Monday, August 21, 2017

Praise Be - On Reading & Watching The Handmaid's Tale


The Handmaid's Tale is hands-down one of my absolute favorite books.  I first read it as a teenager and was blown away by the dystopian world that Margaret Atwood created and by the feminist perspective of the main character, who is only (definitively) known as "Offred".  It's a book that I re-read regularly (maybe every other year), and from which I constantly make new meaning.  With the current political climate, The Handmaid's Tale has become ever more prescient and relevant.  For a book, originally published in 1986, to be at the top of Bestseller Lists is certainly a telling thing.  When I heard that it was being adapted into a miniseries, I knew that I would watch the crap out of it - but possibly through my fingers.

Whenever word gets out that a beloved work is being adapted, fans inevitably worry that it won't live up to the original.  It's a common tale that a much-adored book is almost unrecognizable as a movie, because of the conceits and constraints of that form.  Entire (major) plot lines might be removed.  Characters may be added or removed or both.  Contentious or controversial scenes might be removed.  All of these things, and many more, can and do happen regularly.  In fact, it's really newsworthy when an adaptation captures the spirit and essence of the original work.  This doesn't necessarily mean that it more or less copies the source material exactly (book/movie of Shutter Island is an example), but is "faithful" in that the experience the viewer is left with after consuming the adaptation, and the messages transmitted through that experience, parallel those felt after consuming the source material.  I, myself, have been disappointed so many times by movies and TV shows I thought I would love, having read the books.  In particular, the 1995 adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter (Who thought it was a good idea to invent a happy ending?! 😧) comes to mind.  So, it was with extreme trepidation that I sat down last weekend to binge-watch the TV miniseries of The Handmaid's Tale.

I can confidently say that I LOVED it!!  Not only was it faithful to the novel, it expanded on the book in intriguing ways that then informed the wider story more deeply.  The acting was authentic and captivating, the use of music/sound was employed to great effect, and the world before and during Gilead's rise was brought to life in unflinching truth.  While I'm not going to do a recap of the series, I do want to discuss some key content as it compares to the novel.  Therefore, as noted at the top, unabashed spoilers (for the show and the novel) are coming.  Do with that what you will.


The novel remains mostly in the singular perspective of Offred, and therefore the cast of named characters is extremely limited.  Pre-Gilead, we learn about her friendship with Moira, her relationship with Luke, and their daughter.  Because the scope of the TV show can be larger than the source novel, the writers decided to encompass not only June's perspective but allow room for third person objective narration.  For example, in the novel the reader never learns Luke's fate, but in the TV show an entire episode is dedicated to him and his escape into Canada.  This allows the writers to explore and give depth to some storylines that were only touched on or hinted at otherwise.  It also leaves the door open for expansion of those storylines in the second season that is forthcoming.


Names are a very important part of the Gilead world.  There are the titles assigned to the levels of society - Commanders, Wives, Marthas, Eyes, Handmaids.  The novel introduces an additional division called "Econowives", who are the spouses of lower-level men in Gilead.  They don't feature in the TV show at all.  Despite their titles, everyone in this world is referred to by his/her given name when spoken to...except for the Handmaids.  They are completely stripped of their personhood and identities, referred to only as "Of(Commander's given name).  In the eyes of Gilead, Handmaids aren't full humans - only valued for their reproductive capabilities, so what use is it to the society if they have an identity.  And here lies a distinction between the book and the TV show - in the book, they are known to the reader only by their possessive-paternal names.  Offred is only Offred, Ofglen is only Ofglen, etc. The last sentence of the first chapter lists names of some of the women who are in the Red Center together - "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June." but the reader never learns whose names belong to which Handmaid.  In the show, however, the Handmaids still casually refer to each other by their pre-Gilead names.  Offred is June, Ofglen is Emily, Ofwarren is Janine.  This returned a level of humanity and normalcy to these women.


