On April 26, 2017, Hulu released the first three episodes of new original series The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from the award-winning 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood.
This week, we are officially 4 episodes into Offred’s story—and the question of the day is how does the television adaptation measure up to the book?
Like many young folks of my generation, The Handmaid’s Tale is a book I first came across in the classroom. And, along with curricula-assigned reading such as The Giver, Ender’s Game, and The Lord of the Flies, The Handmaid’s Tale was a novel that sparked my desire to read more science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian SFF. The novel is a seminal work of dystopian SFF, highlighting the grim possible future under an oppressive, religious, patriarchal regime. (That said, Margaret Atwood would not be happy to see the sci-fi label slapped on her writing, I’m of the mind that speculative fiction encompasses science fiction and all of its subgenre bastard offspring.)
When I saw the teaser trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale during the Super Bowl, I was instantly hooked and subsequently bought a new copy of the book in order to refresh my memory before watching the show. The book, I remembered as heavy on the symbolism and full of carefully constructed sentences from Offred’s perspective—her anger and defiance, wrapped in the semblance of meekness. What I didn’t remember was how scarily prescient the novel was; predicting the rise of a leader who would blithely strip away the rights of his populace. I remembered the discussion of positive and negative freedom in the book; I didn’t recall or understand just how fitting and terrifying this discussion is today. The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist to its core, inviting discussions of agency, of liberty, and rage in the face of autocracy. Suffice it to say, upon rereading, the novel holds up.
But what about the television adaptation? Adaptations of Offred’s tale aren’t new—there was a film, an opera, a ballet, and various audio and stage versions of the novel. While I haven’t seen every iteration of Offred’s story, of the film and audio adaptations I can say that Hulu’s take on the classic novel is ridiculously awesome. The things I loved about The Handmaid’s Tale—Offred’s sense of defiance and undercurrent of rage, the implications of a modern society taken with a zealous iconoclast, the relationships between women bound by caste and class are all beautifully detailed in this series.
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum—a large part of the success (and terror) of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale is due to timing and social context. The images in the first four episodes of Offred’s flashbacks leading up to the moment where her basic rights to work, to property, to wealth are taken away—and then her rights to her own body as stripped from her, too. Offred (June, as the television show takes the liberty of interpreting the protagonist’s real name) and her best friend Moira are called “f*cking sluts” by a male barista before the pair discover their money has been frozen from their bank accounts; the pair, along with other women, march to protest their rights, only to be met with violence and state-sanctioned murder. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of casual misogyny, iconoclasm, and isolationism taken to the extreme—and Hulu did well to air the show now.
So far as literary adaptations go, this version—from its stellar casting and videography, to blended dialogue both created and taken directly from the book, to haunting remixes of 1980s classic songs—Is damn near perfect.
Read it. Watch it. And remember:
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”