Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, the totalitarian and theocratic rule that has replaced the government of the United States. Women can no longer have jobs, own money, read or write, or do much of anything anymore, other than what they’ve been assigned. Handmaids are assigned to high-status married couples without children, their sole purpose to bear a child for them, as normal birthrates in the world have significantly plummeted. Offred is assigned to Commander and Mrs. Waterford. Her husband is dead and her daughter taken from her. She feels hopeless and lost—until she discovers there may be some people fighting back. And she wants in on it.
I’m a bit behind on the times. Not only did I just watch season 1 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but I also just read the novel for the first time this year. Per usual, I won’t watch the adaptation until I’ve read the source text, which is why I’m late to the party. I’ve just watched season 1, and I’m only going to be talking about season 1. Though there are 2 more seasons of the show (with a fourth season in the works), season 1 is most important to me as it spans the course of the novel. Everything after season 1 is created by the showrunners and not part of Atwood’s novel. As you all know, I love talking about the adaptation’s similarities and differences to the novel, so, strap in. Last time I’ll warn you: spoilers ahead for the novel and all of season 1 of the Hulu show.
First, let’s talk casting and characters. Our main character, Offred (AKA June in the show, though it’s never confirmed in the novel if that’s her real name or not) is played by Elisabeth Moss.
I personally do not care for Moss. It’s not that I thinks she’s a bad actress or anything, I just kind of can’t stand looking at her. I know that’s horrible of me, but that’s just how I feel. So right away, I disliked show-Offred. The more I watched the adaptation, the more I disliked Offred almost completely. I don’t want to say Moss played Offred poorly, though, because I don’t think she did—I think she played show-Offred really well. I think I just disliked the way they decided to portray Offred in the show. Show-Offred is very, very different from novel-Offred. I’ll get into that more later. As far as playing the adaptation’s version of Offred goes, Moss did a really good job.
Joseph Fiennes plays Commander Fred Waterford.
Listen, fam. Fiennes is too hot to be the Commander. Part of what makes everything so horribly uncomfortable when reading the novel is knowing that Commander Waterford is an older man who is not necessarily attractive. In the novel, Offred describes him as “a semiretired man, genial but wary”, “a midwestern bank president” with “straight neatly brushed silver hair, his sober posture, shoulders a little stooped” and “his mustache, silver also, and after that his chin, which you can’t really miss.” She also says he has large hands and thick fingers. I feel like this is a vague enough description to get a pretty good casting no matter who they picked, but Joseph Fiennes? Yeah, no. This guy is way too young and handsome. Clearly they wanted to pick a younger Mr. and Mrs. Waterford for the adaptation, which is fine, I just feel like it made it a little less creepy. Don’t get me wrong, Fiennes still played the role impeccably, just…as a younger, slightly different Commander. I liked that he still made me feel uncomfortable for Offred despite him being a young hottie.
His wife, Mrs. Waterford (Serena Joy), is played by Yvonne Strahovski.
I found Strahovski’s performance absolutely incredible. Probably one of the best in the show, which is full of amazing actors. Of course, they made Mrs. Waterford younger than she is in the novel, but about 10x crueler. She’s definitely a scary lady in the novel, but the show version of Mrs. Waterford is downright terrifying. I love how they will show her as monstrous one minute, then compassionate the next. It’s hard to have sympathy for her, but somehow they accomplish it with those few humanizing moments. I adore the scene where the Mexican ambassador is asking Mrs. Waterford about her book, and how ironic it is that women are now not allowed to even read the book. Definitely one of the most interesting characters.
The Waterfords’ driver, and secret Eye, Nick, is played by Max Minghella.
He, too, is a hottie. And rightfully so. Though I’m sure even if he was less hot, he’d still catch Offred’s eye. His character also fascinates me, and I’m glad the show delves further into his life and role in the narrative. The chemistry between Nick and Offred was palpable and I loved it.
Lastly, I want to mention Moira, Offred’s best friend from her life before, played by Samira Wiley.
In the novel, Moira is my favorite character. She makes some really bad decisions, but I think she’s a badass. Easily one of the smartest, bravest characters, one who really fights to retain her morality and independence. I think she does so in a less annoying way than Offred, for some reason. Maybe I really just don’t like Elisabeth Moss… Anyway. Wiley was a perfect choice for this role and plays it beautifully.
There are so many other amazing actors in this show, but those are the main ones I wanted to highlight, so forgive me—I don’t want this review to be 50 pages long.
Onto the story. Like I said earlier, season 1 spans the entirety of the novel. Atwood’s novel is constantly flashing backward and forward throughout Offred’s life. Sometimes we’re in the present in the Waterford home, sometimes we’re back in the Red Center where Offred is training to become a Handmaid, other times we’re in the “before” with Offred’s husband and daughter. The novel even goes back so far as Offred’s childhood. The show doesn’t go back that far—it mostly focuses on June’s life right before and during the attacks, and the transition to Gilead, and then of course her time in the Red Center and the present. I really enjoyed the “before” scenes because we don’t get a lot of the “here’s how it happened” in the novel, and I always enjoy that part of dystopias. I also liked the 360-degree view the show gives us, delving into the lives of other characters like Moira, Luke, Nick, the Waterfords, etc. I love the narrow view of the novel because everything is very mysterious and it makes us feel uneasy only knowing what Offred can tell us, but I also love the flexibility of television and being able to show us the entire world. Building upon and expanding it. Atwood’s tale is certainly a world that calls for expanding and investigating, so believe me when I say I’m not mad that there’s more than just one season. I’m excited to see where they take us.
