Comparing Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' To Margaret Atwood's Novel


Everyone's talking about The Handmaid's Tale because it's the perfect book to read right now: a warning text about the dangers that arise when Christian Dominionism and white nationalism converge at the government level. Comparing Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale series with the book shows us just how much has changed — and stayed the same — more than 30 years after the novel was published.

Spoiler and Content Warning: This article may spoil some details of The Handmaid's Tale and its adaptations. It also features discussion of physical and sexual violence against women, people of color, and LGBTQIA individuals.

Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, when conservatives Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher held the highest elected offices in the U.S. and U.K. In the U.S. alone at the time, the Equal Rights Amendment had just been re-introduced before Congress, and sexual discrimination lawsuits were being waged against insurance companies, banks, and employers. Marital rape was still legal across much of the U.S. and would not be declared a human rights violation for nearly a decade. An inaccurate anti-abortion video prompted the bombings of clinics across the country, and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a personhood bill to the floor.

Sounds a tad too familiar, doesn't it?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, $14.71, Amazon

Now, for the purists out there, let me issue a small warning: Hulu's version of The Handmaid's Tale is much different from Atwood's novel, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. During her Reddit AMA in March, Atwood said that the series "goes farther than [she] did in the book," and I can confirm that it does.

A lot of the horror contained in The Handmaid's Tale is of the fridge variety — i.e., you don't get it until you've closed the cover and gone to the fridge for a snack. Because the entire sociopolitical system in Gilead is effed up, readers cannot be sure how much of what Offred relates to them is true. At the end of the novel, we're not sure whether she's rescued or doomed, and if it's the latter, we don't know what her exact crime is. Offred's whole world is full of uncertainty, and Gilead's just a bunch of smoke and mirrors disguising unspeakable, violent prejudices.

Hulu's version of The Handmaid's Tale brings these horrors out into the open, creating a richer and more disturbing world than the 1990 movie adaptation managed. To do so, however, requires some major changes from the source material, all of which are in keeping with the spirit of Atwood's original work.

All that said, let's compare Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale with the book.

1. The Series Names Its Characters — Properly, This Time

In the novel, all Handmaids take the names of the Commanders to whom they've been assigned, becoming Offred, Ofwarren, and Ofglen. When a Handmaid changes assignments, she changes names, because she has no fixed identity of her own.

When the novel opens, however, the Handmaids-in-training at the Red Center share information about themselves in secret: "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June." June is the only name that remains unattached to a character, and fans have long interpreted this to mean that the otherwise unnamed Offred is the June of the opening. But in Volker Schlöndorff's eroticized 1990 film adaptation of the novel, Offred inexplicably became Kate.

Thankfully, Hulu's version of The Handmaid's Tale makes the Offred/June connection official, and gives names to other characters as well. Offred and Luke's daughter, unnamed in the novel, is now called Hannah. Offred's shopping partner, Ofglen, has become Emily.

Additionally, where the novel epilogue debates whether Offred was assigned to Commander Frederick Waterford or Commander B. Frederick Judd; the Hulu adaptation confirms that her assignment is to Commander Waterford.

2. The Commander and His Wife Look . . . Different

The book tells us that the decline in white birthrates has sparked the creation of the Handmaid program. Hormonal contraceptives, sexually transmitted infections, and pollution have caused widespread infertility and fatal birth defects, which Gilead's official policy frames as God's punishment for family planning and premarital sex. A Handmaid's job is to produce a healthy child with a high-ranking party member, which his infertile wife will then raise.

It's unclear how long birthrates have been in decline in Atwood's novel, but it's a pretty sure bet that the Commander and his Wife would be infertile anyway due to age. In a rare expected move, Schlöndorff's film casts Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway as the couple awaiting Offred's child.

Hulu's version of The Handmaid's Tale takes things in a different direction. Much like Offred, the Waterfords are young and attractive people, portrayed by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski. It's a decision that could complicate Offred's illicit relationship with the Commander by making it more consenting than it is in Atwood's novel.

Strahovski's casting is more interesting by far. The series presents Serena Joy Waterford, not as an older woman reclaiming her youth through surrogacy, but as a young Wife who cannot have children with her husband and is told, by Gileadean policy, that that is her fault. It's her fault that she has to watch her husband have sex with another woman every month, because — although class privilege will protect her from ever being formally declared this — she is Unwoman.

