Nitpicking “The Handmaid’s Tale” (or, Why I’m Ambivalent About This Show Even Though It’s Honestly Pretty Good)

I must have fallen victim to my own high expectations. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books of all time, so when Hulu announced an episodic version of this classic dystopic tale, I was psyched. Each new detail ratcheted up my excitement level — Margaret Atwood is co-producer?! Elisabeth Moss as Offred?! Samira Wiley as Moira?! Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy?! By the time screencaps and trailers were released, I was all in, rereading the novel in anticipation and starting a Facebook discussion group a few weeks ahead of the premiere.

As each new episode was released, I watched with rapt attention. The novel’s pillars are all still intact — in a theocratic, authoritarian country called Gilead (set in North America after the overthrow of the United States government), a disastrous birth rate is being remedied through a caste system for women, wherein those who are fertile are assigned to male Commanders and their Wives and ritually raped on a monthly basis in order to conceive a child they will eventually surrender. These fertile women are Handmaids, and this is the tale of one of them: Offred, named in accordance with a new custom of calling Handmaids after their male commanders (Ofglen, Ofwarren, Ofjohn, etc.) Though the novel never reveals Offred’s actual name, the show does. “My name is June, and I intend to survive.”

Yet even as I made mental note of the hauntingly perfect score, the breathtaking cinematography, and (of course) the pitch perfect acting performances in Hulu’s adaptation, I found myself increasingly annoyed with how showrunner Bruce Miller and the writing staff chose to translate Atwood’s nuanced, emotion-heavy story to the screen.

Before I get to my complaints (they are six-fold), some well-deserved praise:

Hey, supporting actors: way to go.

Elisabeth Moss, who plays the protagonist, has gotten the lion’s share of accolades for her performance. And the critics aren’t wrong: girlfriend does an a.maz.ing. job. But I want to give a shout out to some actors who aren’t on screen as often, namely Amanda Brugel as Rita, the domestic help (or “Martha”) of the household where Offred is imprisoned; Madeline Brewer as Janine (also called Ofwarren), a fellow handmaid; O-T Fagbenle as Luke, Offred’s husband from the days before it all went to hell in a handbasket; and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, another handmaid (we later learn her real name is Emily). Their portrayals of challenging characters were beautiful and authentic.

The script maintained Offred’s inner monologue, which was vital to the spirit of this story.

Voiceovers that reflect a character’s inner thoughts can be tricky, easily veering into cheesy or awkward territory. But in this case, it was absolutely essential that we have some idea of Offred’s interior life. All outward behavior in Gilead is strictly prescribed; watching a person’s mannerisms or hearing their conversations would give you no reliable idea of who they really are. Thank the Hulu heavens that the writing staff understood that fact and incorporated this aspect into the show.

Them visuals tho.

The cinematography and set design are aesthetically gorgeous and well-suited to a story about the hidden kind of woman’s world that can only exist inside a man’s world. The design details are pitch-perfect and subtle (as details should be). The handmaids’ signature red cloaks and white bonnets (which are wonderfully faithful to Atwood’s description in the novel) have become symbolic, not of servitude, but of resistance. My favorite wardrobe touch? Red sweatshirts have been added to the handmaids’ closets, identical to what you’d find in any Gap store; it’s a perfect reminder that the events we’re seeing are rooted in the athleisure-obsessed world of 2017, not in some faraway place or time.

 

The expanded world-building was done so well.

A great deal of the novel’s meat comes from Offred’s memories and scattered mental connections, but it’s intentionally hazy. She’s been beaten down by this life, literally and figuratively, and therefore can’t give the clearest picture of how things were before the government overthrow, either for herself or for society as a whole. She also can’t give clarity on the stories of the people around her, being a first-person limited-perspective narrator. The show fills in the blanks marvelously. My favorite adaptation? Ofglen (Offred’s assigned shopping companion and eventual friend) is revealed to be a gay woman; the way her character arc plays out is shocking and, ultimately, triumphant.

All in all, I can’t be mad at this show. It’s a complex, thought-provoking, well-produced, woman-centered story that invites deep analysis and varied interpretation. And guys, you know I love a think piece. I appreciate how meaningful this show is to viewers who see parallels to their own experiences with infertility, workplace discrimination, harassment, and insulting rhetoric from politicians and religious leaders.

