Recently the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood was adapted into the critically acclaimed TV series on Hulu. I binged the whole series (only ten episodes so far) over winter break and the whole time I had a little nagging voice in the back of my head; “You didn’t read the book first,” it said. I have a personal rule that I always try to read the book before watching the movie/tv series. Reading the book very rarely ruins a movie/tv series for me as I try to look at them as separate entities. I try not to be the that’s-not-how-it-happened-in-the-book person (I realize the irony as that is exactly what I’m doing in this post). But the reverse is not also true, watching a similar plot unfold with similar characters alters they way it looks in my mental movie when I’m reading. At the very least, I see the actors portraying the story in my head. In any scene that is not a direct overlap, I imagine what it would look like to see the actors perform it.
With that in mind, I read the book after watching the series to see how faithful the adaptation was. I’m not going to make a judgement call on which one I think is better, since I don’t think one is better; they’re separate. I am going to discuss the major differences and why I think those differences exist.
Note: from here on out there will be spoilers for both season one of the TV series and the book.
I’ve organized it by the way each character interacts with the plot.
Luke is June/Offred’s husband. In the novel and TV series, we get glimpses of him with June and their daughter as the world as they know it crumbles around them. There are fewer flashbacks to their escape in the novel. The biggest difference is his fate. The novel is entirely through Offred’s point of view and she knows nothing of what happened to anyone after she last saw them. In the series, he goes through his own perilous escape to Canada and makes a new life for himself as a refugee. The TV series also lets Offred know that he is alive through the Mexican delegation (which does not exist in the book).
In the novel and TV series, Janine has a sort of breakdown in the Red Center and June and Moira talk her down. She is also the only person to give birth in both and the Birth day is very similar in both. I don’t remember any mention of her eye, but I might have just missed that. It doesn’t seem like the type of detail the TV series would make up.
The biggest difference from the novel, is Janine’s attempted suicide. She has the baby and we don’t hear about her again in the novel. Because, there is no bridge scene in the book, the penultimate Savaging scene is also different. The scene from the novel, where the handmaid’s beat the accused rapist at the urging of Aunt Lydia comes in an early episode. There is no refusal to comply and badass walk-away scene in the novel.
The Moira story is very faithful to the book, with a few exceptions. In the book, she is unaided in her escape. She escapes in the same way, starting in the bathroom and changing into the Aunt’s clothes, but Offred isn’t in on it at all. The other major difference is that we see where she ends up. Offred leaves her at Jezebel’s and that’s where the novel leaves her, but the TV show gives her a badass escape up to Canada and a tearful reunion with Luke. By extending her and Luke’s stories the show gives insight into their life as refugees.
We get to see more of Ofglen in the TV series (are you noticing a theme?). In the TV series, she is taken for ‘gender treachery’; in the novel, she would be taken for her connection with Mayday. I say would be taken because she hears the van coming and kills herself before they can get to her.
Serena is old in the book. She uses a cane and everything. Notably, she is younger in the TV series. She is not of an age that normally wouldn’t be able to produce a child. Her youth pushes the issue of infertility further.
She’s also more aware in the TV series, or at least we know she’s more aware since we get to see more of her in the TV series. In the book, she doesn’t know that Offred is pregnant at the end.
We get a deeper look into the Commander’s past in the TV series and a better look at what he actually does. The TV series places him as one of the men responsible for making the world as it is. It also shows him in negotiations with a delegation from Mexico to form a trade deal in which Gilead trades away Handmaid’s. This places the infertility issue as a world wide crisis and shows Gilead as a functioning nation and not just an isolated community.
I would say Nick is the most similar character. The biggest difference in his plotline is the amped up romance with June.
In the book, we don’t know her real name and she’s much less profane but other than that it’s pretty much the same. She isn’t as useful in the book: doesn’t get the letters from Jezebel’s, doesn’t talk Janine down, and doesn’t refuse to hurt Janine in the end. She isn’t presented with the opportunity to do any of these things in the book though.
The Character Posters
I want to talk about these posters. For all of them the dark word behind them completely changes the meaning of the statement, except for Offred’s. Her’s adds emphasis.
I think it is making a comment on point of view for the show and the inherent double lives of most of the characters. They are all being forced to act the part, but Offred is herself with the audience from the beginning. Her voiceovers allow us to know what she is thinking; we know she is never buying into the whole notion of Gilead, but with the other characters we don’t know what they’re are thinking, at least at the beginning so their secondary thoughts are reveled later.
The two biggest differences stem from the limited point of view in the novel and the serialization of the TV series. By removing some of the limitations on POV, the TV series is able to extend the stories of Luke, Moira, the Commander and Ofglen. This ties into the serialization of the TV series since they needed to expand on the novel to have enough content for a full season. This is also the reason for the repeat visit to Jezebel’s, the Janine subplot, and the emphasis on the romance between Offred and Nick (They also play up the inner struggle Offred has between Nick and Luke).
The first season and the novel end in the same place so the biggest differences are yet to come (on April 26).
Last difference: her daughter isn’t named in the novel, but her name in the TV show is Hannah.
Have you watched/read the Handmaid’s tale? What aspects did you like/dislike? Is the book better?