I read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, and I didn’t ‘get’ it, TBH. I understood it, of course, but it didn’t resonate with me in the way my teacher had hoped it would. It wasn’t until watching the new Hulu adaptation that I was really interested in the story. But I couldn’t understand why my memories of the book were so far from what the show was saying, so I dug out my old copy, still covered in post-its and margin scribbles, and forced myself to give it a second chance.
With my first reading, for whatever reason, I had a very obscure picture of the world Atwood was writing about. I wasn’t able to imagine what it would be like. But, after watching the series, I was able to really picture the world of Gilead, and it made me want to understand it better. So I decided to revisit the book, and I re-read it while watching the show. It completely changed my opinion of the novel, and now I love a book that I once hated.
Although I loved both the book and the series, I can’t ignore their differences. Though both are important and relevant, they have different missions and different lessons. The ideal would be for audiences to read and watch both; they inform each other, each provides what the other lacks.
There are a few inconsistencies between the novel and the series. Certain things happen differently, and some things don’t happen at all. Though Margaret Atwood was included in the production of the show, ironically, she had no power or control of the making of it.
The 1984 book explores the issues of female rights, religion, and individual liberties. Atwood conceived the novel as ‘speculative fiction,’ a work that imagines a future that could conceivably happen without any advances in technology from the present. In other words, she said, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Every aspect of the book was inspired by social and political events of the early 1980s.
Back when I wrote the book, things like Tiananmen Square and the [Arab Spring] hadn’t happened, so we didn’t think of police shooting into a crowd of protesters as a possibility. But now it has [happened], so we added it. My rule for the book was, I didn’t put in anything that people hadn’t already done. And I think the series is following that rule, not putting in anything that is just a made-up thing. It’s all happened before.
But it wasn’t until last year, when The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu as a television series adaptation, that the work got its pop cultural due. The central themes of feminism versus the patriarchy, loss of identity, and freedom of choice still play a big role in the series. However, the show’s producers changed details to bring the series into the present day, including modern touchstones like Uber, Tinder, cappuccinos, and Craigslist in flashbacks to Offred’s pre-handmaid life. But the series felt all the more chilling because of the massive shift in US politics with the election of Donald Trump, who was inaugurated just three months before the series premiered. Suddenly, the book and series’ major flashpoints felt more possible than ever: a government declaring martial law after an attack by Islamic extremists, a regime that systematically eliminates gay people, a society that prioritizes procreation (and subjugation of women) above all else.
What the show does so well – especially now, under the Trump administration – is make its shocking dystopia feel so terrifyingly possible. We see that before the US government has been overthrown by Gilead, its misogynist tenets have already slowly made their way into state law: June must get her husband’s written permission for birth control pills, and when her daughter gets sick in school, June undergoes formal questioning about her parental fitness because she works full-time.
That slippery slope sure seems familiar. Teachers are still fired for being gay in this country, working mothers are still looked at askance (and sometimes punished in custody battles), and multiple states have tried to pass laws that would mandate women have written spousal permission before getting abortions.
That’s part of what makes the show so terrifying – we don’t have to be in full-Gilead to understand that we already live in a misogynist nightmare. American women may not be handmaids, but we are still living in a country where conservative politicians would mandate forced pregnancy. Where women are sentenced to decades in prison for ending their pregnancies. Where a man who believes 25% of the female population should be executed is being hailed as a “singular talent” and “rigorous thinker”.
We don’t have to imagine the worst, because women are already in deep, serious trouble. The Trump administration, through their very own Serena Joy, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Valerie Huber, is pushing the rhythm method over birth control, and wants to teach women “sexual refusal skills” in lieu of substantive family planning. One-third of the state abortion restrictions since Roe v Wade was passed have been enacted in just the last seven years. Hate crimes are on the rise for the second year in a row.
And while the rise in feminist activism since Trump’s election has been heartening, we’re still left to grapple with the fact that so many Americans voted for an unrepentant misogynist. And that those voters very likely supported Trump not in spite of his sexism, but because of it.
The book itself is only represented though the first season of the show, which allowed Season 2 to move away from the book and into more modern politics. Important parallels can still be drawn between wars, politics, and empowerment movements, but there are just certain elements of the book that had to be changed for the screen. Below, I have gathered a list of ways the show differs from the book, for anyone who was wondering the specifics.
“I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was.” (Episode 4, Season 2 / Page 263)
1. In the book, Atwood never reveals Offred’s actual name. “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden.” (84). Although is is never directly stated, there has long been a theory that it might be June, one of the names she lists when she is talking about how during their indoctrination at the Red Center, she and the other Handmaids-to-be “exchanged names from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” (4). All of the other names show up as characters in the book, leading to the speculation that June is Offred’s true identity.
