THE HANDMAID’S TALE: a Book-to-TV Primer

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale book (and the show adaptation) follow!

Fans of Canadian author  Margaret Atwood were already eagerly anticipating Hulu‘s new  Handmaid’s Tale series before this year began, but with the way current events have been going lately, it feels a more relevant and necessary story than ever. As is always the case when a popular book gets turned into a TV show, those of us who haven’t caught up on their reading are probably feeling pretty lost right now but still want to know what’s what.

Fear not, spoiler lovers: we’re help you get you up to speed with our own brief cliff notes-style explanation of why this book has persisted in popularity for almost three decades, and what fans want from the show when it finally arrives. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

What’s this book about?

In the distant future, America as we know it has been overthrown by a Christian terrorist group and replaced with a rigidly oppressive society. Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases are causing sterility among the ruling class, so they create an involuntary caste of fertile women to procreate for them, as loosely inspired by a passage in the bible where Rachel asks her maid to give her husband children. The book follows Offred as she navigates her new “life” as one of these handmaids, recalling what it was like before the Republic of Gilead took over.

Margaret Atwood wrote the book in 1984 while living in West Berlin (which was still trapped within the Berlin Wall), and said that she did not necessarily set out to create a feminist dystopia, but a dictatorship that felt realistic to America’s religious roots. “The deep foundation of the US—so went my thinking—was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state,” she recounted in a 2012 essay for The Guardian, “but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

Okay, but what’s this book really about?

Obviously, it’s difficult to discuss the themes of this book without viewing it through a feminist lens—after all, its primary focus is on what it’s like for a woman to lose her personhood as a direct result of what her ability to rear children. But beneath that, there’s also an interesting and nuanced exploration about the entire spectrum of feminist discourse. In Gilead, Offred is free from much of the problems that still beset modern woman, such as catcalling, stranger rape, sexual objectification, and workplace harassment—but she’s also denied the ability to make choices for herself.

Another important element of the book is the the way that the power that religious political structures exhibit is often based on hypocrisy, brutality, and fear. Gilead is meant to be a bastion of purity and order modeled after a very specific Christian doctrine, and the punishment for disobedience is incredibly severe. However, those within the elite (particularly men, but the women do as well) often have no trouble bending the rules in ways that put lower classes below them in danger—and of course, if they’re caught, they’re not the ones who’ll face any consequences.

Major Players

Offred. Our protagonist, played in the miniseries by Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss. Offred is not her real name, and at the risk of spoiling the reveal for you (seriously, I doubled over when I figured this out as I was reading it for the first time), it’s a reference to the name of the commander of the household she lives with. As a handmaid, she exists solely to incubate a child for her commander and his wife to raise as their own.

Moira. Offred’s college friend from before the Republic of Gilead came to power. She is exactly the type of woman who trolls on the Internet would hate right now: a loud, unabashedly feminist lesbian who doesn’t put up with crap from anybody. Like Offred, she was captured and trained to become a handmaid, but that didn’t work out so well for her. In the Hulu series, she’s played by Samira Wiley of Orange Is The New Black fame.

The Commander. The head of the household and some kind of bigwig in the Republic political sphere. He might also be impotent, but no one is allowed to talk about that, because in Gilead it’s women who are at fault when a couple cannot produce children. He’s nice enough to Offred, and played by Joseph “Shakespeare In Love” Fiennes, so he’s certainly easy on the eyes, but he’s also The Worst. Also, as you no doubt figured out by now, his name is probably Fred.

Serena Joy, also known as the Commander’s Wife. In the Before Times, Serena Joy was one of those televangelists who talked about how women belong at home. Surprise, now that she’s not allowed on TV anymore, she kinda hates that idea! She also resents Offred a lot, for obvious “I’m forcing you to have sex with my husband and I refuse to blame anyone but you for it” reasons. She’s being played by Chuck alum Yvonne Strahovski.

Ofglen. Another handmaid in Offred’s community (guess what her commander’s name is), and a member of the Mayday, the underground resistance movement. She’s being played by Alexis Bledel — Rory freakin’ Gilmore of all people!

Nick: The Commander’s chauffeur, who could be a resistance member or a narc. He’s played by Max Minghella, whom you might remember from The Social Network.