But at the same time … I gotta say it: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale missed the mark for me. Maybe it’s because the source material itself was so on target that any unwelcome revisions felt insulting. Here are my specific beefs:

1. Aging Down Commander Fred and Serena Joy

The couple to whom Offred is assigned were originally written as old, even elderly, but in the televised version, they are more or less Offred’s contemporaries — a couple in their late 30s or early 40s. The respective age differences lend themselves to very particular power dynamics, and I don’t think the choice to make Serena and the Commander younger was a wise one. As far as I can tell, the choice was motivated because of what the production staff had in mind for Serena Joy. Here’s a quote from executive producer Warren Littlefield: “It sharpened the edges of what the dynamic between them would be. It added an element of competition and there but for the grace of God go I to every time they were on camera together.” I am not a fan of this idea at all; it smacks of sexist stereotypes about women competing for men, for beauty, for attention, and in my opinion, it undercuts a more interesting relationship between a young Offred and an old Serena Joy.

As for the Commander’s age: Commander Waterford, in both versions, is weirdly well-meaning, or at least sees himself as a really nice guy. As EJ Dickson puts it,

… even though the Republic of Gilead is staggeringly misogynistic — women are defined solely by their reproductive capacity, and they cannot have jobs or own property —  what’s so interesting about the men in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is that they are, for the most part, not hostile to the women of Gilead, at least not openly so. In fact, they are often more outwardly sympathetic to the women of Gilead than the women are to each other … The men are at best completely ignorant of women’s oppression …

This describes Commander Waterford to a tee. If he’d been portrayed by an old, wrinkled, gray-haired actor, the effect of this kind of performance would have likely read as more “kindly, deluded old gentleman” rather than as “creepy guy from the marketing department.” Call me crazy, but I’ll take weird old man over marketing dudebro every time.

2. So Many Things About Serena Joy

This essay at the New Republic briefly describes Serena Joy as the novel presents her and points out some of Atwood’s real-life inspirations for the character. Without question, this is the character that was altered the most in the Hulu adaptation. Everything from Serena Joy’s origin story to her very character were shifted in key ways. Bruce Miller, the showrunner, explains more about the changes in this video, and I legit got angrier at him with every word he said. To make such changes to a woman character, changes that center ideas of how women need to be likable and sympathetic and in competition with other women, in a story so explicitly feminist … well, the irony is thick. As I understood the novel, Serena Joy is our true villain; as much as the system and the state are to blame for everything that’s gone wrong, she is the one who tortures Offred and represents to her all the ways her freedom has been destroyed. Yvonne Strahovski does a fabulous job portraying someone with more nuance and vulnerability; that’s the way the script was written, and she pulls it off flawlessly. I just want the evil, power-hungry, completely-un-sympathetic Evil Queen instead.

3. Colorblindness

With this show, the tendency is to imagine what we’re seeing as a hypothetical, a possible future, but there’s no denying that it’s also a modern representation of a former reality. The America this show depicts has a lot in common with the America that once participated in the transatlantic slave trade, where women were raped, prohibited from reading, valued only for what their bodies could produce, and unable to claim ownership of themselves let alone their biological children. Whereas the novel talked about removing black people from society entirely, the show treats race as a non-issue. People of every race occupy every level and role in the system. The choice to eliminate race from the conversation allowed for two major roles — Moira and Luke — to be played by black actors (Samira Wiley and O-T Fagbenle, respectively). They both bring major acting chops and charisma to their parts, and I wouldn’t remotely want anyone else to have been cast in their places. I’m glad the production didn’t remain 100% faithful to Atwood’s all-white society, but at the same time, I’m disappointed that the issue of race was ignored altogether. For me, this criticism isn’t about the role media must play in grappling with controversial subjects; it’s just about believability, and for a country like Gilead to have no racial divide or prejudice just seems like a bologna sandwich on a plate that’s also made of bologna. Susan Rensing at Nursing Clio says it well:

… the director decided to cut out the white supremacist ideology of the Republic of Gilead. In explaining this significant change, he said simply, “I made the decision that fertility trumped everything.” But of course historians know that concerns over the birthrate and population have always been about whose fertility and the fear of being overrun by someone else’s babies. And this is where Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale misses the mark … It imagines a future of women’s oppression that is somehow free of racial oppression, as if the two were not always intertwined.