In addition to titles and names, color also plays a crucial role in The Handmaid's Tale.  The Commanders and Eyes wear black suits of varying styles.  The Commander's Wives wear blue dresses (and, in the novel, matching veils).  The Marthas wear greenish-grey dresses with white smocks.  Handmaids wear red dresses and white hats.  The Econowives (not featured in the TV show) wear dresses containing stripes of blue, green, and red - because they must perform all the duties of the household. These colors make it easily identifiable as to who is in which caste, because that's exactly what this system is.  Based on your color, you're afforded certain rights and privileges.  It also makes it easy for prejudices to develop, which is something Offred muses about - women are divided in their oppression because they have no empathy for others outside of their own societal sphere.

In the novel, no specific mention is made of the racial makeup of the characters.  There's nothing explicit about diversity in the text, so it's left up to the reader to infer or apply their own preconceptions onto the characters.  With the TV show, that work is done for the viewer.  Of the more prominent characters - Moira and Luke are non-white, as is Hannah, Luke and June's daughter.  Beyond that, some of the background characters are not Caucasian, but the majority of them are.  If there was a critique I would offer, it would be to incorporate more racial and ethnic diversity in the actors. 

The Commander & Serena Joy

At the beginning of The Handmaid's Tale, the main character has been assigned to her third, and final, placement.  After three households, if the Handmaid cannot produce a child, she is deemed sterile by the government and relocated to The Colonies, to clean up toxic waste in horrific conditions for the rest of her life.  Offred never mentions the surname of the Commander and his wife, so the reader has to assume that she never learns it.  So why, then, did the writers on the TV show give them the name "Waterford"?  It comes from the infamous epilogue in the book, called "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale".  I use the word "infamous" because it's a very divisive aspect of the work - some readers believe that it detracts from the overall story, lessening its impact and significance.  There is a line inthis epilogue where the narrator, a Cambridge University professor named James Darcy Pieixoto, talks about who Offred's "Fred" might have been.  One possibility is B. Frederick Judd, and the other is Frederick R. Waterford. Both were identified as architects of Gilead, and generally above reproach. 

Fred and his wife Serena Joy were cast very differently between the book and the TV show.  Both are in their 50's - much older than as they are portrayed in the TV show, and described as looking overweight and saggy.  In the TV show, they are at least a few decades younger, much more attractive.  Also, none of the Commander's Wives wear veils at any point.  I suppose this is a bit of the Hollywood seeping in...assuming that audiences would respond more positively to a young, attractive couple.  This assumption would also extend to the Ceremony scenes, where the Handmaids are ritualistically raped by the Commanders.  What would it have meant for the producers to cast these characters more closely to how they were described in the novel?  I wonder if the antagonistic characteristics of The Waterford's would have been diminished in any way.

The power dynamic, and its gradual shifting, within The Waterford's relationship was a fascinating component of the TV show, and was a storyline that was non-existent in the novel.  In the flashbacks to the pre-Gilead time, Serena Joy was a vibrant and engaging public speaker, author, and activist for an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist way of life.  She and Fred were equal partners in the bringing about of Gilead, and Serena Joy even wrote many of the philosophical dictates that later became law.  However, as soon as the patriarchal, totalitarian regime was installed, her contributions were attributed to her husband, and she immediately lost all of her former confidence with him.  In the earliest days of Gilead, Fred was seen as fighting unsuccessfully for her to have a place in the leadership.  By the time June enters their household, Fred no longer values Serena Joy and readily treats her like an ignorant child.  The resentment that builds up in her character could easily build up to a point where she makes a dramatic decision.  I suppose we'll have to wait until Season 2, to see what happens there.


Nick is, in both the novel and the TV show, an enigma.  He's Commander Waterford's chauffeur and an Eye, presumably spying on Waterford and everyone else in the household.  He lives in an apartment that is on the Commander's property, so he enjoys a level of privacy not afforded to anyone else in the house.  When it becomes pretty clear that Offred won't be getting pregnant by Fred, Serena Joy arranges for Nick and Offred to have sex - thinking that they might be able to produce a child for her and the Commander.  This leads to a relationship that satisfies some needs, but makes a more squicky gray area for both of them.

Where the TV show diverges is that it gives Nick a backstory - a young man, forced by crappy circumstances, to be the sole provider for his family.  When we first see him, he is in an unemployment office.  He's been in and out of many entry-level jobs, and frustrated to not be able to live the life he wants.  The office man he's meeting with turns out to be a prominent member of the Sons of Jacob, and recruits Nick to join the group. 

It's never clear whether Nick ever fully buys into the ideals of Gilead, but he has certainly attained a position of tremendous privilege from his association.  June is never entirely sure if Nick is a "true believer" or a member of the Mayday resistance group.  This is especially important in the pivotal scene at the end of the story, where June is being apprehended by Eyes.  Before they enter the Commander's house, Nick comes to her and tells her to go with them, that they're part of the Mayday resistance, and it'll be ok.  But, June isn't able to know for sure if he's telling the truth or not.  That is the major cliffhanger - what happens to Offred once she's taken by the Eyes?


In the novel, when the first Ofglen is replaced, Offred is never entirely sure what happened to her.  The new Ofglen offers a scenario - the old Ofglen committed suicide before she could be apprehended by the Eyes as being a member of the Mayday resistance - but cannot be fully trusted.  In the TV show, we find out that she had a romantic relationship with a Martha.  Both women were punished: Ofglen (Emily) was subjected to female genital mutilation, while her partner was hanged from a construction crane as Emily watched.  After she healed, she was placed as a handmaid with another household, but was later apprehended by Eyes after she stole a Commander's car and drove around the marketplace.  The punishment scene took the form of a courtroom trial, giving the viewers a glimpse of what Gilead's legal system would look like.  There were no witnesses, no testimony, no chance for the accused to refute the charges.  Both women were gagged, not allowed to speak, and the judge simply asked that the prosecuting attorney attest that his arguments were the truth.  No defense attorneys are a part of this process, so the accused are immediately found guilty.  In the novel, there isn't even a mention of a Gilead justice system, because Offred had no encounters with it, nor knew of anyone who would have knowledge of it.


The daughter is never named in the novel, but we learn, when Offred is shown a picture of her, that she was given to a family who are loyal to the regime, and is dressed in white like all the other children of Gilead.  In the TV show, June is driven to where her daughter is being kept, allowed to see her talking with Serena Joy, but not permitted to interact with her.  Hannah has no idea that her mother is just a few hundred feet away.  When June sees her, Hannah is wearing pink...perhaps indicating that she will be a Handmaid-in-Training, as opposed to the implication from the novel that she will be fully incorporated into the upper levels of Gilead society. 


At the onset of the story, Ofwarren is heavily pregnant.  As fertility in Gilead is in a dire state, successful pregnancy puts the Handmaid in a position of almost reverential power.  That is, until the baby is weaned and given to the Handmaid's Commander and his wife.  Therefore, the other Handmaids are entirely jealous of Ofwarren - feeling that she is "showing off" by being out in public and making a display of her belly. 

In the TV show, Janine delivers a healthy baby, but is unable to bear the reality that her daughter will be taken from her, and she will be shipped off to another household to start the process all over again.  She has convinced herself that Warren loves her and will run off with her to start a new life, and when she realizes that is not going to happen, she is willing to end her own life.  She and June were brought to the Red Center at the same time and, because they knew each other well enough, June was forced to act as a crisis mediator - literally talking Janine, who was holding the infant, off of a ledge. 

In the novel, Janine delivers a baby girl who is believed to be healthy.  However, a few days later, it becomes clear that there is a birth defect, and the baby is disposed of.  Also in the novel, much is made by Offred about how Ofwarren was a particular favorite of Aunt Lydia, and received special privileges for tattling on her fellow Handmaids-in-Training.  It is Janine who received the lashing to her feet, and who received the gifts of food from the others, not Offred - as in the TV show.  In fact, in the novel, it is only Moira who orchestrates an escape from the Red Center, although she goes about it in the same way that is portrayed on screen. 

Other Characters

In the novel, the Commander has two Marthas in his house: Rita and Cora.  For the TV show, it must have been thought more convenient, for the storytelling, to include only one - Rita. 

