Features

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Study in Presentation

The Handmaid's Tale - for featured image

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die”

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been a staple in high school literature classes since who knows how long. Actually, probably not that long. But, ask anyone and they’ll say they’ve at least heard of this book. It’s on every librarian’s Must Read list, every feminist book club recommends it, and all the English majors read it at least once.

It has three adaptations, a movie, an opera (that I didn’t see), and most recently a Hulu original series created by Bruce Miller, and a graphic novel (that I didn’t read). Now, with season three premiering on Hulu in June, I’m here to do my thing and ruin everyone’s favorite book by analyzing it to death and making bad jokes. Here, I will explore how presentation affects the original source, as well as giving my own opinions. 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986)

Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale (1986)
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1986)

Characterization

  • Offred

“A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?” (7). 

“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off” (39). 

“My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden” (84).  

  • Serena Joy

“‘As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction. But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back'” (15).

“She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.” (46).

  • The Commander

“His manner is mild, his hands large, with thick fingers and acquisitive thumbs, his blue eyes uncommunicative, falsely innocuous.” (86). 

“Is there no end to his disguises, of benevolence?” (87). 

  • Nick

“He’s wearing the uniform of the Guardians, but his cap is tilted at a jaunty angle and his sleeves are rolled to the elbow…” (17).

“He’s too casual, he’s not servile enough.” (18). 

  • Aunt Lydia

“‘There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.'” (24). 

“‘To be seen—to be seen—is to be’—her voice trembled—’penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.’ She called us girls.” (28). 

  • Moira

“Moira, sitting on the edge of my bed, legs crossed, ankle on knee, in her purple overalls, one dangly earring, the gold fingernail she wore to be eccentric, a cigarette between her stubby yellow-ended fingers. ‘Let’s go for a beer'” (37). 

Narrative

The original novel is dark and helpless, and altogether kind of lonely; Offred has become a “cloud, congealed around a central object,” a hard, pear-shaped object as “huge as the sky at night.” Something not quite real, meant to disappear into her role as Handmaid; but her narration is so bright and real that she stays more or less solid in our minds as readers. “Bright” is a bit of an exaggeration, to be honest, and she’s not cheery in any sense of the word. The narration is depressing, but June is a strong presence. At times she’s funny, which makes us hopeful. The fact that we’re reading her narration at all is hopeful, as we eventually find out the novel is found footage from Gilead. That post-novel tidbit makes us think: did things get better? Could things get better? 

What We Know of Gilead

“The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children” (23). 

“There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law” (61). 

Opinion

  • Pros

love this book. I’ve owned my copy since high school, where I have absolutely no recollection of reading it even though I know I was supposed to. I’ve read it a bunch since then and I always learn something new about it after every time. It’s full of highlights now, mostly due to this project. 

  • Cons

I really just wish the book was longer. I need a sequel, something. Supplemental reading. I suppose that’s what the show is for. 

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

This movie has taken everything from me, including the $9.99 I had to give to Amazon just to watch it. And now I own this stupid movie forever, so, you’re welcome.

The Handmaid's Tale movie (1990)
The Handmaid’s Tale movie (1990)

Characterization

  • Offred/”Kate”

The lack of first-person narration makes the story feel strangely absent. The entire book is from our main character’s point of view, in her thoughts (later revealed to be her tape recordings) and we get none of that in this character. She’s devoid of inner conflict because she has no interior. Her connection with Nick feels completely fabricated because there’s no moral dilemma over losing her husband. 

  • Serena Joy

Everything about Serena Joy is wrong. She’s around the age I imagine her in the novel, but she doesn’t have the physical disabilities or deceptively kind and out for herself attitude that the original characterization has. The Serena Joy in the film is just a wealthy older woman with an important husband. She has something in the book; there was the hint of backstory (her singing career and speeches), it was easier to have sympathy for her. Movie Serena Joy has no substance; she’s just a rich white lady in a fancy house. 

  •  The Commander

The absolute worst character. He is wrong, more wrong than Serena Joy. Generally, the Commander is not a sympathetic character. I don’t like him in the book, and I don’t trust anyone who does. He’s not a good guy, but at least in the book he asks Offred for a kiss and doesn’t just force himself on her as he does in the film. The movie makes the Commander into sort of a snake, making him deadly, harsh, and unforgiving. The Commander in the book is a slimy, wormy man; detestable, yet sad and weak underneath the protective shell of his status. 

  • Nick

Not bad character-wise, except he kisses Kate almost immediately when he’s just supposed to tell her the Commander wants to see her. I don’t understand this narrative decision, but whatever. We’ll touch on this a bit later. 

  • Moira

This movie took a great character and turned her into a token lesbian. Because of the movie’s linear narrative and lack of first-person point of view, Moira is introduced as a stranger instead of Kate’s oldest friend. Technically, she still works as a character, it just doesn’t feel the same. 

