Book vs. Flick: The Handmaid's Tale

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Jun 21, 2017, 4:06 PM EDT (Updated)

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's harrowing vision of a theocratic dystopia, made for excellent television, even if it didn't always completely stick to its source material. What kind of changes were there, exactly? Here's a rundown of some of what's different from page to screen, if you weren't keeping track.

One of the first major changes to take note of, especially if you've already read the novel, is the tonal shift from Offred's unaffected verbiage and flat recollection of events, which took on a very serious and somber tone in the book. She's sardonic, passionate, and aggressive when speaking as a narrator in the show, even offering up her real name, June, at the end of the first episode. In the book, Offred does mention several names when recounting the beginning of her new life at the Red Center as other Handmaids gave their names, but she never specifically states what her old name was. This is left for readers to speculate.


The show paints Offred as a rebellious woman inside who humbles herself when it comes to performing the tasks expected of her as a Handmaid, though she's got a sarcastic quip for every situation, even if she keeps it inside. When she knows she's not going to pay for it, depending on who she's speaking to, she'll let one of them slip, which makes her a much more relatable character than the book's Offred, who recounts her past life, but acts as if she's been stripped of any fight she once had in her, as if she never lived as a young, hip woman with her own job and identity. In the book, June's mother is always painted as the rebellious type, the one to join protests and rise against the machine, if you will. June herself is a quieter, more reserved type. That's hardly the case in the show, as June and Moira are seen protesting together on there in flashbacks. Modern times and modern measures are the order of the day.

That fits in with the show's altered setting as well, which puts it in a what appears to be a modern day Cambridge, Massachusetts, thanks to modern references to things like Uber and other recent music and vernacular. The book was published in 1985, but it referenced the '70s and '80s with a future epilogue that took place in 2195 in the same fictional world of Gilead, which hasn't actually been referred to by name in the television adaptation.

Offred isn't the only character to have been slightly tweaked, either. Ofglen, her first real companion after Moira, has a much more important role in the show. In the book, after she figured out that the Eyes were on their way to take her away, she simply hanged herself. In the show, her lover, a Martha, was hanged for being a "gender traitor" and Ofglen is forced to undergo female genital mutilation surgery against her will. She doesn't live long after that, even after being reassigned to another post and seemingly housed with a caring family that does their best to make her comfortable.


She ends up stealing a car, runs over a guard, and presumably shot on sight while in the car after committing such a grievous transgression. She's replaced by a new Ofglen, who's actually grateful for Gilead after being a homeless junkie in her former life. This causes tension between Ofglen and Offred, which is understandable, but a far cry from the book's turn of events. What's more, Janine, or Ofwarren as she comes to be known, never loses her right eye as punishment for being a rebel. She's hardly a rebel at all in the book, and in fact is more of a suck-up and teacher's pet of sorts for the Aunts, who eventually praise her after she births her first child

Both the Commander and his wife are ominous presences in both show and book, though shades of their personalities are different between both pieces of media. You never learn for a fact that the Commander's name is Fred Waterford in the book, where it's a matter of fact from the beginning in the show. Fred's wife Serena Joy isn't named and is instead referred to as Mrs. Waterford and much of the references to her past being an entertainer have been cut out. She isn't an older woman who wears a veil in the show, either, portrayed by Yvonne Strahovski and oozing with attitude and anger, most of which seem to be directed at Offred and some sort of internalized frustration over both the way her husband treats her and feels about her, if an episode featuring Serena's failed attempts at pleasuring the Commander are any indication.


As you're no doubt aware by now, there are several important differences that keep both the novel and Hulu series from being totally similar, but the changes made to the visual adaptation ensure something interesting: The main players, even the side characters, are young and attractive, except for the Aunts. Even the Marthas are decently attractive, likely in an attempt to garner sympathy from viewers or to let fans put themselves in the place of young, working women who suddenly found themselves stripped of both the ability to own property or retain important rights. As someone who enjoyed both pieces of media, I certainly found that the television adaptation was more harrowing and inflammatory for me, firing me up as June and Moira were instantly reduced to second-class citizens right before my very eyes.

Both the novel and the show are essential, but if you only have time for one right now you should make it a priority to watch the television adaptation, which stars Elizabeth Moss as Offred/June and the brilliant Samira Wiley as her best friend Moira. Though there are numerous differences between the book and the show, you're only really going to get the complete story if you spend time on both. But hey -- the more educated we are about this type of regime, the better equipped we are to fight it, right?

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