We’ve been waiting months for Margaret Atwood’s famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale to come to life on TV, and now that it finally has we can’t get enough. Even if the show is taking a few liberties with our favourite book.
The series kicked off Sunday night with a two-hour premiere on Bravo that introduced us to Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) and the world of Gilead, in which women are segregated based on their fertility and usefulness to society, pitted against one another and used – in the case of the handmaids – to repopulate society.
To say that the first two hours were heart-wrenching would be an understatement. Between June’s daughter Hannah being ripped from her arms in the flashbacks to her institutionalized, “ceremonial” rape in the present, there were times when this show was pretty hard to watch. And don’t even get us started on what happened in the second hour, when Janine (Madeline Brewer) gave birth to a baby that was immediately taken from her and the flashback scenes showed us what the world was like when June gave birth to Hannah. Like, holy heck.
We thought we knew this story, but seeing it unfold in a TV show just makes it seem that much harsher. We’re really rooting for Offred to make it out and be reunited with her daughter right about now. Even if it looks as though her only friend, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is gone for good. So while we hold our breaths until next week’s new episode, let’s dig into something slightly less sombre and dissect some of the key differences between this show and the book, shall we?
1. June’s name
In the book we never actually learn Offred’s name from “before,” but the writers on this show decided it should be June. Why? Well there’s a popular theory, based on a moment in the book when Offred is explaining her time at the Red Centre. In it, she mentions a bunch of names that the women would whisper to each other, late at night when they were supposed to be sleeping. “June” is the only name that’s mentioned but never actually attached to a character.
Atwood herself won’t confirm whether June is, indeed, Offred’s name. That’s probably because one of the strong points in the book is the importance of identity, and Offred never truly has one. But we also think Atwood just likes watching people debate things she’s written. She’s pretty sly like that.
2. Offred’s mother
As anyone who has read the The Handmaid’s Tale knows, Offred’s mother is a huge guiding force in the book. She’s a strong feminist, a protestor and someone with whom Offred never really saw eye-to-eye. Offred and her mom are night and day, since Offred was happy to sit idly by while her mom fought for a cause, and in the end that attitude landed Offred’s mother in the Colonies. Offred saw her once, in an instructional video they showed at the Red Centre, and by the time we meet her in the book her mom is presumed dead. In the show so far she hasn’t existed at all, and according to the writers, if she does come into play it won’t be until season two.
Speaking of missing characters, where is Cora? The second Martha of the Waterford household is completely absent in this story. We can’t say we miss her too much, given how fantastic Amanda Brugel is playing the surly Martha just right, but it would be cool for Offred to have someone in the household be nice to her. Cora was supposed to be that person.
4. That salvaging scene
Our hearts broke for Offred when Janine told her Moira (Samira Wiley) died, but nothing could prepare us for the brutal way she took out her frustration and helped tear a man apart with the other handmaids, after Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) accused him of rape. In the book, Offred could not bring herself to participate in the occasion, and watched — horrified — as Ofglen brutally went right for the guy’s head. Offred later learned Ofglen had been putting the man, a resistance member who was falsely accused, out of his misery as quickly as possible.
5. Janine’s birth
One of the most heartbreaking scenes from the premiere was also one of the hardest scenes from the book. In the book, Janine definitely acted smug about being pregnant, and Offred absolutely attended the birth. There was also coffee — a luxury item not often found — present for the wives. But, while the baby seemed to be fine at first, Offred later learned it was a “shredder” or an “unbaby.” That meant that ultimately the baby girl just didn’t make it. Thankfully, it looks as though this baby will be okay.
6. Janine’s backstory
Speaking of Janine, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her on this show. Between losing her eye at the Red Centre and then having to give up the baby she just birthed, things are pretty terrible for her right about now. She’s actually more sympathetic here than she is in the novel, though. That’s because, in Atwood’s book, Janine was painted as someone who sucked up to the Aunts and told more “confessions” than anyone else. She certainly never lost an eye, although she did deal with some mental health issues at the Centre. She also claimed to have had an abortion, but Offred later found out that Janine lost a baby when she was eight months pregnant.
7. Serena Joy and The Commander
Is it just us, or are the Waterfords one really good looking couple? Serena (Yvonne Strahovsky) and The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) are definitely aged-down in this show; in the book they were much, much older.
Did we miss it, or are the stripe-wearing econowives also missing from this tale? Those women led the most arguably “normal” lives in the book as the multitaskers of Gilead. They were a Martha, a wife and a handmaid all rolled into one, which is why they wore multiple colours. Maybe they haven’t been introduced yet, but we certainly haven’t seen them going about their business in this TV take. Maybe because, even though they existed, they never really interacted with Offred? Who knows.
9. Ofglen’s backstory
We feel like we were just getting to know Ofglen, which makes it even more tragic now that she’s gone missing. It’s been cool going a little more in depth into that character. While we didn’t get to know much about her in the book, here we learned that she was a professor and that she was gay with a wife and son. Apparently her family escaped to Canada, but she didn’t have a passport and was ultimately left behind.
10. The doctor’s visits
One of the many things we found creepy about Atwood’s book was how the handmaids were forced to visit the doctor to make sure that everything with their cycle was aligned before they performed the ceremony (more on that below). And in some cases, the doctors offered to have sex with the handmaids in order to help increase their chances of getting pregnant, especially if their commanders were infertile (which they would never admit to). Maybe that storyline will come into play later on in the season, but for now we haven’t had any doctors pop up that weren’t hanging from a wall. We have, however, had a ceremony. Speaking of…
11. The ceremony
Obviously this scene is a huge deal in the book, so it was also a huge deal in the premiere. And while we think the actors did a commendable job of treating the moment for what it was — a rape scene — it did play out a little differently in the book. In the book the entire household is involved in the ceremony from start to finish, from the bible reading to the sexual act; in the series only Offred, The Commander and Serena take part in the actual ceremony itself.
Another small change was the pre-ceremony ritual; in the book Serena lets Offred and the staff watch TV while they wait for The Commander to join them, but there’s no TV in this version of Gilead. It’s a small departure, sure, but it does make us wonder how the officials spread their propaganda if television and #fakenews aren’t around.
We suppose we’ll find out in the coming weeks.