  • Luke

Done the dirtiest in the whole movie; killed in the beginning, and never mentioned again.

Narrative

This movie’s narrative is absolutely whack, and not in the way you’d think. It’s completely linear, one hundred percent chronological. Which, considering the source material, is an odd choice. As mentioned earlier, the lack of point of view or voiceover turns Kate into a hollow character. She’s nothing more than a shade, which takes all the punch out of a story like The Handmaid’s Tale. 

I find myself questioning the costuming decisions; the Handmaids wear knee-length dresses and flimsy red veils, completely different from their dresses described in the book. The point of long shapeless dresses and wide headdresses covering the face is that Handmaids are Gilead’s symbol of modesty and purity; they are faceless, walking wombs, and their clothing represents that. In the movie, short dresses and seductive-looking veils undermine that notion and take away from Gilead’s subtle totalitarianism.

As for the Wives, they wear exactly the same outfit instead of just shades of blue, which is weird to look at. They have uniforms, putting them on par with the Handmaids, who they’re supposed to be worlds above. This choice essentially brings the Wives down in a way that doesn’t fit with the original tone of the novel.

Considering tone, the entirety of the movie feels cheap and gimmicky. This is a Hollywood movie through and through, down to the action-style explosions and forbidden romance. The Handmaid’s Tale does not deserve to be done like this. 

Kate’s Thoughts from the Book Turned into Real Moments in the Movie

This is an interesting choice for the movie, one that I’m not really a fan of. It goes hand-in-hand with the sensationalism in the film, using Kate’s more extreme thoughts in order to up the ante of her action. This is what you have to do when you don’t have her inner narration to guide the plot. 

Nick coming to get Kate in the sitting room: “My hand goes down, how about that, I could unbutton, and then. But it’s too dangerous, he knows it, we push each other away, not far. Too much trust, too much risk, too much already…I want to reach up, taste his skin, he makes me hungry. His fingers move, feeling my arm under the nightgown sleeve, as if his hand won’t listen to reason. It’s so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy” (98-99). 

Kate killing the Commander: “I think about how I could take the back of the toilet apart…I could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander’s study…I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs…I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.” (139-140). 

Opinion

  • Pros

This movie sticks to the source material pretty close when it matters. It keeps important names, environments, character traits, and distinctions from the original book and, all in all, it’s not the worst book adaptation I’ve ever seen; but it is the worst Handmaid’s Tale adaptation I’ve ever seen.

  • Cons

I touched on this above, but the movie sensationalizes and overexaggerates elements of the narrative for dramatic effect to the point where the plot is almost unrecognizable. Essentially, it’s Dystopian Lite™; the film does its best to keep things as vanilla as possible. The Handmaid’s Tale is dark, uncomfortable material. You’re supposed to question everything you know about how polite society treats women. This movie wants to be that, wants to incite rebellion, but it doesn’t want to go all the way with it. It wants to make you question your environment, but it doesn’t want to offend the studio. 

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)

The Handmaid's Tale tv series (2017-present)
The Handmaid’s Tale tv series (2017-present)

Characterization

  • Offred/”June”

Our narrator’s characterization is much more loyal to the original book in this adaptation; structurally, the show features voiceover narration, mirroring the first-person point of view of the novel. She’s sly, solid, real, and conniving, exactly how she is in the book with more of a contemporary edge. 

  • Moira

Samira Wiley plays Moira exactly right; her character stays so true to the book that she’s taken from token lesbian to main character so easily just by giving her a personality. Her portrayal almost surpasses book Moira; she’s just as important as she is in the novel, but she’s more complex. She’s basically the best and I love her. 

  • Luke

Luke has a much bigger role in the show than he does in both the movie and the novel, and his expanded character works so well. He has substance, we learn about his relationship with June, and he becomes so much more than a throwaway character used solely for June’s motivation. He’s interesting and multifaceted as he is in the book, and even though he doesn’t feature in present-time in the show, we get those parts of him through June’s memories.

  • Ofglen

What happens to Ofglen is probably the saddest, most horrifying arc in the series. It’s accentuated by the fact that we’re shown what happens to her when she’s arrested, instead of just having to guess like in the book. We’re presented with Ofglen’s punishment in full-color HD and it’s terrifying. She comes back and we know what happened to her, we know now the extents this new regime will go to in order to keep women under control. The implication was scary in the book but knowing is always worse. 

  • Serena Joy

Both Serena Joy and the Commander are changed in strange ways, but most notably Serena. Disregarding the physical changes to her character, in the show makes her cold and ruthless, with almost no hint of the conspiratorial kindness she shows in the book or the movie. Because she’s young and beautiful, the change in her personality seems drastic and out of place; she and June are most likely close in age, and Serena having such totalitarian control over June is alarming and disorienting in exactly the way the show intended. 