4. The loss of ambiguity with Nick and Offred

Nick (played by Max Minghella) is the Waterfords’ driver and trusted employee. When the Commander fails to impregnate Offred after a certain period of time, Serena Joy arranges for Offred to have secret sex with Nick in the hopes that she’ll get pregnant and no one will be the wiser as to the baby’s true paternity. This encounter leads Nick and Offred to start an ever more intense love affair, with Offred routinely sneaking out to Nick’s apartment over the garage. Atwood’s account of their interactions is one of my favorite aspects of the book; it’s marked by paranoia, rebellion, passion, and ambiguity (even to the point that Offred gives multiple conflicting summaries of their first sexual encounter and leaves the reader to decipher which is true). Offred is constantly wondering whether she can trust Nick and deciding that she ultimately doesn’t care. This kind of uncertainty would be hard to portray onscreen, and I can appreciate the need to give an authoritative view of what’s really happening between these two. Unfortunately, the show goes a step further and (at least in my eyes) removes all doubt as to Nick’s real feelings for and intentions with Offred, and this takes all (and I do mean all!) the emotional weight and mystery out of the season’s final scene. Leave a little to the imagination, Handmaid’s Tale team!

5. Fundamental changes in Offred’s character and personality

Book Offred: paralyzed by fear and suspicion, unable to see beyond her own situation because life has become so difficult to endure, interested only in her own survival and eventual reunion with her loved ones

TV Offred: so I guess she’s an activist now? An underground operative? A person willing to share information with a representative from a foreign government even though doing so could get her killed in a second? Mmkay.

In this profile from The New York Times (which is packed with fascinating info), Margaret Atwood talks briefly about the “new and improved” version of Offred:

“The Hulu team made their Offred more active than my Offred,” Atwood said. “Partly because it’s a television series, and partly because it’s an American television series.” Offred would never have been able to stand up for herself or ask for help from a foreign emissary in the novel.

I’m sure this more active, daring, justice-minded Offred will be good for future seasons, but I miss the Offred of old and the commentary she made on how internally destructive enslavement, torture, and sexual violence truly are.

6. Absence of small but striking details

Now this is really getting into nitpicky territory, but as someone who loved the novel, there are some key moments I was really looking forward to seeing onscreen, and now that the season’s ended without them, I feel a little cheated. Offred misses some of the luxuries from her former life; since she doesn’t have lotion, she smuggles small amounts of butter in her shoes and saves them up to use on her face. This image is so powerful to me in its smallness. Why no face butter, Bruce Miller??? I’m also bummed that we got barely a line about Offred’s mom and that no reference was made to “shredders” — babies who are born but ultimately deemed imperfect and therefore (necessary euphemism alert) disposed of. Even ten years after I first read the book, the existence of “shredders” in Gilead is one of its most haunting legacies, a testament to the way this society that claims to value babies above all else is only good to its word if those babies are good enough.

***

So this show had things I liked and things I didn’t. Now I’m just left to wonder: will the announcement of a second season (premiering in 2018) and, presumably, more seasons to come ultimately be a good development? Season One covered the entire timeline of the novel, so it’s likely that future seasons will be navigating completely new territory. The show was fast-paced; events that didn’t take place until page 150 or 200 showed up in the first few episodes. It’s possible that Season Two will make heavy use of flashbacks and include some moments that got skipped this time around.

The show has been intensely disturbing for some of my friends (and, apparently, even for Margaret Atwood herself.) Many viewers, like the writer of this essay at Literary Hub, had strong emotional reactions to the show, recognizing themselves in the characters and aspects of our present day in the world of the show. Sophie Gilbert put it this way in The Atlantic

… though the book is often interpreted as a dystopian warning from the future, it’s rooted in historical realism. When Atwood was writing it in Berlin in 1984, she determined that she would put nothing into it that hadn’t already happened to women somewhere on earth. “Handmaid’s Tale is not a fantasy,” she told me. “It is a reality-based book. I call it DJ-ing reality, condensing reality into a mashup.” The novel has its origins in the 17th-century Puritans who settled in America, and in contemporary Afghanistan, and in Romania’s Decree 770, which dealt with a plummeting birth rate in the 1960s by outlawing contraception and abortion. That so many women feel so keenly attuned to it now demonstrates an acute awareness that the impulse to police women’s behavior and reproductive systems is as old as history itself.

Much has been made of the fact that Atwood didn’t fabricate the basic facts of this society; she combined real events, real customs and laws, from different times and places to layer the terrors so thickly that it seemed impossible. Examples of Handmaid’s Tale-esque oppression in today’s global community are readily available. I look forward to the way these actors and writers will proceed, moving these characters around in a world that’s both so familiar and so foreign. Perhaps as they come up with new storylines and introduce new characters, I’ll be able to appreciate them for what they are and not for how closely they adhere to a novel I’ve loved so much.

Just give me a scene with some face butter and I’ll be set.

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