Spoilers for Episodes 1-6 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the book and TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale is one of perspective. Unbound by the book’s conceit (that the entire story is a transcription of audio tapes Offred recorded at an unclear point in time), the show follows storylines after they leave our narrator’s purview. We are still in Offred’s head much of the time, but our default is an observer of her and others’ actions, rather than receiving information solely from her. It may not sound like much, but it’s the difference between seeing her eyes and seeing through her eyes.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not the first book to screen adaptation to take this tack. The Hunger Games, to use a recent example, enriched the world of Panem by taking us inside the game makers’ command center and showing us how Katniss’s loved ones in District 12 were reacting, rather than having us listen to her wonder. Similarly, The Handmaid’s Tale uses a shift in perspectives to enrich the world of the book, and present vastly more information in every scene than the written Offred ever did, by virtue of a visual medium requiring that we see everything in a given scene, rather than only what Offred notices.
This difference in perspective makes some plot points, like the eventual romance with Nick, more obvious. But it also enriches other aspects of the story, like Serena Joy’s life “before.” In the book, we are reliant on Offred’s memories of Serena Joy’s previous life, which are necessarily limited to the information the general public was privy to. The show can share details Offred could never guess, which helps to further humanize Serena Joy Waterford. While she is certainly a complex character in the novel, June’s recollections are colored by the prism of her own suffering at Serena Joy’s hand in present-day Gilead. On the flip side, the show can show us the events of Serena Joy’s life more objectively, which are portrayed as the unvarnished truth. This change allows us to feel that much closer to Serena Joy, and to more readily accept that she is a captive victim of Gilead’s patriarchal authoritarian regime just like Offred.
In the book, Ofglen’s fate is unknown after she is found out for her role in the resistance. The broadened focus of the show, however, allows us to pull at that narrative thread and learn about Gilead’s judicial system. This is enriched by the decision to portray Ofglen as queer. We learn that Handmaids are assigned numbers, see the difference in how Handmaids are treated versus infertile women like Marthas, and see the use of FGM as a punishment for “gender traitors.” With larger numbers of out and proud LGBTQ folks in 2017 than there were in 1985, a modern Gilead would certainly be forced to content with that population on a larger scale and in a context of greater societal acceptance.
Episode 6 brought us an expanded, geographically relocated version of the trade delegation encounter from the book. For the first time we see for ourselves how the international community is reacting to Gilead, without the filter of Commander Waterford’s perspective. The arrival of the Mexican Ambassador and her delegation is a reminder of the norms of the rest of the world, as well as an awakening for Offred, caused by an extension of Gilead’s logic: of course they would trade Handmaids. After all, they are chattel. Offred’s assumption that the ambassador must be a man showed how quickly the thinking of Gilead has corrupted her own views. The ambassador’s power manifested itself (as power so often does) in a pantsuit, whose liberating form and yellow color stood in stark contrast to the red, blue, and green gowns of the handmaids, wives, and Marthas.
The dog and pony show Commander Waterford and his ilk put on for their international guests is reminiscent of what many oppressive real-world governments do: the bodies are hidden away, the blood washed clean, and the undesirable are secreted away. The discussion of lowered carbon emissions to distract from the obvious violence of the regime called to mind the platitudes of dictatorships and occupying forces from Saudi Arabia and Sudan to the United States and Israel.
Finally, this expansion puts more plot points in play, from Moira’s outcome and the fate of Offred’s daughter Hannah to the workings of the Mayday underground and events in the world beyond Gilead. Hulu’s adaptation of has already expanded the world of the book, and that will only become more marked in episodes seven.
I’ve said before that this material seamlessly blends with the existing world of the book, which is certainly due to both Margaret Atwood’s involvement and the great care with which the writer, directors, and producers are treating their source material. Most people assumed season one would stick to the book, but instead the shift in perspectives that the show employs has given the universe more color, updated Gilead for 2017, and given us a better idea of how Gilead is functioning within the broader international community. This simultaneously opens up questions about when the season will leave off, and inspires confidence in the show creators’ ability to handle original material for Season 2.