For the most part, the adaptation follows the novel. They have more space and time to, like I said, expand the world and follow other characters, but everything that happens to Offred is fairly the same as in the novel. I really liked that. Despite branching off to follow other characters, and despite changing some of those characters significantly, Offred’s story remains almost the same, and that’s what I was really looking for with this adaptation. I mentioned earlier that show-Offred is very different from novel-Offred. The novel is written so that we don’t get much from Offred. Her view is narrow and limited, and she seems at times an unreliable narrator. She’s clearly telling us a story, and so her focus is scattered, her narration jumbled. She comes across as very orderly, disciplined, and put-together. Stoic, even, for the most part. The main emotion I get from novel-Offred is longing. She’s longing for her family, a time before. Though she does “act out” by sneaking out to sleep with Nick, and she does sneak down to see the Commander and go out with him to Jezebel’s (though can she really say no?), overall I found Offred to be very sensible. She only got caught by Mrs. Waterford because Mr. Waterford did a poor job of hiding the fancy dress.
Show-Offred seems to me extremely different. I don’t really get longing from her—I get anger. I get a boatload of emotions, really, because we can actually see her. She’s not telling us this tale behind a guarded narrative—we’re seeing everything play out on screen, on her face, in her life. She’s hopeless, she’s resilient, she’s terrified, she’s desperate, she’s angry. All the emotions one would expect someone in this horrible situation to feel. Though I like that we can see a more flawed Offred, I simultaneously hate it. Novel-Offred is so composed and likable. Show-Offred is unpredictable and makes really dumb decisions. I know that’s more realistic, but it makes me dislike her so much more. I just wanted her to play it relatively safe until she got out of there, like novel-Offred. I know they’re ultimately doomed in general, so it’s tough, but show-Offred just stressed me out. Again, I think it was a good move to portray Offred this way, I just hate how much it frustrated me.
Another great thing about the show is that you get to see all the horror and monstrosities. The novel is harrowing and scary, for sure. But the show is downright anxiety-inducing. It’s hard to watch. I didn’t binge it in a day or anything because I wouldn’t have been able to. Watching that show for too long made me ill. It’s horrific and uncomfortable and nerve wracking. The rape scenes are awkward and painful to watch. All of Mrs. Waterford’s outbursts are horrid. Seeing the dead hanging all over the place and watching rebels get shot is sick. It’s definitely a powerful show. You can’t convey that kind of thing in a novel. Reading about it is one thing—seeing it is another.
As I said in the beginning, the end of the novel and season 1 are almost identical. The one big change in the show is that Offred is confirmed to be pregnant with Nick’s child, and she also leads a betrayal against Aunt Lydia. She is the first (other than Ofglen #2, who gets hit in the face and dragged away) to abstain from stoning Janine to death. The rest of the Handmaids follow suit, and they’re all sent home. This is why Offred assumes she’s being taken away. Both the novel and season 1 conclude with Offred being taken away, her fate unknown. In the novel, Nick whispers to Offred, “It’s Mayday,” letting her know he’s been with the resistance all along and is helping her escape. In the show, however, he doesn’t whisper the code word—instead, he just tells her to go with them and to trust him. I’m assuming he’s helping her escape because she’s pregnant with his child and he loves her and he’s a good guy. I can’t decide if he’s part of Mayday or not. I’ll have to wait and see when I watch season 2. I do love ambiguity, though, so I’m partial to the novel in that it ends suddenly and mysteriously. You’re not supposed to know what becomes of Offred. Of course, Atwood did write a sequel, which I have not read yet, and I’m not really happy about its existence. Sometimes I wish authors would leave their stories alone. But with the growing success of the Hulu adaptation, I can understand why she did it.
Ugh. There’s so much more I want to say, but this is getting pretty long. All in all, I think this adaptation (at least, season 1) is a good one, if not a great one. I think the novel is amazing but limited, and Hulu took it and ran with it, expanding the world and ideas and characters far and beyond. To say if I like the show or novel more is almost impossible for me, because I think of the two as almost completely separate entities despite Offred’s story remaining almost completely the same in the show. I think this story is amazing and timeless and a perfect one to adapt, especially with fears growing the past four years in America under a Trump presidency. I like both the novel and show for different reasons, and I find it hard to declare my preference. Based on season 1 alone, I’d have to say I enjoyed reading the novel more than I enjoyed watching the show. That more has to do with my preference of reading over viewing, however, so don’t take it too personally. I really do like the show and plan on continuing the series. I like what they’ve done with it and am eager to see where the characters go and how they grow. But the novel will always have a place in my heart.
Book or Show?
(though a very close tie.)