3. Gilead Is Not a Whites-Only Society

When it was announced last summer, Orange Is the New Black star Samira Wiley's casting as Offred's best friend and fellow Handmaid Moira generated Internet controversy, because there are no black people in the book version of Gilead. Offred watches a news broadcast announcing that the "[r]esettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule," and tells the reader that, from what she knows, Gilead has forcibly relocated black Americans to farms in the Midwest.

If the book version of Gilead relies on black slave labor in order to produce food for the white classes, how does Hulu explain Wiley's casting as Moira without erasing the racism portrayed in The Handmaid's Tale?

As I wrote last year, the presence of people of color in Hulu's adaptation offers a better vehicle for examining racism — both in Gilead and in our own society — than does wiping them off the page and screen entirely. With all due respect to Atwood, eliminating a country's black population in a story told from a white perspective is a lazy tactic in 2017.

Instead of literal black erasure, the Gilead of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale outlaws interracial relationships and reproduction. Racism in the TV version of Gilead is more horrifying, because it hits closer to home.

In the novel, Gilead invalidates Offred's marriage to Luke on the grounds of his divorce and remarriage. The family is broken apart, their daughter adopted out to another family, all because Luke was married to another woman before he met Offred.

The first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale series make no mention of Luke's previous marriage, and it appears there might not be one in this version. Instead, Luke is a black man, and therefore his relationship with Offred is illegal under the new government. He may have even been executed for the "crime" of loving a white woman.

4. The Show Takes Place in the Age of Dating Apps

Atwood's novel takes place in the foreseeable future of 1985. The Handmaid's Tale has no major technological advancements over the Eighties, and Gilead's system of surveillance feels deeply rooted in Cold War realities and anxieties.

The Hulu series adaptation doesn't feature scientific advancements we don't currently have, but series creators have updated Gilead for 2017. In the Red Center, the Aunts cite contraceptives and abortions as reasons for the widespread infertility, but their focus is on women's supposed "orgies and Tinder," not their pursuit of financial independence and careers outside the home. It's the dating apps, not trying to have it all, that have caused low birthrates in the U.S.

The show has also moved past neighbors reporting on neighbors as a primary means of surveillance. Although busybodies still play a part in Gilead's criminal justice system, Handmaids now wear monitors that track their movements, which will almost certainly complicate certain characters' plans for escape. Viewers will likely see some kind of technological regression as the series moves on, with Silicon Valley either shuttering or refocusing on serving the new government.

5. Gilead's Anti-LGBTQIA Policies Are More Vicious

Under Gilead's homophobic doctrine, so-called "gender traitors" are executed and their bodies put on display to deter others. Moira is the only openly LGBTQIA character in the novel, but she manages to avoid execution by agreeing to comply with certain aspects of Gilead's caste system: first the Handmaid program, and later state-sanctioned — but secret — prostitution.

In the series, Ofwarren/Janine tells Offred that Moira has been killed, but it seems unlikely that Wiley's character will remain dead. Moira escapes the Red Center several times in Atwood's novel, and Offred loses touch with her until she discovers her friend's new life at Jezebel's: a secret, state-run brothel for Commanders and Angels. Don't be surprised if Moira and Offred reunite on the screen under similar circumstances.

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale series expands its LGBTQIA cast. Ofglen's sexuality is not revealed in Atwood's novel, and she disappears late in the text, with only the suspicious story of her suicide as a cover. In the new adaptation, Ofglen, like Moira, is a lesbian Handmaid, but one who suffers punishment for being a "gender traitor."

After Ofglen/Emily's relationship with a Martha — an infertile housekeeper for Gilead's elite families — is exposed, both women are arrested. A trial by kangaroo court sentences one woman to death and the other to a horrific punishment. Emily is forced to watch her lover's execution before having her clitoris surgically excised.

Because of her healthy ovaries, Emily's lesbianism gets overlooked by the state, which determines that the best course of action is to deny her any future sexual pleasure. It's the most chilling moment thus far in Hulu's adaptation of the Atwood novel, and one that exposes the true depravity of Gilead.

Judging by the first three episodes, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale series adaptation is shaping up to be faithful to the spirit of Atwood's novel, if not to the letter. Share your thoughts on this new book-to-TV series with me on Twitter.