I ended up reading The Handmaid’s Tale in one sitting, a few episodes into starting the TV adaptation on Hulu. After the first 2 or 3 episodes, I knew that I wanted to finish the novel to be able to get a feeling for how many liberties were taken with the TV adaptation and what motivated them. I absolutely loved both the novel and the series, but after experiencing the two I would definitely say that this is one of the cases in which the TV product significantly surpasses the literary work it was adapted from.
Everything that Margaret Atwood’s novel did exceptionally well, the TV series builds on and develops into something even more transporting and chilling. This was definitely an instance in which I think TV exceeded even the original author’s ability to bring the work to life in a way that connected with audiences. I decided that I wanted to review both the novel and the TV adaptation together to explain the ways in which I felt the TV adaptation took this narrative to a completely different level. Read more to find out the 5 reasons why I thought The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation was even better than the novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Publication Date: 1985
Publisher: McLelland And Stewart
(available on Kindle Unlimited)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.
5 Reasons Why The Handmaid’s Tale TV Adaptation Is Even Better Than The Novel
The world building. The fact that Atwood came up with this entire dystopian world for her novel back in 1985 and that it still resonates as so valid and disturbing are a testament to her genius and to how fundamental the issues Atwood addresses are to the human experience. Women’s contributions to society through their ability to bear children have been used to control and enslave them throughout human history, which is why the novel on its own already feels so terrifying. Depending on the very specific choices made in bringing the world of Gilead to life on screen, the TV adaptation could have been a colossal failure. Instead, it’s beautiful in a way that is still supremely creepy and that extends Atwood’s sketch of this dystopian reality in a way that provides a much more fleshed out (and therefore more shocking) experience for the viewer. The TV version of Gilead is majestic, deadly, suffocating and unremittingly unforgiving in a way that I think really surpasses the novel’s version of this world.
The TV adaptation brings the story up to date. Despite wanting to stay as close to the original tone and plot of the novel as possible (and doing a great job of it), the creators of the show also wanted to bring The Handmaid’s Tale into the present by updating some of the social and technological details of Gilead’s society. Changes include having more diversity in the social makeup of Gilead, including having more characters that are of color and more that are openly gay. Other subtler updates have Offred using or mentioning newer technologies like Uber and smartphones, so that the viewer is aware that the storyline occurs in a near future. I think these were hugely important changes to make to the narrative, both to further contextualize the narrative accurately in U.S. society by portraying a more inclusive level of diversity, and bringing the plot menacingly closer to our own present by editing details that affect our perception of the story’s timeline. Viewers are left feeling like the world of the TV series looks very much like a version of their own if within a few decades the same terrifying ideological shifts were to occur in rapid succession.
The settings and costumes. I talked a little bit about world building in the TV series adaptation above, and settings and costumes are a huge part of that. I thought the creators of The Handmaid’s Tale did an incredible job at re-imaging both of these elements visually in the series, showing a restraint in the design, color palette and look of the series that is absolutely haunting in its effect. The lighting chosen for the series gives the visuals a patina and a vintage coloring that underscore the simplicity of Gilead’s backward and primitive society. Though the costumes are authentic to the original novel and heavily hearken back to an almost pilgrim-like look, the costumers made sure to incorporate a few modern details in the designs that still made them feel current and relevant. I think it’s a testament to how impressive the work on the handmaids’ (and wives’) costumes was that seeing a photo online of 12 handmaids walking in double-file in Los Angeles for a promotional stunt was deeply unsettling, even though I knew it was for a scripted TV series. Guaranteed that the top costume of Halloween this year will be the handmaid.
The expanded plot lines. The ways in which the TV series brings Atwood’s world to life significantly expand on what is a relatively sketched out version of a society in the novel itself, which is pretty short. Having the extended template of 10 one-hour episodes to work with, the showrunner Bruce Miller and the show’s writers had the possibility to elaborate on new corners of Offred’s world by departing from the novel’s necessarily limiting first person narrator. The viewer gets significantly more background on many of the secondary characters including Moira, Ofglen and Offred’s husband Luke, as well as insight into the relationship between the couple to whom Offred is assigned – Serena Joy and Commander Fred. There are so many ways in which the TV adaptation expands on Atwood’s world and I kept craving even more. With Season 2, we’ll have entirely new storylines as all of the novel’s plot was incorporated into the first season, and I just can’t wait.
The casting. Every actor in The Handmaid’s Tale does an incredible job of embodying their character, from Samira Wiley playing a conflicted and rebellious Moira, to Joseph Fiennes in the role of a restrained and utterly creepy Commander Fred. However, it’s Elisabeth Moss that makes the show. Though the TV series departs from the novel’s entirely first person view of Gilead, the viewer of the TV adaptation still experiences a lot of the narrative from within Offred’s head. This is done masterfully through countless close ups and scenes in which Offred sits alone to reflect or recuperate and in which the viewer becomes privy to her thoughts through an unsettling voice over. If Elisabeth Moss doesn’t win an armful of awards for her performance, I’ll be astounded. From terrified to desperate, from wily to enraged, from nearly bestial to supremely human, she embodies Offred in a way that is profoundly relatable for a character who finds herself in such extreme circumstances.
Genius begets genius. From an utterly original and shockingly immoral dystopian literary work comes an equally beautiful and terrifying TV adaptation that expertly refines and reinterprets this narrative for a modern audience.
About The Author
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, and grew up in northern Ontario and Quebec, and in Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master’s degree from Radcliffe College.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. Her latest book of short stories is Stone Mattress: Nine Tales (2014). Her MaddAddam trilogy – the Giller and Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013) – is currently being adapted for HBO. Her novels include The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; and The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale – coming soon as a TV series with MGM and Hulu – and The Penelopiad.
Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or watched its TV adaptation on Hulu? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my review of one of Margaret Atwood’s other novel, Hag-Seed, or other 1000 Novel Series book reviews on the blog including Villette by Charlotte Brontë, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall byAnne Brontë, The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins, Bleak House by Charles Dickens and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.