Book Review/Binge Watch Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Reading / Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Hi Friends,

So, I lied a little in Monday’s post. But I didn’t mean to! I drafted that post on Saturday afternoon, just after my amazing 16 mile long run. Then I woke up on Sunday morning with a flu-like virus that kept me in bed for two solid days, and had kept me close to the couch for the rest of this week. So my Sunday morning yoga didn’t happen, but a lot of good reading and TV watching did happen:)

I started watching Hulu’s adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale last week, and I was instantly addicted. I’d never read the book by Margaret Atwood, but I’d always meant to. So after binge-watching a few episodes I downloaded the kindle edition of the novel and started whipping through chapter after chapter. I was also whipping through episode after episode. I finished the show first, since I had a bit of a head start, and the book soon after.

I found both the show and the book to be compelling, fascinating, and completely terrifying. The show stayed pretty faithful to the novel plot-wise, but added to the original narrative in really creative and cohesive ways. So while the two formats were similar, there were some noticeable differences.

The Book: The novel version of A Handmaid’s Tale was written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Offred, a woman living in a futuristic theocracy called Gilead, where rampant infertility caused by pollution and STD’s threatens the very existence of the human race. The very old-testament solution to this issue is to force all fertile women to become Handmaids, stripping them of their identities, families, and subjecting them to ritualistic rape and forced surrogacy.

It’s dark stuff, guys.

Offred, as she is now called, has been a Handmaid for three years at the start of the novel, and is desperately trying to hang on to her sanity and sense of self. We learn about her life before Gilead through a series of flashbacks. What’s remarkable is how relatable Offred’s previous life felt to me and I read about it. I wasn’t even born yet when this book was published, but the experiences that Offred had as a little girl and as a college student and as a young professional in Boston didn’t feel dated at all to me. Which made it even more jarring as she went on to describe the downfall of the United States and the rise of Gilead.

Offred had been a wife and mother before the takeover, but her family was captured while trying to flee the country and her daughter and husband were taken from her. We meet her when she is assigned to be the handmaid for a Commander and his wife, Serena Joy.  She finds herself caught in an odd position when the Commander begins requesting a (forbidden) private audience with her in the evenings; they play boardgames and he provides her with illegal cosmetics and magazines. Meanwhile Serena Joy’s ongoing jealousy provide a constant source of stress for Offred, above and beyond the whole reproductive slavery thing. Offred and the Commander’s driver, Nick, also have some chemistry, kissing in the first chapter and eventually enjoying nightly trysts in his apartment above the garage towards the end of the book. Offred also begins to learn a bit about the resistance organization working to bring down Gilead, called Mayday, although she never gets directly involved in the movement.

Offred never reveals her real name in the book, which the first of many, many frustratingly open questions embedded within this story. Like, what ended up happening to Offred’s strong-willed friend Moira? Or her husband, Luke? What was Nick’s deal, anyway? He said almost nothing and yet Offred was ALL ABOUT HIM. Why was Serena so nasty? What did Ofglen know?

This feeling of loose ends, of wanting more, of being confused, I realized, is all part of the magic that is Margaret Atwood‘s writing. By making the reader feel like things are left out, the reader experiences a bit of Offred’s pain, in a way. Offred has no idea what happened to any of the people she’s loved, so why should we, the reader, get a perfectly tied-up package of a story? It’s frustrating, yes, but it’s also so, so clever. Atwood uses beautiful, rich vocabulary and short, choppy sentences to create a stream-of consciousness-like narrative. Reading it felt kind of like the way your thoughts start knocking around in your head after you’ve been out driving for too long on boring roads by yourself. 

The Show: So, side note: I spent the first episode wondering “Why does Offred look so familiar?” Like, I knew Elizabeth Moss, who plays Offred, was on Mad Men, but there was something else… She kind of felt like an old friend to me. So I wikipedia’d her and realized HOLY MOLY SHE WAS IN ONE OF MY FAVE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY MOVIES: Escape To Witch Mountain! Like seriously guys, 6-year-old me watched that stupid movie on repeat for a whole summer. I had an elementary school crush on Eric Von Detten so… Basically all I am saying is Elizabeth Moss has been awesome for a long time and I will keep watching whatever she is in, whether it’s a DCOM or a super dark streaming series about reproductive slavery.

SO, cinematically this show is off the chains. The costumes, settings, music, and filmography are all as close to perfect as I think they can be. And, in case you’ve been living under a rock all awards season, the cast is damn near perfect as well. Elizabeth Moss plays a fantastically unraveling but also brave Offred, and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls alum/my tween idol) is so understated as Ofglen. And don’t even get me started on Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia; bone chilling, let me tell you.

The show follows the events of the book pretty accurately, but begins building on to the story early on with additional details about the characters and little tweaks to bring it into the modern age. I also like how the show made Offred a little more daring than in the book; in fact, the show even provided her true name: June. In the show Offred/June takes a few more chances, getting (slightly) more involved with Mayday and taking a stand for herself and her fellow handmaids on several occasions. She even takes a little bit more charge of her relationship with Nick. (TV Nick still only has maybe 50 lines over all 10 episodes, but they at least seem to lead somewhere and give some weight his connection with June)

The show doesn’t exactly tie up loose ends; instead, it expands them in the most satisfying ways possible. We find out what happened to June’s husband and daughter, and we’re given the opportunity to explore other parts of the near-future world through other character’s eyes. We learn more about how some weird-o mega-Christian cult took over the United States. And we see a little bit more of how this terrible, desperate situation could unravel if the right thread was given a good tug.

Both the show and the book do an amazing job of communicating how fickle our reality really is. And like I said, both the book and the show are deeply, deeply compelling. But in the end- and you’ll almost never hear me say this- I think the show is actually better than the book. Maybe it’s just because with the show already filming it’s second season, I know some closure could be coming my way, while the book’s cliffhanger ending will always, always be a cliffhanger ending. Or maybe it’s just because watching TV is an integral part of my marathon training process. I don’t know. But that’s how I’m feeling about it.


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