Page to Screen: The Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaid's Tale Cover
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In 1985, before Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy and other dystopian novels flooded people’s shelves, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood was a novelty that stood out for its powerful message: No matter how bleak her world looks, it is closer to reality than one would hope. However powerful it was in 1985, it is infinitely more so in President Trump’s America. While women have been fighting for years for their reproductive rights, 2017 in particular has threatened to halt further progress. Atwood’s dystopian world, a backslide from the modern world into a society that strips women of power, treats them exclusively as a means for reproduction, and attempts to eradicate nonheterosexuality, touches on so many hot button topics. The TV series is a stark reminder that Atwood’s imagined dystopia is not so unimaginable in our current reality, and now, it’s coming back for a second season.

Both the novel and the TV series present a world in which fertile women act as handmaids, whose job it is to procreate. They live in the houses of prominent couples and take part in a Ceremony, where the wife is present as the husband and the handmaid—who is forced into this nonconsensual act—attempt to conceive a child. Everything is rooted in Christianity, and those in power justify every terrible act—beating dissenters, hanging doctors who perform abortions—by cherry-picking passages from the Scripture. Showing desire is illegal, and even husbands and wives are forbidden from recreational sex. Handmaids must walk in pairs in public, partly to protect each other from the advances of men and partly to make sure everyone obeys the rules. The restrictions of women and sexual desire stifle society.

Although the overarching themes remain the same, the television series accomplishes something the novel cannot. With so many more hours for storytelling, the show rounds out minor characters’ backstories, filing in the blanks and making the story more real. Janine, who is reduced to being called Ofwarren to show that she is her commander’s literal property, is a minor character in the novel. She portrays the way some women break under the stress of transitioning into the new society, but she plays a larger role in the television series. Janine in the show exhibits a hardship not explicitly shown in the novel: The heartbreaking separation of a mother and her child. After forcing Handmaids to bear the children of men they not only don’t love, but who have also raped them, the Commanders and their wives rip the children away from their mothers against the Handmaids’ will.

The Commander and his wife also gain a richer backstory in the television series. The series shows the Commander and his wife before the creation of the new society. They take part in activities we recognize in our own daily lives, from going to the movies to consoling one another after a hard day at work. These moments remind viewers that even people who appear normal, who seem to live average lives, can be hiding radical and dangerous beliefs. Since 2016, those with unpopular and harmful ideals feel safe enough to step out of the shadows under the Trump administration. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a warning of just how many people are hiding their bigotry. Additionally, the series emits a warning that even those with ideas that seem too extreme to be rational can become powerful, especially because there are always more people ready to support them than expected.

The book fails to place Gilead—the name of the United States under the new order—in the context of the world. But the TV show includes a powerful episode in which a foreign ambassador arrives to inquire about the society, and possibly trade handmaids. As Offred, a handmaid and the main character, begs the ambassador not to trade the Handmaids who have been reduced to cattle, the ambassador cites that no child has been born in their country for six years and says, “My country is dying.” Offred looks her right in the eyes and replies, “My country is already dead.” By putting Gilead in a global context, the television series explains how the rest of the world could enable such an atrocious society to persist.


“The Handmaid’s Tale” is about to premiere its second season, allowing the creators to do something Atwood could not in a single novel: The show could easily evolve to portray a message about the state of the US. While the first few episodes feel like a basic retelling of the novel, the series has begun to carve its own way, with the help of Atwood’s input. Although Atwood’s book was powerful upon its release, the narrative has become even more poignant with its modern adaptation. Sadly, the present culture of the United States has made Atwood’s warnings more necessary and relevant than ever.

—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.