Hulu’s stunning adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ takes us further into the complex lives of characters from Margaret Atwood’s timeless story.
“Does he know what the Commander and I did last night — our illicit journey into the world of triple-word scores?
“Does he care?
“I think he does.”
Elizabeth Moss’s voice turns daring, teasing — it lends a boldness to Offred, Margaret Atwood’s main character in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Never before has Scrabble sounded so provocative.
MAJOR BOOK AND SHOW SPOILERS AHEAD!
Four episodes into the much-anticipated Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s acclaimed novel, already some of the most important events of the book have been played out on-screen. Interspersed with the familiar plot points from the novel are a few imagined by screenwriters — a risky endeavor to take with such a beloved book, but one that so far has been worth taking.
The show opens with scenes of Offred’s past, providing clarity that Atwood’s novel revealed at a much slower pace. The mysterious “her” that the book’s character alludes to is known from the start of the adaptation to be Offred’s lost daughter. “Lost,” however, might be too passive a word. Hannah, as she’s known in Hulu’s adaptation, was not lost. She was taken — stolen.
The show’s creators couldn’t have picked a better opening scene to immediately move their audience to Offred’s cause. While the series will no doubt reveal horrors at every turn, it would be difficult to find a scene more stirring than that of a child ripped from her struggling mother’s arms.
And then, quiet.
Offred — whose true name is never confirmed in Atwood’s novel, though it is disclosed in the first episode of the adaptation — is sitting in her room, her clothes replaced with a red dress and bonnet as if she has somehow been transported to the past. Yet Offred’s story has moved forward in time.
Here the audience meets a new reality: Atwood’s world where women are treated as second-class citizens. That description is almost too generous. It implies some sort of personhood. Offred and her fellow Handmaids — and, beyond that, all women — are second-class humans in this dystopian world.
The series has not yet fully elucidated the structure of Gileadean society. We’re still waiting for mention of the Econowives, an intriguing class of women given little attention in the novel. However, the Hulu adaptation has no shortage of class tension. Between the Aunts and the Handmaids. Between the Handmaids and the Wives, the Marthas. Enough tension to show every viewer that there’s nothing certain in this situation.
Serena Joy greets Offred exactly as she did in the original Handmaid’s Tale, by allowing her to sit in her parlor but reminding her not to make a habit of it. By clarifying something Offred must already know: that the Commander is not her husband. Her words are as icy spoken aloud as they are in print: “If I get any trouble, believe me, I will give trouble back.”
However, while Serena appears to sit at the top of the female hierarchy, there is a vulnerability to her that cannot be ignored.
In the original Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood doles out facts like breadcrumbs to her readers who, like eager birds, must flock to them and make the most of the enticing scraps. Learning Serena Joy knits fancy patterns, the reader wonders if she is merely vain. Later, we learn her health is failing and the patterns are a sort of exercise. We discover she was once a loud proponent of traditional roles for women, and just as quickly the hypocrisy of that past is pointed out: A woman championing the traditional role of housewife by leaving her own home behind?
Watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, the audience can see these facets of Serena Joy in the stern glares replaced by almost mournful, knowing glances. We see it again in her harshness replaced by protectiveness when she believes Offred is pregnant.
Reviewers have been quick to point out that Serena Joy is complicit with a male-dominated society. She is the woman who puts other women down. In her interactions with Offred, this is true. Yet she, too, is held captive. She lives in a world where women are valued for their fertility, and she will never bear children. While she’s quick to tell Offred the Commander is her husband, she is required to take part in “the Ceremony” and watch as her husband attempts to impregnate another woman in her own bed.
If one scene of Hulu’s adaptation so far could summarize all of Serena Joy, it would be when she tells the Commander to discredit an escaped Aunt who did an interview with the Toronto Star. Her advice suggests she’s done this sort of work before. There was a time when she was not just a woman in blue, attending to the false labor pains of her peers and waiting for another woman to bear her a child. She is capable, yet she’s in a role that requires nothing of her. Everything in her life is false.
Her husband responds, “You don’t need to worry about this. I promise. We’ve got good men working on it.” And with that, she’s reminded of her place.
Hulu’s viewers meet a more vulnerable woman in Serena Joy than readers did in the novel. We see her powerlessness on-screen most poignantly when her husband refuses her intimacy. It’s not just that she will not have his children; her inability to do so deprives her of his affection. While she knows Offred’s experiences with the Commander have nothing to do with love, Serena Joy is nonetheless jealous of the Handmaid’s position.
They are to be Rachel and Leah, yet Serena Joy makes it clear she did not offer Offred to her husband. Atwood confirmed the intentional similarity between the two words, stating that “Within this name is concealed another possibility: ‘offered,’ denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.” However, this offering was not Serena Joy’s choice.
Taking a character like Serena Joy and lending her humanity seems to be the modus operandi of the creators of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale: taking Atwood’s terrifying future and extrapolating it to show a little more of each possibility. Where the novel explores the fate of one woman, the adaptation delves into the unique role of each character.
