Spoiler warning - this review is for book readers. I won’t spoil the TV show, but I am assuming that you are familiar with the events and characters of the novel.
My reaction to TV adaptations of my favourite books is usually a mixture of ‘hooray’ and ‘please don’t ruin it’, so I was both excited and apprehensive about Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. After all, the 1990 movie wasn’t great. So it was with trepidation that I watched the first three episodes. But after the first one, I was relieved: the novel has been adapted with love. I was also terrified all over again, which is pretty much the point.
Much of the adaptation is exactly how I pictured it. The costumes, the set, the horror… But brace yourself for a lot of changes.
Offred tells us that her narration of her story is a “reconstruction”, and Professor Pieixoto admits that the original tapes were sequenced based on educated guesses, so much of the framework for these changes is built into the novel anyway. But here are some of the changes you can expect to see.
Offred’s narration plays via voice-over, so we get to keep the inner voice of June as well as seeing her meek, obedient Offred persona. This works really well; in the novel, we are always in her head, so we can compare the two versions. But it is a restricted viewpoint, and the adaptation is able to move away from Offred’s perspective to give us a wider sense of Gilead. This addresses some of Professor Pieixoto’s criticism of the text as being too personal, and not ‘factual’ enough. Even though we are meant to perceive Pieixoto’s criticisms as unfair, the wider view of the system and how it came about is gripping, and it provides space for other characters to develop further.
Pace and structure
A lot happens in the first three episodes. Three major moments happen in the first episode, and this might leave you wondering how the plot and the pace can be sustained. (Have faith though.) The episode opens with an emotional punch and just keeps on going. In the novel, it takes time for the truth of the handmaids’ position in Gilead to be revealed, but this is clarified much earlier in the show. One of the big moments in episode one is a really grim event from late in the novel, and using it early on changes our response to it. It’s used for a different purpose. In general, we find things out much faster, and this takes out some of the ambiguity of the novel but gives space for other developments.
Elisabeth Moss’s performance as Offred is, quite simply, stunning. When my students feel frustrated with Offred’s apparent passivity, I like to remind them of her murderous fantasies, her inner rebelliousness and her determination to survive. Moss gives us all of these - sometimes just in voiceover, but often in micro-expressions, an occasional obstinate glance, or a wry, mocking smile. She is at times furious and murderous, bewildered and horrified, but also pleased with herself when she finds some power. She is even, briefly, smug. Her place in Gilead is complex; she has value as an “ambulatory chalice”, yet she is enslaved. June is more involved politically before the rise of Gilead - she is less complacent in the show than in the book. Moss captures all of these nuances, and it is a breathtaking performance.
Part of this comes from the show’s other tweaks to the structure of the story. For example, when June arrives at the Red Centre, Moira is already there, and so we are not comparing Moira’s rebelliousness with June’s, and finding June lacking. It’s the other way round. Moira has already learned to pretend, and June needs to adapt.
But June is quicker to learn than Janine. I must salute the show here, for making me feel sympathetic for Janine. She is a kind of running joke in the novel for me, but what the show does to Janine completely changed that. She may become a Quisling in a red dress, but you can understand why.
Ofglen is another character whose story is developed. In the novel, when Offred meets the “new treacherous Ofglen”, she is told (with much glee) that the previous Ofglen committed suicide when the Eyes came for her. There is no such escape for Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen in the show. I think I am still traumatised by this.
The Commander and Serena Joy are played much younger than I imagined, though I suspect that references to Serena’s age were part of that unreliable narration in the text. Offred could be catty, let’s not forget that. Yvonne Strahovski’s portrayal of Serena is icy and guarded, and Joseph Fiennes is impenetrable as The Commander.
Like many readers, I suspect, my favourite character is Moira, played here by Samira Wiley, who hasn’t had a great deal to do yet. Many of Moira’s characteristics seem to have been taken on by Offred, Oflgen and Janine — but I think this represents more of a long game for Moira. I’m hoping that she is just waiting for her moment. (My other favourite character is June’s mother — no sign of her yet though.)
There really couldn’t have been a better time for The Handmaid’s Tale to air, and the show is clearly a loving adaptation of the novel. The novel is in safe hands - probably because they are Atwood’s own hands. It is as chilling and tense as you might expect, and it isn’t a relaxing watch, but my goodness, it’s done well.
The Handmaid’s Tale starts on April 26th.