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TV Adaptations - A Look at “The Handmaid’s Tale”

The recent Hulu adaptation by Bruce Miller, The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” first published in 1985, was an astounding success for the network, cast, and crew. The show is currently on season three on Hulu, and in the case of this article we will focus mainly on season one to avoid as many spoilers as possible. But, when comparing the novel to the first season of the show, there are significant plot differences and scene additions to the show that are not a part of the original novel. These additional scenes and plot changes are what allows the ideas of the novel to be continued past the original text. The show has expanded on the novel by including additional character background information, in addition to new extensions of the plot. This focus on the characters and extension are the tools used to prolong the life of the show over multiple seasons by building a connection between the characters and the audience and developing a larger plot that will increase the show’s run time. TV show reboots of popular novels are becoming a very prominent form of adaptation. By analyzing the tools that these directors use could prove to show a commonality between shows and how we are drawn into these plot changes that almost transition the novel into an elaborate and praised form of fan fiction. This is similar to the liberties taken by the directors and writers of the shows “Orange is the New Black”, “Game of Thrones”, “Man in the High Castle” and “Dexter”. All of those shows create extensions of the novel and incorporate and use similar tools as in the adaptation of “Handmaid’s Tale”. By creating a story line outside of the novel it allows the show to continue to be profitable past the possible original intentions that the author may have had for ending their novel or series how they did.

Generally, the first season is what focuses on the plot novel as a direct adaptation. After that, the directors and writers begin to take their own liberties with the plot and characters. This article focuses on the changes made by the TV show, The Handmaid's Tale, when adapting the novel and how the writers and directors have prepared for continuing the show into more seasons after the book’s material has ended. Let's first look at how the show incorporates scenes and character backstories to expand upon the book, and how some of these scenes are left open ended so that the viewer is left suspenseful for the next season to premiere. Be forewarned that the following material referenced is indeed a spoiler for any audience that has not been involved with the first season of show or the novel.

Divergences From Original Plot and Characters

In the show there is a focus on the how the handmaid program will be extended into other countries, specifically Mexico, and how there will be a handmaiden trading system among countries that also need help with growing their population. Atwood’s story does not include any information regarding the rest of the world, and in this case the show specifically talks about how the same issues, infertility in the USA, have also affected other countries as well. The show and the novel both are set in a dystopian future where some event has occurred rendering the majority of the planet as infertile, both men and women. Neither of the primary sources, show or novel, give the exact reasoning for the issues. However, they do hint that Gilead believes it is the fault of the previous generation’s spread of sexually transmitted diseases and use of birth controls, such as hormone control and abortion. We are also hinted at the idea that there was some sort of nuclear accident or bombing that affected many countries. The novel gives us less information than the show does on this front, for that reason the writers and directors are able to create their own version of the narrative to expand the adaptation. On Season 1 Episode 6 of the show, “A Woman’s Place”, we meet a group of delegates from Mexico who are, not known until later, here to see the profitability of the handmaid’s program and see about creating a Handmaid trading system between the two countries. The show includes scenes which demonstrate to these delegates the children that have been born out of this process and how they are actually making strides in regaining their population – emphasizing that their crazy principles are indeed working. By making this idea permeate outside the scope of just Gilead and showing how the whole world has been afflicted with the same issues, the show is able to leave a cliffhanger at the end of the season as to how and if the Handmaid’s program will be extended into these other countries.

Throughout the show, we hear many references to this outside work zone, “the colonies”, where handmaids are banished to. The colonies are a sort of wasteland where women are forced to clean up toxic waste, and where they usually and intentionally go to die. This topic is only slightly mentioned in the novel, but much more emphasis is placed on the possibility of life there as a punishment. By including more references and information regarding this locale, we as the audience can usually predict that the show will eventually take us to that unknown area. At the end of the season we see Offred, originally June, being taken away in the back of an armored van, with no explanation of where she is going. We as the audience are left in suspense. Is she going to the colonies? Will she be hung on the wall? Will she be mutilated? Or stoned? These are our questions as we the audience anticipate the next season of the show to premier.

Another type of memory that we are privy to as a part of the show and not the novel is a more in depth explanation or experience of the schooling that these handmaids went through in order to prepare for their new role in this totalitarian society. We experience the conditions that these women were kept in and how intense some of the brainwashing was in order to get these women to comply and bend to the new will of Gilead's society. From the novel, we know that June and Moira attempt to escape from the Red Center and that June is recovered and lashed for her efforts, but that Moira is able to elude capture for a while. Although Atwood never explains how the two are separated or their efforts in attempting to escape, the show includes these scenes to show us the growth of June as a character, from a follower of Moira to her own rabble rouser by the end of the season.

Another addition to the show’s adaptation is the inclusion of the stone throwing scene, or the salvaging. Earlier in the novel and show, the handmaids are all given the opportunity to beat a man to death who was convicted of raping a woman. All the handmaids participate willingly in this ceremony. But, before June is taken away in the armored truck at the end of the season, she is supposed to participate in a stoning of a fellow handmaid who is a friend of hers. As the group picks up their rocks to begin, they all hesitate, and June specifically refuses to throw her rock and drops it to the ground. Inspiring the others to do the same, the scene ends with the handmaids all walking down the street returning to their respective homes. This inspirational demonstration, by rejecting the instructions of Aunt Lydia, is a monumental moment created by the writers of the show that forces the show to move in the direction of the cliffhanger that we are left on in the end.