Another example of this is Ofglen. Atwood no doubt made Ofglen a martyr in her own right, a member of an underground rebel society who takes her own life rather than be apprehended and tortured. While one doesn’t revel in the thought of Ofglen’s suicide, her choice makes one thing clear: in Ofglen’s world, there are fates worse than death.
Within four episodes, Hulu has raised the bar with this character’s story.
Ofglen, portrayed by Alexis Bledel, is a “gender-traitor” — this being the term used in Gilead for gay individuals. She has a lover, a Martha, and for this she is severely punished.
One might dare assume Ofglen and her lover are, in fact, in love because of their final moments, clinging to one another’s hands as they go to their punishments. What follows is one of the most jarring moments of the series:
Ofglen watching her lover pulled from the van.
Watching as the noose is placed around her neck.
Watching as the crane lifts, the doors close, her body writhes and is still.
All in a matter of seconds, and then we see Ofglen wake up. The imagery is potent: though the room is sterile, she has been allowed to live only because she is fertile. Watching this scene, we feel her horror. Something has been done to her. She flinches with pain. Aunt Lydia arrives to explain to her that she will no longer want what she cannot have. It will be better for her.
As we hear these words, we’re forced to realize something so obvious and yet too horrific to accept. Ofglen lifts the hem of her gown and there it is: a bandage covering the thing they have done to her.
Aunt Lydia calls it a favor. We would call it female genital mutilation.
While fans of the original Handmaid’s Tale are no doubt wondering what will happen to Ofglen now — she is, after all, dead at this point in the book — this bold diversion is commendable. Atwood spoke of gay men hanging on the wall for their crimes but did not address what the world of Gilead would have been like for gay women.
These deviations from script — Serena Joy’s attempts at intimacy with her husband, Ofglen’s affair with a Martha — provide fullness to the story in a way that stays true to Atwood’s original tale. The Offred of Atwood’s story is, from the start, intrigued by Nick in a way that reveals she has her own sexuality. Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale expands this revelation to more of Atwood’s characters. Suddenly it all seems far more complicated, and it was never a simple tale.
Some of Offred’s key scenes from the novel have already been revealed in the adaptation. The moment when she returns to her room after her first encounter with the Commander was a turning point in her story. She laughs, because it is laughable, and yet the nature of the great mystery leaves Offred, and the reader, vibrating.
This is a moment that stays true to the original tale.
Another is the scene in which Offred visits a gynecologist and he offers to save her. Of course, he plans to do so by impregnating her and she refuses. This moment in the book is reminiscent of the true story of Harriet Ann Jacobs, whose life is chronicled in the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs was pursued by her master and evaded him by intentionally becoming pregnant by another man. Her decision bought her time, but it hardly made her free — nor was it freely made.
Offred has much the same choice in front her: becoming pregnant would save her from the dreaded colonies, but it is hardly what she would desire for herself if given a true choice.
Both in the novel and on-screen, Offred declines. Readers will recognize the importance of this scene for two reasons. First, it highlights yet another way women have become trapped in Gilead: even their physicians are looking to use them.
This interaction has been cited by protestors of recently proposed laws that would allow physicians to withhold information from their patients and limit women’s access to reproductive health services. Atwood has noted that in modern America, “Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries.” While she doesn’t cite any particular law in the essay quoted here, one imagines Atwood was aware of the protestors who dressed as Handmaids to symbolize their plight.
Offred sees a physician not for her own comfort but to ensure she can reproduce. Readers know she is warned she doesn’t have much time: they’re just waiting for the day her hormone levels reveal she’s no longer fertile. Let’s not forget that Offred, while attending Janine’s birth day activities, wonders if the baby will be born with a snout, or without a heart, revealing even more about the state of medicine: despite great fear of miscarriage, stillbirth and deformity, no screenings are performed to predict the outcome of a pregnancy.
The role of a Handmaid is to carry a pregnancy to term, even if it’s only to learn it was never viable.
The second reason the scene in the doctor’s office is important in the novel is that it introduces an idea: a Handmaid could become pregnant by someone other than her Commander and no one would necessarily know. By presenting this option to readers, Atwood prepares them for the later presentation of Nick for this purpose.
While Hulu has certainly gone out of order in other places — the Particicution, for example, was no doubt dragged to the first episode to capture the attention of the audience — they have not brought the romance between Nick and Offred to fruition. Now that it’s been confirmed she is not pregnant — and one can only wonder if she ever was or if she miscarried after Aunt Lydia electrocuted her with a cattle prod — only time will tell what happens between the Handmaid and the driver.
Will the screenwriters stick to the original story and have Serena Joy present the option of Nick, or will they make Offred daring enough to pursue him on her own? They have certainly gifted her some of the courage Atwood reserved for the character Moira — Offred’s friend from before who makes a daring escape from the Red Center, and who will certainly return to the show in a fashion true to Atwood’s story and the character’s inherent spunk.
In the show they escape together, and one questions whether the Offred of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale would show such courage.
Moss’s Offred is a woman all her own. She looks like Offred, she sounds like Offred, and yet one cannot quite see her disappearing without a trace, without a future, the way Atwood’s character does. Something about her demands a true conclusion, and only time will tell whether Hulu viewers will get the on-screen ending denied by Atwood’s classic book.