2. Serena and the Commander are old. In the second chapter, Serena is introduced with her cane. In the series, her use of the cane is explained by the shooting, but the book merely suggests Serena to be older. In the third chapter she is described with a “limp” (14) and “cane”, but her age is never directly stated. The Commander’s wife described as blond, with a face that is too big and a nose that is too small, and she sometimes wears a veil. She, too, is older like the Commander, and Offred comments that she has “arthritis” (13).
3. “There isn’t much music in [the] house.” (54)
Also, in episode 1, we see June, then Rita, Nick, and Serena gather in Serena’s sitting room in preparation for “the ceremony”. A few phrases, along with the setting, are borrowed directly from the book. What is missing, however, is the news. In the book, “This is the one good thing about these evenings, the evenings of the Ceremony: I’m allowed to watch the news. It seems to be an unspoken rule in this household: we always get here on time, he’s always late, Serena always lets us watch the news.” (82)
4. In the Handmaid’s Tale, there are 3 women in the household: Serena, Offred/June, and Rita, the cook. Cora, the household maid, is mentioned in the book, but is excluded from the series. In the second season, Eden’s character takes on a maids role, but, unlike the book’s Cora, marries Nick.
5. The baby was stolen at eleven months old, “out of a supermarket cart” (63), not in the hospital as a newborn as the series portrays.
6. In the series, in the first episode, we find Moira already in the Red Center classroom when June is first taken there. June spots her friend, already seated and dressed as a handmaid, when she is ushered in dressed in the jeans and t-shirt of times before. In the book, it is the other way around. “I must have been there three weeks when Moira came” (70).
7. In the book, the Commanders have decorated their homes with paintings taken (stolen) from local Boston museums. In the series, a grand painting of what appears to be Serena is hung directly over the fireplace in the Commander’s office. In the book, “two paintings, both of women, one on either side of the fireplace.” (80).
Also, we only see Serena Joy’s passion for watercolor painting in one scene in the series, which is not mentioned in the book.
8. Moira was whipped, which I don’t remember seeing in the adaptation. Instead, we see June whipped in the series. “It was the feet they’d do, for a first offense. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands.” (91).
9. The relationship June has with her mother is very shallowly depicted in the show. In the series, we see June remember her mother in pieces, but the book provides a much more in-depth picture of her mother. The common factor between both is that June “want[s] her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.” (122).
10. Moira’s escape happened a bit differently in the book than the way it is depicted in the series. In the book, June is not involved in Moira’s first escape attempt from the Red Center (132). When she finds Moira in Jezebels, Moira explains the workings of the Underground Femaleroad, which had taken her “from one safe house to another” over a period of “eight or nine months” (247). She says, “I almost made it out”, which is seen in both the book and series. However, unlike the series, which shows Moira’s second and successful escape to Canada, “as far as I know that didn’t happen. I don’t know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again.” (250).
11. In the show, the Commander gifts Offred a magazine to read during her secret visits to his office. “I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, and that he found pleasure in seeing me do it.” (157). In the novel, Offred asks why he would share this forbidden literature with her, of all people. The show omits this important detail, perhaps to make the Commander’s character harsher: “I wasn’t prepared for what he actually did say. Who else could I show it to? he said, and there is was again, that sadness.” (158).
12. In the book, June did not go to any riots. “I didn’t go on any of the marches.” (180). Her mother, however, is mentioned as having “been in a march that day; it was during the time of the porn riots, or was it the abortion riots, they were close together. There were a lot of bombings back then: clinics, video stores; it was hard to keep track.” (180).
13. In the show, June repeats the phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” to the Commander in defiance. In the book though, June fumbles the pronunciation and the Commander cant understand her. She offers to spell it, and surprisingly, the Commander “thrusts his roller-tip pen across the desk at me almost defiantly, as if taking a dare.” (186). Whereas the show poises the Commander as an unfeeling dictator, the book provides glimpses of his empathy. Not only does he allow her the freedom to write, he explains the meaning of the phrase to her: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” (187). This secret conspiracy of sins that is shared between Offred and her Commander can be interpreted differently between the book and the show, which makes them both so great. There is so much meaning that can be derived from both, together and individually.
14. “I suppose it was Cora who found her,” (187) the first handmaid who hanged herself in Commander Waterford’s house, not Rita, as the series suggests.
15. Aunt Lydia is an important and permanent fixture of the show. Not only does she train handmaids at the Red Center, she oversees salvagings as well as births, and plays a pivotal role in the girls lives once they are assigned to a household. In the book though, we do not see her at all after June leaves the Red Center. She makes a final appearance towards the end of the book, to Offred’s surprise. “It’s Aunt Lydia. How many years since I’ve seen her?” (274).
For fans of the series, Season 3 is set to premiere in 2019.