The Handmaid’s Tale: The Biggest Changes From the Book

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Amanda Brugel as Rita, Elisabeth Moss as Offred. Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has finally brought Margaret Atwood’s tale of near-future totalitarianism to the small screen, and while the first three episodes of the Hulu series remain largely faithful to the original novel, there are some key differences. If you’re curious how the show departs from the book, read on. Spoilers follow, of course.

The Setting

The book: Published in 1985, Atwood’s novel imagined a near-future America, specifically set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are numerous references to the ’70s and Offred describes seeing graffiti that references the ’80s, but the main narrative offers no other firm dates. The novel’s epilogue takes place in the year 2195, when “the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” discusses and debates the veracity of Offred’s story.

The show: Also set in what appears to be Cambridge, but in the present day or a time very close to it. (In one scene, Offred makes a reference to Uber.)

Offred’s Real Name

The book: Atwood never reveals Offred’s actual name, though there has long been a theory that it might be June, one of the names she lists when she is talking about how during their indoctrination at the Red Center, she and the other Handmaids-to-be “exchanged names from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” All of the other names show up as characters in the book, leading to the speculation that June is Offred’s true identity.

The show: At the end of the first episode, Offred reveals her secret, forbidden name via inner monologue, and it is indeed June.

Racial Diversity

The book: Gilead is overtly racist as well as sexist. We’re told that black people — who are called “the children of Ham,” after one of Noah’s sons who is often construed as black — were removed from society and resettled in “the National Homelands,” an undisclosed place somewhere in the Midwest. We don’t really know what that means, but as all of history has proven, minorities getting rounded up and carted away certainly doesn’t lead to anything good. Rita, one of the domestic workers known as a Martha, is described as having “brown arms,” but it’s not clear what race she is. It’s equally unclear whether Gilead allows nonwhite people to work as servants. Jewish people are given more status, since they are considered “Sons of Jacob” per their role in the Bible, and have the option to convert or emigrate to Israel.

The show: Several significant characters are nonwhite. June’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are black, and several of the other Handmaids are also women of color. Offred’s daughter is biracial, rather than having the pale hair described in the book. Although all the wives and high-ranking men we’ve met so far are white, the white supremacy that exists in Gilead still permits black and brown women to bear the children of powerful white men, implying that they would adopt and accept children who are biracial.

The Commander

The book: We know that the Commander — the high-ranking man to whom Offred is assigned to bear children — is named Fred because of the Handmaid name she is given, but we never find out his last name. (The epilogue speculates that he might be a man named Frederick Waterford.) After he and Offred play Scrabble, he asks her to kiss him and is sad when she does not do it “as if you meant it.”

The show: The Commander is indeed named Waterford. However, his appearance is different. In the novel, we’re told that he is an older man with silver hair and a mustache who looks “like a midwestern bank president.” Joseph Fiennes is many things, but he is not a man who looks like a paunchy, middle-aged financier from Wyoming. Their first Scrabble liaison is entirely chaste.

Serena Joy

The book: The Commander’s wife described as blond, with a face that is too big and a nose that is too small, and she sometimes wears a veil. She, too, is older like the Commander, and Offred comments that she has arthritis.

The show: Actress Yvonne Strahovski is blond, but definitely a young and very attractive woman rather than an older one. (This is a consistent theme in the casting.) Her version of Serena Joy does not wear a veil, but rather dresses in relatively conventional ways in comparison to the Handmaids.

Ofglen

The book: She’s described as a little plump with brown hair, and she does not say that she is gay or had a wife. Offred doesn’t tell Ofglen when the Commander wants to see her in private; instead, Ofglen somehow knows through her connections in the rebellion and asks her to find out more. Although she does disappear suddenly one day, Offred is never interrogated about it, and the new Ofglen reveals that her predecessor killed herself “when she saw the van coming for her.” There’s no way to know, of course, if this is true.

The show: She’s played by Alexis Bledel, so she’s not plump at all. She reveals to Offred that she had a wife and daughter in the time before Gilead. Offred tells her about the Commander wanting to see her in secret, and also asks her to find out more about him. In the second episode, we learn that Ofglen was arrested not for her participation in the rebellion, but for her relationship with a Martha. She is charged with “gender treachery” and ultimately pardoned because of her fertility. Instead, she is forced to undergo female circumcision to remove her “unnatural” desires.

Janine/Ofwarren

The book: She is not particularly rebellious at the Red Center and does not lose her eye; rather, she is a bit of a suck-up and the Aunts even ask her to inform on the other girls. In the book, it is Moira who causes trouble, faking appendicitis and then attempting to seduce the soldiers en route to the hospital to escape, for which she ends up having her feet beaten with frayed steel rods.

The show: When Janine rebels against the Aunts at the Red Center, they remove her right eye as punishment, per the biblical passage about how “if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.”

Nick

The book: Nick is not just the Commander’s driver but one of the Guardians, or soldiers of the Gilead regime. He is white, though tanned, with a “French face, lean and whimsical.” He takes a risk by winking at Offred, who suspects he might be an Eye spying for the government. When Nick later approaches her with an invitation from the Commander, he kisses her — and later, Serena Joy arranges secret trysts between him and Offred to improve her chances of pregnancy.

The show: Nick is mostly referred to as the Commander’s driver, though Offred calls him by his first name when the Eyes arrive to interrogate her. He appears to be nonwhite (the actor who plays him, Max Minghella, is of Chinese descent) and he tells Offred to “be careful” when she flirts with him. Though Nick appears to care for Offred — in the third episode, it is implied that he alerts Serena Joy to the Eyes’ interrogation — they have no relationship to speak of.

The Technology

The book: Atwood wrote her novel in the early- to mid-’80s, back when credit cards and computerization was relatively new, and so the terminology imagined for digital technology is a bit retro-futuristic: banks are “Compubanks,” bank and credit-card accounts are “Compucounts.” Basically, everything digital is “compu-,” much like the “e-” prefix that got attached to everything electronic in the ’90s.

The show: Because it is set in the present day (or near-present day), everything digital is referred to simply as what it is. Banks are banks and credit cards are credit cards.

The Protests

The book: Offred didn’t attend any of the protests or marches that took place after women’s rights were taken away by the Gilead regime. As she puts it, “Luke said it would be futile and I had to think about my family, him and her.”

The show: After women lose their right to have money and hold jobs, both June and Moira attend a protest that becomes violent, with soldiers firing into the crowds and many people killed in the streets.

The Child Abduction

The book: Offred describes her 11-month-old daughter being briefly abducted from her, stolen from a shopping cart at the market. When she screams, the woman is stopped and detained until the police come.

The show: June’s daughter Hannah is abducted shortly after birth, taken after a woman assaults and possibly kills a nurse at the hospital. The kidnapper is stopped by the police before she can take the baby from the building.

The Salvaging

The book: The “women’s salvaging,” as it is called, takes place in Harvard Yard and initially features the hanging of Handmaids and a wife who have committed unspecified crimes. When a man condemned for supposedly raping a Handmaid is brought out, it is Ofglen who attacks him quickly and brutally. Ofglen later tells Offred that he was with the rebellion and she wanted to put him out of his misery.

The show: When the salvaging begins, it is Offred who lands the first blow. She attacks the man brutally, perhaps as a catharsis for all the trauma she has experienced.

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