The handmaid that is supposed to the stoned in the earlier scene mentioned, Janine or Ofwarren, is a large part of the additions to the show that are not included in Atwood’s original novel. We are first introduced to Janine in the same way as the novel, as another woman who enters the Red Center at the same time as June. The show introduces Janine’s character at the school as a rebel. After her behavior is no longer tolerated she is punished with the removal of her right eye, effectively brainwashing the woman into obeying the rule of Gilead. It is this initial plunge into Janine psyche where we see how crazy this society has forced her to be by complying with their regulations. After the Red Centering, Janine like any other handmaid was assigned a home where she was to ceremoniously have relations with the man of that house in order to become pregnant. It is a common thought now that sex can lead to love, or be misconstrued as love if the wrong mind is given a wrong idea. In this case, Janine is convinced that her commander is in love with her and that he plans to leave his wife and marry her so they can raise their child together. Of course, that is not actually the case, and when she comes to realize that, throws a huge scene announcing that as her intention she is assigned to another house. She is separated her from her own child, who in this society “belongs” to the commander and his wife as their own child. The separation of mother and child is a very powerful thing that we include in stories now. Janine being separate from her love, old commander, and her child does not bode well for her in her new household as she refuses to have relations with her new man of the house. After her refusal we are then later transported to another scene, when Janine kidnaps her own child away from its parents and stands on the edge of a bridge, intending to commit suicide. Janine is talked “off the ledge”, as so we thought, by June who is called to the scene. Janine passes her the child and then proceeds to jump off the bridge to her presumed death. We later see at a cut scene at the end of that episode that she survived the fall and is in a hospital bed, leaving us with another cliff hanger within the season. This is of course before the stoning scene occurs. Her character is developed to give the show a reason to include the stoning scene, in order to give June a reason to refuse Aunt Lydia’s direct orders giving the show the opportunity to perpetuate the plot. Giving us a more in depth approach to this character helps us build an emotional attachment to that character. This is a tool that we see used for many other characters from the novel that are not really given stories beyond being mentioned in the novel.

This tool is a way that the directors and writers have expanded on the novel is by including additional character background information and this focus is another tool used to extend the life of the show over multiple seasons. We become more attached to those characters as the show progresses and we want to know not only what’s going on with them as the plot furthers, but also how they lived before Gilead overthrew the government. Luke for example, June’s husband, is only mentioned in the novel a few times but in the show we are shown how the relationship between him and June came to be and how he escaped into free Canada. In the novel we are never told how June and Luke meet, but in the show we are given an in depth backstory of how they met at a food truck and fell in love when Luke was still married to his first wife, perpetuating their affair and eventually Luke leaving his wife for June. Then when Gilead is in full swing in the United States, Luke and June try to escape the country with their daughter Hannah. The novel does not give many specifics related to their travels and attempt but the show gives a very direct and dramatic story line of how they are all separated. Luke specifically has dedicated scenes where we see his path to freedom into Canada and how he survived being shot. Luke is also shown to be joining the Mayday forces in attempt to reach out to his wife through the Mexican delegate, a Mayday operative, and telling her that he is trying to save her and that she should not give up yet. Sadly, Just after receiving his note she is taken away to the armored truck, leaving the audience in suspense again whether she will ever be reunited with her husband and child. We initially feel bad for Offred’s situation, but because we have developed a connection with Luke, we are also able to hurt for his separation from his family. Atwood’s novel only questions whether Luke and Hannah are still alive, or where they might be, giving June the hope that they will someday be reunited but scared that she may find him one day strung on the wall, or that her daughter will not recognize her. In contrast, the show gives us the definite answer that he is alive and how he was able to survive and escape. We are also given definitive proof that Hannah is alive and nearby, through the scene where Serena Joy threatens Hannah’s safety by leaving June in the car as she interacts with the child. In this scene Serena weaponizes the child as a tool to make June behave and galvanizes further feelings toward the characters.

Moira is another example of a character that we are given more information for from the show than the novel itself. After her initial escape from the Red Center, we learn that she was given the choice to be sent to the colonies or be sent to Jezebels, a sex club outside the city for high ranking gentlemen. This is where June learns that she is alive, which is all a part of the novel itself, but in the adaptation, June returns to Jezebels attempting to find Moira again and convince her to help deliver a package and work for Mayday. In the show at their first encounter Moira seems to have refused hope of ever escaping. But, upon seeing June for a second time, she very dramatically calls June crazy for participating in Mayday and cuts June out of her life, only to change her mind, complete the favor for June, and be inspired to escape herself to Canada where Luke eventually finds her and takes her in.  By reconnecting these characters, the show is able to demonstrate that sometimes things do work out and we as an audience can have hope for events in the show down the road. Again, possibly foreshadowing where the plot could go in reuniting the group back together as a family, but also leaving us with no real details as to how they will or will not work together to save others who are still trapped in this tyrannical society.

