throughout the novel, Offred seems to have all but forgotten her name from before. However, showrunner Bruce Miller chooses to end the first episode, titled "Offred," with Offred quietly stating "My name is June" through a voiceover. By giving Offred her real name, and later on giving Offred's close friend Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) a name in the third episode as well, the show has made a conscious choice to give these women more agency in the story. It sets up Offred as a defiant figure, albeit one whose defiance is understated; she knows her name and refuses to be defined by a name that reduces her down to the property of a man. That in itself is a powerful moment.

Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Joy is given more to do in the show. In the book, she is there as a sort-of antagonist to Offred; here, we are given a glimpse into her own frustrations. When she thinks Offred might be pregnant, she treats Offred as a child; when she doesn't think so, she is by turns icy and furious. The show focuses mostly on the handmaids and their world, but the wives such as Serena Joy are able to be fleshed out more as well. Serena Joy is, in fact, more of an antagonist than the mostly faceless men who come and go.

Ofglen is also a character who benefits greatly from the changes to the story. The show not only gives us her real name, Emily, but expands on what happened to her after she was taken away by the government. In the adaptation, it is revealed that Emily is a lesbian, and that she and a Martha (the term used for domestic servants) were having an affair, which resulted in her arrest. Episode three of the show, "Late," shows us what happened to her, rather than leaving it unknown. We see her arrested, tried, and sentenced; her partner is hung before her eyes and she is subjected to female genital mutilation.

This is an awful reminder of what the government of Gilead is capable of, and serves to underline exactly how dire the situation is for women, especially women who don't fit into social binaries. The world of Gilead as established in the first two episodes is brutal - in episode one, the Handmaids beat a convicted rapist to death - but the brutality hasn't yet happened to characters we know or are close to. Ofglen is likable, courageous, and a friend to Offred, and when she is tortured by the government - both emotionally and physically - it shocks the audience. It also shakes up the narrative; prior to this, Offred had been the sole point of view character. By showing Ofglen's tragedy, it allows for the narrative to expand outside of Offred. Given the novel's ending, this is a good way to establish a possible second season, since the narrative isn't tied to Offred and what happens to her.

Perhaps the biggest change is from page to screen is how the show plays fast and loose with timelines. While the novel features flashbacks to Offred's life before the takeover, the show definitely goes more in depth with its look at Offred's life as June. The second episode, which is aptly titled "Birth Day" and centers on handmaid Janine giving birth, shows June as a new mother. "Late" shows her and friend her Moira (Samira Wiley) protesting against the emerging regime. These flashbacks not only allow Wiley's character to shine - she is supposedly dead in the present time of the show - but also allow audiences to fully grasp how the takeover happened and the culture that allowed it. This gives a richness to the world of the show, as well as a better grasp of Offred as a character.

The Handmaid's Tale Hulu

The show also has quickly moved through various major events in the novel. The Particicution (an execution carried out by handmaids), Janine giving birth, and Ofglen's disappearance are all covered within the first three episodes. These are major plot points in the novel that occur spread out across the plot. The only storylines that are teased in the first three episodes but not resolved are the relationships between Offred and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and between Offred and Nick (Max Minghella). Both of those relationships are key to the novel, and will no doubt be expanded on as the series progresses. However, that leaves the question of what other elements from the book the series will explore in the upcoming episodes. There are plenty of directions the show could go, but it was an interesting choice to go through so much material in the first three episodes. Similarly, the ground covered by the flashbacks will also be moving into new territory, as they have all but covered the material in the books.

The first three episodes of the show are strong, keeping close enough to the book to satisfy purists while bringing in enough life to make the story translate well to the screen. And that is the biggest purpose that most of these changes serve. While the novel is a brilliant and terrifying look at a dystopia, it also is restricted in scope and perspective. The show has broadened the horizons of the world, and in doing so has created a tense and captivating series. It is likely that this show will be what finally helps Hulu rise to join the likes of Netflix and Amazon when it comes to original programming.

Next: The Handmaid’s Tale Review

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