Luke. Offred’s former husband. He and Offred had a daughter together, but because he was divorced once already before they got together, their marriage was nullified during the regime change. They were caught trying to flee to Canada together and we don’t really know what’s happened to him, or to their child, after that. He’s played by O-T Fagbenle, a.k.a. Frank from HBO’s Looking.

What’s going to change in this adaptation?

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place deep inside Offred’s mind, and because she doesn’t quite trust her own memories or even her own sense of self, she can often be a very unreliable narrator. This means that show’s going to feel inherently different than the book, because we’ll be seeing something closer to the truth of what Offred is experiencing. Odds are the violence and dehumanization depicted in the book will also feel a lot more shocking to witness in real time than it was to read. By the time we meet Offred, she’s mostly numb to the horrors she’s faced — instead, she spends most of the narrative mulling over the psychological trauma of not being a person anymore in the way she was before.

It will also be interesting to see if the show pays any lip service to themes racial inequality, which are present in the book but are from the center focus. The Republic of Gilead of the book is definitely a white nationalist society, if not an outright supremacist one — at one point Offred says that many of the “Children of Ham” and “Sons Of Jacob” were deported after the regime change, which is a reference to black people and Jewish people, respectively. Two of the Hulu series’ major characters, Moira and Luke, are played by black actors, meaning that the show will either ignore the racism inherent in Gilead culture, or express it in more interesting ways. In any case, there’s also wording that suggests the domestic workers in the Commander’s home are “brown” skinned, so the fact that the show has cast both characters as hispanic women leads me to believe that they’re interested in tackling these issues.

Finally, I’ll be shocked if they recreate the final chapter, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale. Unlike the rest of the book, it’s set at least a century into the future, and depicts a professor (interestingly, a male one) giving an academic lecture about Offred’s account and its worthiness as a primary source document of Gileadean history. Margaret Atwood herself was a professor for many years, which is probably where she got the idea for this, but odds are it’s a little too dry and anticlimactic an ending for a television series.

Which brings us to what will probably be the biggest change: if Hulu is planning to produce multiple seasons of this series, then they will absolutely find a way to continue the plot beyond the book’s ambiguous ending, where Offred doesn’t know if she’s being rescued by the resistance or sent to her doom. Perhaps next season will see her becoming a full-fledged Mayday member?

What are fans most excited to see?

It’s difficult to express an interest in The Handmaid’s Tale as excitement, given its tense and intimate subject matter; I don’t know if I’d say I’m “hyped” to see certain moments from the book brought to life, as much I’m looking forward to seeing whether the scenes that affected me so powerfully while reading will have the same (or stronger!) impact on screen.

One of the trickiest moments the show will have to pull off early on is that of the monthly mating ritual, during which the Commander and Offred have utilitarian sex on top of the Commander’s Wife with most of their clothes still on. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the book thanks to Atwood’s deft use of dissociative language, so it will be interesting to see how the show translates Offred’s strong sense of detachment to a visual medium.

And then, of course, there’s the brothel. No society that claims to be purer than everybody else actually is, so naturally there’s an underground sex ring where the Gilead leaders go to objectify women more directly. The Commander takes Offred there because he thinks she’ll find it to be a fun night out. It’s not—but it will certainly be a fascinating visual, as the women who work there are all depicted as wearing tawdry, dilapidated costumes from the heydey of ’80s Time Square.

Ultimately, I’m most curious to see if this adaptation will be able to strike a balance between the violence of Offred’s circumstances and the lush setting in which they take place. Quiet domesticity as a backdrop for unsettling horror isn’t anything new—just look at movies like Stepford Wives or The Witch—but Margaret Atwood’s tale is full of so many small, painfully pastoral particulars, like how Offred moisturizes herself with butter in secret because her skin is no longer considered as important as her womb. If the show can capture both the beauty and the terror of Gileadean life at once, that alone will make a success; the rest is all just extra.

Hopefully this guide has gotten you up to speed and ready for what the Hulu series has in store for us! In the comments below, share with us your experience reading The Handmaid’s Tale and what your hopes are for the show!

Images: Hulu; Houghton Mifflin Company

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