Television / Adaptations

What Hulu Gets Wrong About “The Handmaid’s Tale”

In our first glimpse of June as a Handmaid—as Offred—she is sitting on the window-sill of a stark, sunlit room, wearing the distinctive red habit of the new class of women to which she belongs. Her eyes are closed, her hands are folded on her lap, and she is still.

“My name is Offred. I had another name before, but it is forbidden now,” she tells us in voice-over. “So many things are forbidden now.” Her face communicates that which she cannot speak: the deep fear and desperation of the precarious position she holds in an oppressive, totalitarian society.

So begins Hulu’s 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fixture in the canon of feminist literature, and its imagery and language have, over time, become cultural symbols. Since its publication in 1985, “Nolite te bastardes caborudorum” (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”) has been recited in classrooms and tattooed on forearms throughout the country. Women across America have donned the red habit of the Handmaid in protest against anti-abortion legislation. Considering the rise of extremism in both Europe and the United States, the themes and setting of the The Handmaid’s Tale are especially pertinent to our world. And, indeed, the novel experienced a revival of sorts after the 2016 presidential election. While The Handmaid’s Tale was never on its way to obscurity, it once again soared to the top of bestseller and must-read lists.With vigor, it has reentered the public discourse.

In April 2017, Hulu released the show’s first season—featuring Mad Men alumnus Elisabeth Moss as Offred atop an all-star cast—in weekly increments to near-instant popularity and universal acclaim. Critics praised its acting; journalists across the web remarked its relevance to current political events many times over. The show, apparently, could do no wrong. But its popularity should not dissuade us from pointing out that, as an adaptation of Atwood’s classic novel, it is far from perfect. Of course, it is a given that television shows based upon books will likely not cleave too closely to their sources. This in itself is not entirely problematic. But many of Hulu’s creative liberties, although well intentioned, seem to diminish much of the realism that makes the novel so terrifying on paper and muddle the messages that Atwood works so hard to craft.

Gilead

The differences between the novel and the television show begin innocuously, with slight shifts in the timeline and subtle adjustments in the portrayal of different characters. The Salvaging concludes the novel, but in Hulu’s adaptation it takes place early on in the series; the Waterfords get a slick and sexy Hollywood makeover. However, there is much that a reader of the original novel might not recognize at all—not because it is different, but because it is an addendum to Atwood’s Gilead.

Offred’s world, which in the book is so closed and particular to her, is vastly expanded in the show. Hulu’s account, on the other hand, addresses many of the questions to which fans of the original novel have longed to know the answers. What is happening outside of the United States? How did Nick get mixed up in all of this? Did the Commander and Serena Joy ever really like each other?

If the book paints a portrait, the adaptation crafts an all-inclusive diorama. Dioramas are nice, but Hulu’s adaptation often trades detailed explorations of Offred’s perspective for an expanded worldview, privileging the geopolitics that should be background noise to Offred’s story. One of the aspects of the novel’s Gilead that makes it such a realistic, menacing force is its sinister aura of mystery. A key facet of many actual totalitarian states is that a single person can understand neither the truth of her own society, nor what is going on outside the country’s borders. Lack of knowledge equals lack of power, and lack of power equals a sedated population. The more we understand about Gilead, paradoxically, the more the realism of the book’s closed perspective is undercut.

Offred’s world expands both physically through depictions of terrain that remains uncharted on paper world both physically and temporally, venturing into uncharted territory beyond the pages of the novel. In the novel, when the pre-Gilead past comes back to Offred, it returns in small flashes that she tries not to linger on. Hulu, however, holds our hands as we are guided from the known landscape of today in Offred’s flashbacks (how do we know it’s 2017? Ubers!) to the world of Gilead (No Ubers!). We see the trajectories not only of Offred, but also of Nick and Serena Joy. The series of flashbacks that disrupt Offred’s narrative creates an escape from the terror, uncertainty, anger, and frustration that Offred feels in her new role as a Handmaid. The result, and my complaint, is that Hulu allows Offred and the viewer to escape too often. As a result, the world of Gilead feels less stifling and, strangely less bleak. This does not necessarily make Offred’s story less terrifying.  Through the temporal expansion of Offred’s world, however, the show undercuts the claustrophobia, isolation, and gripping realism of Gilead.

The Handmaids

More problematic is Hulu’s treatment of the Handmaids, particularly of Offred. One of the most memorable parts of the show is the final sequence of Episode Three. In slow motion, the Handmaids of Cambridge, led by Offred, walk toward the camera. Their red robes flow behind them, their headdresses sway stiffly, and they hold our gaze with a steely, determined intensity. “We are Handmaids,” Offred says. “Nolite te bastardes caborudorum, bitches.”

