Can a TV show or movie improve on a great book?

The Handmaid's Tale: book vs the show

(Publication news: a new portal story in The Sun (perhaps my last portal story for awhile – I am finally taking a break from them!); and a teen anti-hero fantasy story in the November issue of Cicada)

I’ve been thinking about this question lately–about this impulse we have, to turn really good books into TV shows or movies–as I’m rereading The Handmaid’s Tale after flying through the Hulu series. The TV show was good, the acting really good. But the book is so, so, so much better.

My main qualm with the TV show is the impulse to simplify June/Offred’s character into someone who hates Gilead with all her heart and is also a hero in making. June, in the TV show, protested the government takeover with other women at first. She dropped the stone that she was supposed to use to kill Janine. She struts with the handmaids in a visual display of (perhaps misguided) power. She seems a little special, maybe a little extraordinary. While in the book, she is much more complacent (and more complicit?) and complex (Atwood has described the character as “an ordinary, more-or-less cowardly woman (rather than a heroine.)” June/Offred hates the Commander but also seems to have pity for him or claims to. She doesn’t imagine herself saving anybody. She simply wants to stay alive. Her daughter is a distant memory, not an actual child she can save. Sometimes she even seems to buy into Gilead’s guarantee of safety and security for women. It’s not like things were perfect before power was seized. “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

June’s complacency seems in reaction to, and contrasts from, the political feminism of her mother, which is not applauded or found effective in the novel.

(Interested in reading more about “Offred’s Complicity and the Dystopian Tradition in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”? Check out this fascinating and very readable academic article.)

In the book, I was shocked to find June/Offred praying, maybe untraditionally, but it’s still a prayer to God, the same God that Gilead’s powerful is praying to (though June doesn’t think God intended what is going on: “I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.”) Note that June/Offred’s daughter does not appear in her prayers. And the book has additional layers of complexity from the narrative frame: June is very conscious that her story is a reconstruction, and she admits she it is impossible to capture the actual event as it was: “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.” Occasionally she tells us a detail, then revises her story, saying that’s not really what she did, or what happened.

And the style of the book! It’s breathtaking: dreamy, beautifully written, at times a little surreal. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, which I have read and reread so many times–Atwood is such an expert at flow and the pacing of a sentence, at breathless run-on sentences but also making metaphoric jumps that capture a character’s emotional state.  

“I pull her to the ground and roll on top of her to cover her, shield her. Quiet, I say again, my face is wet, sweat or tears, I feel calm and floating, as if I’m no longer in my body; close to my eyes there’s a leaf, red, turned early, I can see every bright vein. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I ease off, I don’t want to smother her, instead I curl myself around her, keeping my hand over her mouth. There’s breath and the knocking of my heart, like pounding, at the door of a house at night, where you thought you would be safe. It’s all right,  I’m here, I say, whisper, Please be quiet, but how can she? She’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held, and the edges go dark and nothing is left but a little window, a very little window, like the wrong end of a telescope, like the window on a Christmas card, an old one, night and ice outside, and within a candle, a shining tree, a family, I can hear the bells even, sleigh bells, from the radio, old music, but through this window I can see, small but very clear, I can see her, going away from me, through the trees which are already turning, red and yellow, holding out her arms to me, being carried away.”

One struggle I had with the TV show–something I struggle often with narratives on the screen–is the format doesn’t seem to fit. The smooth panning camera shots, a soundtrack, the orchestrated walks of the Handmaid’s–it feels too polished. Some kind of rougher (documentary?) style seems called for. I wanted it to feel real rather than to feel like I was watching a larger budget TV show. And in the show, despite the voiceover in Offred/June’s voice, we are forced to become observers of Offred/June, rather than her confidant. How could it have been otherwise? Perhaps never showing us Offred’s face, but only showing what she sees (but then to not show the emotion on Elizabeth Moss’s face!). My final peeve with the show: why cast beautiful actors and actresses as non-beautiful characters? In the novel, Serena Joy and the Commander are oldish. Neither are remotely beautiful or handsome. Serena Joy’s nose “must once have been what was called cute but now was too small for her face. Her face was not fat but it was large.” She walks with a limp and needs a cane. The Commander is described as looking like “a retired museum guard.” Why turn Serena Joy into someone who looks like a young model, and have the Commander played by Joseph Fiennes? It could have been too easy to dislike them otherwise, I suppose.  

Other movies or TV shows I crankily feel did not improve on the book: any of the Harry Potter movies (I thought Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was way better than any of the movies based on the original HP books); The Road (I only made it halfway through this film); Wolf Hall (made it through 2 episodes); Arrival (based on the short story “The Story Of Your Life”)(though the movie Arrival is good, the short story is nearly perfect). 

Still, I’m grateful that The Handmaid’s Tale show came out this year, if only because it got me, and apparently a lot of other people, to return to the book, which is now up there as one of my favorite novels.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *