How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Series Rebels from the Book

Michelle Hair
Hulu Streaming
Hulu Streaming TV

If you’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’d know there are many differences between it and the Hulu original series starring Elisabeth Moss. While the major plot points are the same, a few details have been changed to make this award-winning series the most compelling and relevant television show in recent history.

Millennial Updates

The series is more diverse and updated for this millennium. Everyone has smartphones in flashback sequences and there are many openly gay characters. There are many more people of color in the series as opposed to the book, and even Offred’s best friend, Moira, and husband, Luke, have darker skin. Showrunner Bruce Miller claims the idea of representation on-screen “was a very big discussion with Margaret” about the difference between “reading the words, ‘There are no people of color in this world,’ and seeing an all-white world on your television, which has a very different impact,” It would have been problematic to accurately portray Atwood’s vision of Gilead in this day and age. Adding diversity and technology doesn’t change the main action of the story, but these updates make the series more relatable and inclusive.

Offred’s Mother is M.I.A.

In the book, Offred frequently remembers moments with her mother at pro-choice rallies and Take Back the Night marches. She is captured during the rise of the Republic of Gilead and now lives in the colonies. Offred describes her mother as a militant political activist, who tried (and failed) to instill her political beliefs in her daughter. She is not as woke as the way Elisabeth Moss plays her. In the series, Offred’s mother is mentioned once in passing. Offred never talks about her, but Offred’s mother lives through her in her actions. In the series, Offred is much more aware of the impact of the Gilead and finds many ways to secretly rebel. Season 2 promises to take us to the Colonies, and in the trailer, there is a brief shot that appears to be Offred’s mother and a very young Offred. Perhaps we will soon meet Offred’s mother on-screen and the two of them will reunite.

Serena Joy’s Age Gap

The most compelling difference between the book and the series is the age of Serena Joy, Commander Waterford’s wife. Atwood describes Serena Joy as wrinkled, arthritic, and handicapped. Commander Waterford has grey hair, and it is safe to assume that the power couple is in their late 40’s to early 50’s. In the series, Serena is portrayed by a much younger actress, Yvonne Strahovski (best known for playing undercover-spy Sarah Walker on NBC’s Chuck) She’s in her mid-thirties, while her counterpart, Joseph Fiennes, is age appropriate. This choice could just be a symptom of the Hollywood Syndrome (where every actress is seemingly a decade younger than their male co-star), or perhaps it was a deliberate decision to make Offred and Serena Joy peers– despite their political differences in this brave new world, they are from the same generation.

In the book, it would be easy to write-off Serena Joy’s idea of A Woman’s Place as an older, more conservative viewpoint. In the 80’s, when the book was written, a 50-year-old woman would have grown up in a society where there wasn’t a place for women in the workforce, they were expected to be domestic. You can excuse their opinion as one formed in a more oppressive time. In the series, set in the present, their similar ages make their domestic roles that much more ridiculous and troubling. Serena Joy, who could probably be considered a millennial, is responsible for creating the doctrine of Gilead, she has no excuse. It’s as if Miller is saying “if we aren’t careful, this could happen.”

In fact, it has happened. Atwood claims every terrible act that occurred in the book has happened somewhere in the world at some point in time. Even in American History.  “I was asleep before, that’s how we let it happen.” So this series is not simply the story of an older generation knowing what’s best for those after them, but rather a fight between complicity and being woke.

Going Completely Off-Book

In Season 2, they are going even further from the source material. There are certain events in the series that have no in-book parallel, and other events in the series happen to entirely different characters in the book. These changes all serve to add exposition and clarity to the universe of Gilead. They have pretty much exhausted the main plot of the book, but Miller wants to really “dig into that world.” He explains how they are “taking a thing that was a sentence in the book and turning it into a whole episode.”  All in all, they successfully created a believable Handmaid’s Tale universe, a continuation of Atwood’s classic and a platform to discuss all the issues that make this story so relevant.

Michelle Hair
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