There’s a lot of analysis of The Handmaids Tale (both television series and novel) out there at the moment. Since my review was basically — ★★★★★: read it! — I’ve decided just to talk about some of the differences that I liked or disliked. My thoughts are messy and I know that other’s opinions might vary wildly. Obviously, spoilers for both below the cut. I come down harder on the show than the book, but I’d heartily recommend either.
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…
Time developing secondary characters. As the Commander, Ralph Fiennes manages to be both scarier (the scene where he discusses Ofglen’s punishment with Offred and the not so subtle, chillingly detached threats he makes), and also more charming than in the book. Serena is more sympathetic and even Aunt Lydia has a caring side on occasion. It showed the humanity of these characters and that real people, not just extremists and villains, are capable of doing these terrible things. I general though, I thought that the episodes became weaker the further we moved from Offred. I don’t think the Commander and Serena needed their own episode. Luke did not need his own episode.
Sex and romance. As I mentioned, Fiennes is more charming than in the novel, but he’s also just a straight-up, good-looking guy. This, and how romantically Offred’s relationship and sex scenes with Nick were portrayed — intentionally or not — made Offred’s situation more palpable to the audience: Hey ladies! Secretly, who wouldn’t want these hotties? Worth wearing a little red and giving up your job, no? Yes, sex (and romantic connection) plays a big part in the novel. But in the novel, the sex isn’t actually about sex. It’s about doing what you have to do to survive, and this theme runs throughout the story. It could have been worse though. Have you seen the poster for the 1990 film?
The particicution scene, re: its movement from the end to the beginning. This may be an unpopular opinion but here goes… In the book, this scene propels the final act of the story — Ofglen’s disappearance, Offred’s fear of discovery, the terror and conflict when the Eyes come for her: Is it a rescue or an arrest? Now, I read somewhere that the scene was moved to convey the brutality of the world within the premiere episode. Bullshit. We’ve already seen Offred lose her family, the institutionalised sexual slavery and Janine lose her eye for a single sarcastic comment. The brutality was already there. For my money, what the scene was really moved to show was the brutality of the world in relation to men. We’re constantly told that female-led media struggles because men can’t to relate to a female character. This scene gave male viewers a reason to fear Gilead, because without it, maybe it’s no so bad, right? It’s necessary for the country, and how much are these women really suffering? It felt like pandering and a slap in the face that, if it’s women suffering, then the suffering is not enough to secure viewership. I did like the ending we got instead, so I guess it’s just the principle of the thing that irked me.
Setting: the same but different. The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. It’s set in 2005. The tv series brings it bang up to date for us, setting it in a very near future. It gives us the same immediacy as the book had at publication: it’s not a society that might have happened, but one which still easily could. I love the details added — the mentions about Uber, June and Luke meeting (in a roundabout way) via online dating and the logical (and scary) GPS tags attached to the handmaids’ ears.
Visuals and choreography. Atwood’s writing has a slow, reflective quality to it. After all, one of the key factors in Offred’s life is that she needs permission for everything and has (largely) nothing but time. Her victories are small, and she takes them where she can. Obviously, large amounts of self-reflective dialogue wouldn’t wouldn’t work for tv. The stark colour palette, synchronised moves and beautiful framing slows the show down and does a great job of presenting this aspect of the novel but it a media-appropriate way. Plus, it’s stunning to watch. The only exception was the Jezabel’s episode, which I thought was too pretty. The club looked high-class and glamorous where I’d imagined something sort of sad and seedy and trapped in the past.
Diversity. In the novel, PoC are shipped off to the toxic colonies to work and barely mentioned again. The series has tried to address this by casting Samira Wiley as Moira and including WoC as background handmaids. However, it fails to address how race and racism would play a part in the society, implying that the old prejudices have been wiped away for new ones. This is unrealistic and problematic. There are lots of brilliant articles, with more detailed analysis on this, available via a quick Google search.