In the novel, Offred and the Commander go to Jezebel's only once, and that is when she sees Moira for the first time since her escape from the Red Center.  There is no return trip of secret package, and the reader never finds out what happened to Moira after that.  However, for the TV show, it was necessary to give Moira some more agency and adventure, especially after she seemed to have had her spirit broken by the regime.  Her reunion with Luke, in Toronto's "Little America", sets up  the beginnings of what may possibly be a "good guys" group, that will somehow get involved in fighting back against the "bad guys" of the Gilead regime. Or at least (hopefully) in getting June to safety.  I expect that will be a significant plot in Season 2 of the show. 

The only reference to June's mother, in the TV show, is when the smuggler acknowledges that he's doing her and Luke this favor in memory of June's mother.  In the novel, however, Offred's mother plays a vital role in her pre-Gilead world.  It's only after the regime comes to power that they are separated, and she is never entirely sure what came of her mother, although she assumes she's dead or in The Colonies.


In addition to the expansion of some of the characters and storylines, another way that the TV show transcends the novel is with music and sound.  In the book, Offred specifically talks about how silent Gilead is.  There is no music.  Time is told through tolling of bells.  Serena Joy (who had been a talented singer, before) in her new life she has no access to music.  In the TV show, music is employed chiefly to enhance the on-screen emotions, and does so very well.  Pre-Gilead, scenes with June, Moira, Luke, and later Hannah, feature easily recognizable Americanah songs - "Daydream Believer" by The Monkeys, and "Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor.  There are also instances of pre-Gilead music being snuck into the regime, such as Janine singing "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley to her newborn baby.  Otherwise, the only sounds we hear are ambient/electronica-style music.  They are especially prevalent in moments of deep frenzy or anxiety, as the dischordant sounds evoke similar feelings in the audience.  When the piece of music captures a moment in the story, it really is a magical experience.

There was one scene, however, where I question the specific choice of song.  In the final episode, after June leads the Handmaids in a revolt against Aunt Lydia's command to stone Janine to death, there is shot of the Handmaids walking in formation, back to their respective Commanders' houses.  The song is "Feeling Good" by Michael Buble, and in the way that the actresses are walking, they are actually swaying their hips in time to the music.  First of all, that song is a little too obvious and on-the-nose, compared with the other musical choices throughout the first season.  Second, it felt corny to have the swaying, almost like - at any moment - it could turn into a choreographed dance number.  That took me completely out of the story, and I remember rolling my eyes pretty hard when I watched it. 


The Handmaid's Tale was originally published in 1985, and most of the pre-Gilead references might feel a bit out-of-date to a 2017 audience.   To keep the show from feeling like a time capsule, the writers chose to move up the timeline of events.  The way the characters dress, talk, are addicted to their smartphones, and enjoy their freedoms feel like the events are happening right at this moment.  I could easily see myself as a friend of June and Moira, jogging and discussing the current political climate.  I believe that it was the right choice to do this modernizing, as it makes the story relevant for everyone, not just those who were of a certain age in the 1980's.  Viewers would likely disengage from the important messages of The Handmaid's Tale if they can't connect to the characters on some level.  This makes it a story for everyone.


As have been mentioned already, there are many places where the TV show diverges from the source material.  Many characters are given histories and backstories that just aren't present in the novel.  Characters, with previously unknown fates, are allowed to share their stories.  The demands of the rigid system of Gilead are taking their toll, and proverbial threads of the society are starting to show.  I understand that some of this was done to bring more fullness to the overall work, and that is achieved successfully.  However, these additional plot-lines also leave room for the story to grow and advance beyond the ending of the book.  It will be very interesting to see how the second season of The Handmaid's Tale progresses, as it will be entirely without source material to draw from. 

I truly believe that the "TV miniseries" format was the only appropriate one for a story like this.  It allowed plenty of time to build the relationships between characters, to illustrate the pre-Gilead society, and its complete eradication once the Sons of Jacob take control.  The adaptation is truly a faithful one to Margaret Atwood's novel, but it enhances and expands upon it in meaningful and authentic-feeling ways.  I am very intrigued to see what happens during the second season, and hopeful that it retains the spirit of the source material.  An adaptation that lives up to the reading experience - praise be!

Librorum annis,