It’s uplifting, it’s rebellious, it reminds us of the strength of the human spirit that may bow, but does not break. But, as with Hulu’s take on Gilead, this scene is far less realistic and far less terrifying than the downtrodden, truly broken group of women that inhabit the novel. While the Handmaids of Hulu are tortured, beaten and degraded, they do not seem to be entirely powerless. All of the named Handmaids—Offred, Ofglen, Janine, and Moira—exercise their own autonomy in the end. For Ofglen and Moira, this is through violence against others; for Janine, it is through violence against herself. In these brave and gruesome acts, the women are able to emphatically articulate that Gilead has not stopped them—yet. Moreover, Ofglen and Janine’s acts of defiance take place in public and thus become revolutionary in nature. For a single moment, they are allowed to object to their treatment and to the type of world that they live in. In giving the Handmaids “their moments,” Hulu allows members of a class that are largely homogenous and hopeless to differentiate themselves and become heroes for a few brief and precious seconds. The Handmaids retain some level of control over their bodies, minds, and destinies. I feel genuinely happy to watch the Handmaids interact, joke, and express solidarity, and I am genuinely hopeful about their fate. But I should not be. It is the utter paranoia and loneliness which the Handmaid’s suffer in the novel that makes the title of “Handmaid” so repellent.

More important still is the way in which our protagonist acts. In the Hulu adaptation, while Offred does not commit an act of violence, she joins Moira in her escape and the Mayday resistance with vigor, dropping her stones to the ground instead of participating in Janine’s stoning. Her actions, à la Spartacus, lead the rest of the Handmaids to do the same. She joins the ranks of the others as a bona-fide hero.

In the novel, although Offred thinks in the voice of a revolutionary, she acts with muted passivity, restricting her rebellion to a couple of words shared with Ofglen and the final act of climbing into “the darkness, or else the light.”

Much of what makes the novel so realistic and so terrifying is the extent to which Offred resembles how the reader might choose to exist—largely passive in the face of oppression. This is where, I believe, many young adult dystopias fall flat. It seems as though every hero of a dystopia must possess a megaphone in order to resist. Unfortunately, in many societies like Gilead, heroic and violent rebellious acts are exceptional events. In the novel, even Moira—who becomes a revolutionary when she escapes the Rachel and Leah center— succumbs to her life in the brothel, settling for “a few good years” before being shipped off to the Colonies and certain death. For even the bravest, fighting against a system as brutal as Gilead is tiring and futile. If we were in her position, could we raise our voices? In all probability, the answer is no—not because of our own failings, but because the system is designed to stifle voices and crush dissidents. The novel’s Offred is not a heroine, or at least does not perform the actions we would expect a heroine to perform. She is a normal woman struggling to stay sane and to survive under the weight of government-sanctioned oppression. She is not passive because she wants to be, but because it is the only sustainable way to survive in a world that brutalizes those who demand its change.

The Upshot

To me, there is something vaguely sacrilegious in distorting Atwood’s conception of Offred and the world of Gilead in order to allow a television adaptation to run for multiple seasons (and, let’s be honest, to make Hulu more money). The message, even if unintentional, seems to be that Atwood’s world cannot stand on its own two feet or remain relevant under the bright lights of television. The creators of the show have articulated again and again that they did not adjust the plot to fit the political climate. The pertinence that journalists and critics have remarked upon was an unintended, but sobering, surprise. However, it seems that the writers thought it would be a missed opportunity not to make Offred and the rest of the Handmaids more rebellious—a little more modern-feminist-ass-kicking-you-go-girl group of heroes. Offred becomes someone who is not just brought to tears by rebellious messages carved in the corners of closets, but who is willing to make the first moves of rebellion.

Nolite te bastardes caborudorum, bitches.

It’s like seeing “feminist” embroidered on a pillow nine times and sold at Urban Outfitters for $35.

The TV show is relevant, but not because of scenes that involve June and Moira choosing a picture for June’s Tinder profile while they wait in line at a food truck. It is relevant because its original source is relevant. As Atwood has articulated before, everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened or was happening at the time of its publication. We hear echoes of East Germany and the Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany and American slavery, North Korea, Middle-Eastern theocracies, and if we listen closely: modern day America. The Handmaid’s Tale will always be relevant to a world in which we can recognize strands of totalitarianism.

Atwood’s novel concludes with a Gileadean Symposium held in 2195 at a university in the Arctic. We learn that Gilead was a brief, brutal period in American history—one that collapsed quickly under the impossible stress of upholding its ideology and military commitments. Offred’s story—a recording found in Bangor, Maine—is put under a microscope by the assembled professors. Is it real? How honest is her story? What could she know? One professor laments, “If only we could receive a few pages of the commander’s diary.” The implication is that the singular experience of one oppressed woman is relatively unimportant. It’s not an unrealistic comment; it truthfully echoes those made by history students as they review a text written by a woman and remark upon the closed perspective it offers.

Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale is many things: harrowing, empowering, occasionally uplifting, beautiful, touching, and undeniably well-acted. It is not, however, a faithful adaptation of the book. The show, it seems, is more inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale, and the result is that, after the first season, it leaves the viewer with far different take-aways than those of the novel. The show reminds us of the value of collective effort, the physical power of the human spirit, and that hope is never truly lost. And yet, while the aforementioned lessons are undoubtedly important, in telling them Hulu tears down what made its source so powerful and so terrifying on paper: the relentless way in which a totalitarian society can oppress its inhabitants. The beauty of the novel is that Atwood shows how thoughtful, funny, and important one unexceptional experience can be, even while  living in a  bleak world. And yet, Hulu’s Gilead is not bleak and Hulu’s Offred is not unexceptional. Hulu’s story is the one that we wish we could learn about, and wish we could see enacted in real life. But there is something powerful about telling the story that Atwood tells. There is power and compassion in maintaining the position that every victim of oppression has a meaningful, rich narrative that should be read and understood.