I have been eagerly anticipating the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale; as I’ve mentioned about a bazillion times here, Atwood’s novel is one of my favourites of all time and an incredibly important book to me. I’ve also been nervous about it; I’m a notorious nitpicker when it comes to pointing out and being offended by changes to source material (case in point: “this is an outrage; Bridget Jones is only meant to weigh 11 stone!”). Here’s what I thought about episode 1. Warning: this will contain episode 1 spoilers, but I’ll try very hard not to mention what happens later in the book, in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the novel.
So, the opening scene of Offred’s daughter being taken was obviously incredibly traumatic; it’s a moment that’s only mentioned later on in the novel, so I was surprised to see it appear so early in the series. I understand it though; it’s a good way of humanising the narrator and giving some backstory, whereas Atwood throws the reader straight into Gilead without any initial background. I can see why this way works better for TV.
I was pleased to hear some of Atwood’s original text used verbatim in this episode; although the novel’s opening line has been elided, the infamous “a chair, a table, a lamp” (which, I think, anyone who’s read the novel would remember) was included. It certainly makes the series a better revision resource for my sixth form class than many other adaptations have been in the past.
Since the announcement of the cast, I’ve had some reservations about Joseph Fiennes as the Commander and Yvonne Strahovsky as Serena Joy, mainly because they’re far younger than those characters in the book. The Commander’s grey hair and the reference to him being like a shoemaker have obviously been rejected in favour of a different approach, and, having seen the two actors in the roles, I actually kind of get it. The more I read The Handmaid’s Tale, the more sympathy I have for Serena and casting a younger actress to play her is clever in terms of adding pathos to her childlessness. The part where she was shut out of a meeting of the Commanders was, I think, an intriguing addition. I thought Fiennes was actually very good in this first episode; the Ceremony (again, something which comes much later in the novel) was more chilling than I’ve ever imagined it when reading. It’s always seemed just horribly awkward and uncomfortable to me before, but the dispassionate thrusting and bored expression on his face made it even worse to me.
Some other thoughts on the cast: I really like Elisabeth Moss as Offred. She’s an actress I like anyway and I think she did so much just with her facial expressions in this episode. Max Minghella is certainly very easy on the eye, and this, combined with the various interactions Nick and Offred shared in episode 1, added a frisson which you don’t get in the early part of the novel. My favourite is Samira Wiley as Moira; she was always my favourite in Orange is the New Black and I was thrilled to see her cast here. I enjoyed the additional scenes between Offred and Moira, which is in no small part due to Wiley.
As someone who’s basically committed The Handmaid’s Tale to memory over the last 17 years, I did pull a face at some of the dialogue. I’m fine with additions to the novel; so much of Atwood’s text is Offred’s inner monologue, which wouldn’t work for a TV series, but some of the more colloquial, non-regulated exchanges jarred a teeny, tiny bit. Ofglen’s revelation that a certain flavour of ice cream was “better than sex,” in particular, had me hurumphing at the screen. The regimented greetings are so important in the book – “under His eye,” “may the Lord open,” etc – that some of these parts just felt weird to me.
On the subject of Ofglen, did anyone else think the makers of the show have thrown away a colossal amount of material in the first episode? Between the Ceremony, the Particicution, the revelation of Ofglen as a rebel, the backstory of Offred’s family and all the Janine stuff (the eye! Where did that come from?), I wonder if nothing at all is going to happen for the next three episodes. This first one was very pacy and action-packed, where the novel is tense and quiet in its opening chapters, so I’m interested to see how this pans out. And what about the reveal that Offred’s name is June? For me as a reader and, indeed, every time, I’ve taught the novel, the mystery of her name is quite a big thing, so I was surprised that it was used so early, or even at all. Perhaps a way of making clear the character’s resistance to the regime and connection to the past?
A few other things: Aunt Lydia is terrifying. A bit like the Trunchbull, I thought? I liked how Atwood pulled a Stan Lee and popped up in one scene. I loved the use of You Don’t Own Me over the end credits; that was genius.
Did you watch The Handmaid’s Tale? Are you a fan of the book? I have a tremendous urge to discuss it, so please get involved in the comments. I’ll be forcing more of my opinions on the world next week after episode 2 is aired.