Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I was so excited to buy a copy of The Testaments, eagerly signing up for the pre-order and celebrating manically on publication day – only to realise I’ve never actually read The Handmaid’s Tale.
Oh the SHAME.
It was one of those books I always just assumed I had read. I knew so much about it so I must have read it back in school. Nope.
But instead of secretly reading it under the cloak of darkness – while avoiding The Testaments spoilers – I have decided to shout my mistake from the rooftops (also known as blog post that potentially no-one will ever read) and compare the book to the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation.


If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale (or seen the first season of the TV show) stop right there, as this post contains spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers.

It is pretty amazing that a story published in 1985 could still hold so much relevance in 2019, and feel like an eery premonition of a future world we could all live in. Atwood has created a dystopian world that manages to feel both unimaginable and completely plausible. She has confirmed everything that takes place in Gilead are based on real events in history. How. Scary. Is. That.

The book is narrated completely by Offred, in the form of diary entries (which we later find out to be cassette recordings, transcribed after the collapse of Gilead). This means we only ever see the story from Offred’s perspective. To hear such a complex story told in this way means we don’t get that level of depth and insight we need from the other characters. We are relying completely on Offred’s account, which she even acknowledges in the recordings might not be accurate.
As a result, this leaves the majority of characters feeling very one-dimensional.
It is normally the opposite way around, but in this case the TV adaptation gave a lot more complexity to the characters. Maybe I would feel differently if I had read the book before watching the TV series, but I had been so eager to learn more about Gilead from Atwood directly and was a little disappointed once I’d finished to find season one held more insight overall.

That is my only negative comment, otherwise it was a very gripping read and I devoured every single one of the words that built this frightening world 34 years ago.

The TV adaptation stays very true to the origin of the story, with a few changes. Some of the minor changes are updates to the technologies used (smart phones, uber references etc) and the handmaids have ear tags instead of tattoos.

In the book it is said that all people of colour are “rounded up” and resettled elsewhere. This detail has been removed from the show and more POC are incorporated into the cast (most notably June’s husband, best friend and child), although it does still feel very white-people heavy, especially with people in positions of power.

Let’s get into the major plot changes:

Offred is stronger: In the book Offred is focused on survival and adaption. She never says her real name, she doesn’t want to join Mayday and she didn’t take part in the pre-Gilead protests. In the series she says her real name in the very first episode, refusing to accept that her old life is gone. She attempts to escape with Moira at the Red Centre; she tries to get a package of letters from Gileadean women to their loved ones; and at the particicution she is the first handmaid to kick the man accused of rape, rather than in the book where she watches in disgust.

We get a lot more flashbacks: We learn about the rise of sexism in the pre-Gilead world; we see the descent of woman’s rights as they are taken away from their jobs and have their access to money and home ownership revoked overnight. We get to see a more vivid account of how Gilead took control, and the unsuccessful attempts people made to protest the new regime.

Justice for Ofglen: We find out about her relationship with a Martha, and the horrible punishment for this relationship. We learn her real name (Emily) and we see her stealing an SUV and running over a guardian. She is hauled into a black van and taken away. None of this is in the book, we only find out from the new Ofglen that she hanged herself when she saw a van coming for her, thinking her role in the resistance had been exposed. An abrupt ending for one of the best characters in the series.

It’s clear that Nick is a good guy: While his character arc is pretty much the same, we know very little about him in the book and it is very unclear how he and Offred could have forged a genuine bond when he barely speaks to her. He does imply in the final chapter of the book that he is a member of Mayday – although Offred isn’t sure whether to believe him.
In the TV series we find out about Nick’s struggles in his previous life, how he became an eye, and we get to see a true bond develop between June and Nick.

Serena Joy and Commander Waterford have some stories to tell: In the book we learn that Serena was a gospel singer turned activist, who gave speeches advocating for women to stay at home and return to ‘traditional’ family values. It is implied that the Commander is high-up in the rankings and was involved in creating Gilead. The plot of Fred’s relationships with the previous Offred and June are the same in both the book and series, as is Serena’s desperation to have a child (and her arrangement for June to sleep with Nick). But the TV series takes these details and delves into them much further. We see flashbacks of Serena and Fred’s lives before the Gilead takeover, where Serena is the brains behind Gilead’s core beliefs, not Fred. These flashbacks also show Serena and Fred once had a loving relationship. The series also depicts them as younger than they were implied in the book.

We find out what happened to Luke: As well as seeing more of June and Luke’s relationship pre-Gilead in the series, we also see their attempt to flee to Canada and how Luke managed to escape. June finds out via a Mexican ambassador that Luke made it to Canada, and she is able to send him a message to ask him to save Hannah.
We don’t even know if Luke is alive in the book.

Janine’s arc is different: In the book Janine is easily broken down at the Red Centre, whereas in the series she is initially defiant to Aunt Lydia and loses her eye as punishment. In both mediums she suffers a breakdown, then gets pregnant to her new Commander – but in the series she has an affair with the Commander and believes he will leave his wife for her. In the book the baby does not survive, which leads Janine to have a complete breakdown, not recognising people around her. That is the end of her arc in the book.
In the series the baby is healthy but Janine is unstable, preparing to jump off a bridge with the baby. June tries to talk her down, and Janine hands over the baby before jumping. She survives but Aunt Lydia wants the handmaids to stone her to death. June refuses, followed by the rest of the handmaids.

The tourists are replaced with a trade delegation from Mexico: In the book Offred encounters tourists sightseeing through Gilead who ask her if she is happy. In the series, the tourists are replaced with a trade delegation where the trade of handmaids across country is discussed and the Gilead children are paraded as a celebration of fertility. Gross.

Moira escapes Gilead: After Offred finds Moira in the brothel, it is unclear what happens to her at this point in the book. But in the TV series Moira manages to escape and cross the border into Canada, reuniting with Luke. Finally, some good news!

June is pregnant: In the TV series we find out June is definitely pregnant after Serena forces her to take a pregnancy test. It is through this plot that we also see June’s daughter (Hannah) for the first time. Serena threatens June by saying ‘as long as my baby is safe, your baby is safe’. Charming.
In the book June tells Nick she might be pregnant but doubts it in her mind. She never sees Hannah, and doesn’t even know if she is alive.

There are two key details from the book that are missing from the show. One is June’s mother, a second wave feminist and women’s rights activist, believed to be working in the Colonies. She was referred to a lot throughout the book but does not appear in the TV series until season two.
And the last detail is the epilogue that appears at the end of the book. This is set in 2195 at a conference where the transcriber of Offred’s cassette tapes is discussing the Gilead regime in a historical context. The speaker downplays the offences made against the women and spends more time focusing on the men and their successes, which is a chilling reflection of our own historical story-telling. It will be interesting to see if this epilogue comes up later on in the series.

Ooookay that got a little out of hand, I could talk about The Handmaid’s Tale all day!

While I have to say I did enjoy season one of the TV series more than the book itself, this is only because the world Atwood created in 314 pages is so vast and complex, I greedily wanted more time with the characters. And now we’re on season three and I still want more!

This is one of the few classics that will continue to engage people for another 34 years, and many more.

Rating: 4 out of 5. Bring on The Testaments! Currently season three of the TV series is finished and season four is expected to be released sometime in 2020. 




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