Another character that the show dramatizes is Emily. Her character is expanded but used for a different purpose. She is used to demonstrate the cruelty that Gilead inflicts on its people. After being introduced to June as her shopping partner, Emily begins to trust and later confides in June. Emily introduces June to Mayday and also confesses that she was gay before Gilead overthrew the government. Somehow word gets out that Emily was a lesbian, which is not allowed in their regime, and because June did not tell anyone that she knew Emily was a gender traitor, she is punished. This is a known part of the novel. But, Emily of course gets the brunt of that punishment as created by the show. Gilead takes Emily away from her post and torture her by performing genital mutilation and removing her cliterous. Gilead is also able to recover information that Emily’s previous wife is also alive and works as a Martha or house servant. They capture her, but instead of performing a similar circumcision, she is hung in front of Emily to prove their point regarding the gay community. Aunt Lydia clearly makes it a point to let Emily know that the only reason that she is alive is because she is able to reproduce and is therefore valuable to their society, which is why her wife (the Martha) was sentenced to death, because she was not fertile. By including these scenes the director, Bruce Miller, says they wanted to show that it's something that occurs today and that they “did a lot of research. And it seemed like, not always, but even the cultural reasons behind it where it was practiced were about tempering desire” (Miller). The cruelty of Gilead mimicking real life and current situation gives the audience a realistic jolt that similar things are happening in the world today and that the novel is not just a fictional dystopian novel, but that we see some of the same ideology in some of today’s countries. This is not usually as extreme or as organized as Gilead, but the ideas regarding female genital mutilation and the concept of handmaids to provide children exist today.

Then after all of this has occurred Emily is returned to society under a different post. She seems to be more strict about her interactions and talking to June, but when they are at the market together she demonstrates her desire for freedom by attempting to steal a car. She is shot and by those guards and eventually runs over and kills one of those guards. When the car is stuck she has no choice but to get out of the car where she is immediately captured, while all of the other people disperse. By including this scene we can really understand how desperate these characters are for their freedom, and how taking away whatever slim hope that they may have, in this case Emily’s womanhood and her wife, they can turn to drastic measures to try to escape. This could be comparable to June’s position and desire for freedom, but with the fact that she does still have that hope of being reunited with her family. Emily, at the end, has a total disregard for her own and others’ safety when she steals that car. But, June is still careful and seems to be calculating about her decisions because she still knows that she has everything to lose.

Origin of Gilead

Another important addition that she show adds to its adaptation of the novel is showing the origination of Gilead and building the ideas of that government. Not only do we see Commander Waterford meet with other men regarding the ideals but we also learn that Serena, his wife from before and after the transition of power, had a large hand in developing the government. She works hand in hand with her husband, but as time progresses and the ideas become more of a reality she is slowly pushed out from partner to subservient, receiving no credit for her role in the development, bitter for allowing herself to be pushed over. Her character's role in the adaptation is much larger than in the novel. From Atwood’s novel all we know about Serena is that she was once a TV personality and singer, but that was not a continued thought in the show. Serena in the adaptation is much more educated. She is able to keep up politically and demonstrates her education. We learn that she had even written a book before Gilead took power. Her character development is used to show how Gilead not only oppressed those women who were fertile and lower class like the Marthas, but also held back the women who were higher ranked like Serena who even had a hand in the regime's development. We see that her character also has no hope of a better life, and even though she is privileged in this society, she has become cruel and bitter. For example we see multiple scenarios where she punishes June, and also when she manipulates June by using her daughter Hannah as a chess piece to force June to do what she wants. We also see that Serena is desperate to prove herself in society. She must try to be a housewife, because she is of no use politically, and therefore convinces June to sleep with Nick their gardener and pretend like she is pregnant by the Commander.

The addition of these scenes and the development of these characters are what give the show the body that it needs to carry the show into another season. Specifically, the characters and their stories attach us to the people in the story and allow the writers to include new material based on their choices and actions. This is an option because of the novel's original vagueness regarding those characters. This same type of analysis could be applied to other TV show adaptations of novels and perhaps a sort of formula could be determined by that research as to how to keep a show running as long as they do in some of these other cases.

Margaret, The National Watch

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the

Age of Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2017,

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. ser. 0395404258, Houghton Mifflin

Harcourt, 1986. Bignell, Jonathan. “Lost Messages: The Handmaid's Tale, Novel and Film.” CentAUR, Liverpool University Press, 1993,

Bruce Miller, director. The Handmaid's Tale, Season 1, Hulu, 2017.

Johnston, Sheila. “The ultimate sexploitation movie; Sheila Johnston talked to Margaret Atwood about double standards at play in the screen adaptation of her novel The Handmaid's Take.” LexisNexis Academic , The Independent (London), 26 Oct. 1990,

Search Keywords: Sexploitation and Johnston

Miller, Liz Shannon. “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Alexis Bledel and Margaret Atwood

React to the Year’s Most Brutal Scene.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 26 Apr. 2017,

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