  • Commander Waterford

This man is absolutely the worst and I hate that his flashbacks make me sympathetic towards him and Serena even the slightest bit. As mentioned before, the Commander in the novel is intimidating yet cowardly; the Commander in the movie is despicable and overbearing; and the Commander in the show takes the realistic aspects of both representations and makes him utterly detestable yet nuanced and emotionally complicated. Like Serena, this Commander is young, which drastically changes the interpretation of his character. There’s something unsettling about him—beyond his absolute belief in a woman’s “biological destiny” which is already unsettling—hidden somewhere in the fact that his character is a young man holding dominion over people in his own demographic. 

  • Nick

I hate to say that I don’t really care about Nick, but I don’t really care about Nick. I’ve never cared about any Nick. He creates narrative tension and an excuse for June to have a moral crisis about Luke, but for the most part, his character has never been portrayed just right enough for me. In this iteration, he’s far too casual, even more casual than seems plausible for the situation. He does flout the rules a little bit, but here he seems to do whatever he wants with no consequences. Unpopular opinion: it’s a little bit unbelievable and as a result, I don’t really like his character. 

  • Aunt Lydia

The Aunts, in general, do so well in the show; Aunt Lydia specifically is exactly how she should be: unapologetic and unwavering in her beliefs to an unnerving degree. In the movie, the Aunts were too much like schoolmarms or nuns, vigilant but essentially benevolent figures. In the show, the Aunts believe so much that what they’re doing is right and just that they become tyrants for the cause. They act as cruel mothers to the Handmaids, but while the Aunts have always had more power than the Handmaids, they are still considered lesser than the Wives and Commanders. They hang onto their blind faith, not truly aware of the effect the new environment is having but thinking they do; while the Commanders know what they’re doing, are aware of the nuances of the new regime, and still are steadfast in their beliefs. 

Narrative

This is the Holy Grail of narrative structure; in my opinion, The Handmaid’s Tale was made for television. There’s too much content in the novel to realistically work for film format; with television, the narrative can expand and explore multiple episodes without feeling rushed or forced.

The choice to take a story written in 1986 and explore it in the present day makes it much more terrifying when you consider our current political climate. This element is more of a one-off, since we can’t exactly predict how these things happen every time, but we needed The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 and damn, did Hulu deliver. With the way the story is portrayed, it’s almost possible to believe something like that could actually happen, and it’s so much more horrifying than it is in the book. 

Serena Joy and Commander Waterford are Young and Hot

I touched on this when discussing their characterization, but it affects the tone of the show as well. I don’t know if Serena and the Commander being young is better or worse. As we find out early in the show through flashbacks, they both are crucial in the orchestrations of Gilead and complete social regression (which makes things worse for Serena while they get better for the Commander, even when the whole thing was basically her idea).

This seems like a move more suited to an older generation, one steeped in tradition, religion, and the idea of upholding gender roles. But, with most of the Wives and Commanders being young, Gilead’s implication is far more sinister; sending an entire city back to the dark ages seems like something old people would do. And yet, the whole thing is the epitome of young, white conservatives getting together in a room and trying to solve a crisis. 

Opinion

  • Pros

The show keeps so close to the source material it almost surpasses it. When things need to be changed, the alterations fit believably. The show expands and explores the world in ways that improve the narrative and plot but also keep true to the original vision. With a show adapted from one book—as opposed to a show like Game of Thrones adapted from six books—you expect a level of world-building in order to fill out more than one season. The show adds details and subplots that make sense with the narrative, blending seamlessly with the source material.

The movie did the same thing, but it didn’t work as well because it didn’t bother to blend with the tone of the book. Because of that, we get Ofglen telling Kate almost immediately to kill her Commander, we get Kate and Nick’s out-of-place ’90s-style romance, and we get the ending in its entirety, which takes a few sentences of Kate’s inner monologue from the book and just runs rampant. There’s too much content in the novel to successfully adapt into a movie without it feeling rushed and incomplete, but there’s just enough to lay the baseline for a good television show. 

  • Cons

Really the only con I have is, it’s so dark it’s hard to watch sometimes. Which, I guess, is what Hulu was going for. 


The Handmaid’s Tale season three premieres June 9, 2019, on Hulu. 


Social Media logo PatreonFollow Word of the Nerd on

     

Get your nerd on!

About the author

Lauren Boisvert

Lauren Boisvert is a writer and pisces from Florida. She has had poems published with Memoir Mixtapes, spy kids review, The Mochila Review, and others. She loves Mystery Science Theater 3000, classic horror, and making everyone in the car listen to the Beastie Boys.

Advertisement

Check out our YouTube Channel

%d bloggers like this: