'The Handmaid's Tale': The Key Differences Between the Book and Hulu Adaptation

Every week during season one, THR will examine the biggest departures from Margaret Atwood's beloved best-seller.
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While Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps the most unintentionally timely series currently on the small screen, the Elisabeth Moss starrer is actually based on Margaret Atwood's award-winning novel. So while the series seems specifically poignant given the country's current political landscape, the book actually was published in 1985, making Atwood a bit of a prophetic writer.

The series takes place in Gilead, a futuristic but simplified world in which fertility issues abound and women's rights are a thing of the past. In order to keep the population up, government officials in a totalitarian society send young and fertile women — the "handmaids" — to affluent families, where they are forced to help couples procreate via sexual servitude.

Dig a little deeper through Atwood's beloved novel and you'll find that the Hulu drama — from MGM TV and showrunner Bruce Miller — has taken some notable departures between the open-ended book and the ongoing series. As the writers — led by Miller — expand the fictional world of Gilead and eye a potential second season, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at some of the biggest differences from page to screen. (Bookmark this post as we'll be updating it all season long.)

1. Offred’s Mother

In the novel, Offred (Moss) isn't the resistant, sign-wielding protester she's beginning to be depicted as in Hulu's take. Instead, it’s Offred's mother who is the real activist of the story, and someone with whom Offred shares a love-hate relationship. By midway through the novel it's clear that Offred’s mother has been sent to the colonies (Offred sees her in one of the instructional videos at the Red Center) but whether she's dead or alive is unknown. So far in the series, she's also a character that just doesn't exist.

"June's mom was such an interesting character in the book, and I felt like in the first season we didn't have time to do that character justice because there was so much to talk about and so many things to find out about the past and the future," Miller told THR. "I loved that character in the book. I'm sure we'll meet her later."

2. Cora

While the series introduces viewers to the "martha" Rita (Amanda Brugel), the other martha of the Waterford household is conspicuously absent in Hulu's story. For as surly and mean as Rita could be in the book, Cora was compassionate and hopeful. She desperately wanted Offred to become pregnant so that they could have a baby to take care of; Rita seems to encompass both roles in the series, making her a richer, better-rounded character.

"We went back and forth on Cora," said Miller. "I would very much like to bring her in; I liked the character because she was sympathetic toward Offred. She's very interesting, but you only have so much real estate. We have a huge cast now. So we'll see."

3. Janine's Eye

Body mutilation was not a theme in the novel, though it's easy to imagine it coming into play given some of the other brutalities involved. The first hint of this treatment in the series comes via Janine (Madeline Brewer), who loses an eye in the Red Center when she fails to comply with the Aunts' wishes. In the book, Janine has both eyes, and seems to become a true believer thanks to her warped mind (which is also exaggerated in the series).

"Our Janine spreads out in different directions," said Miller. “She is not a crazy person, she's just found a way, like Offred, to deal with the world around her. Everybody in the story has a different way of dealing. Janine has decided she'd rather live in this fantasy world rather than this other world, and that's working out for her.”

4. Ofglen's Backstory

Offred’s shopping partner Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is a fairly mysterious character for a good chunk of the novel as Offred decides what to make of her. When it's revealed that she is a part of the resistance, the pair form a friendship of sorts, but one day Ofglen just mysteriously disappears. It's revealed later on that she hanged herself when she found out they were coming for her, rather than let herself be tortured and compromised. Meanwhile, her sexuality and marital history was never divulged.

"I was trying to flesh out the character, give her an interesting back story about how she got caught and all these kinds of things; it was a decision based on what I thought she'd be like," says Miller. “She's such a fascinating character because from the outside it looks like she's almost a committed bubble head. A pious shit. But she spends the whole first episode trying to figure out if Offred is someone she can trust or not.”

5. The Salvaging

The first episode is the big salvaging scene, in which the handmaids are let loose on a man who is accused of raping a pregnant handmaid and subsequently prompting her to have a miscarriage. Offred lets loose in the scene, helping to bring the man to his death. In the book, however, Offred is too horrified to take part. Instead, it's Ofglen who goes to town on the man, which readers later learn is because he was actually innocent of his accused crimes. According to Ofglen, he was a member of the resistance, and Ofglen wanted to put him out of his misery as quickly as possible.

6. Econowives

By the third episode of the series, The Handmaid's Tale has introduced viewers to the wives (in blue), the marthas (in green), the aunts (in gray) and the handmaids (in red). Missing are the econowives, who wear stripes consisting of all three colors. In the novel, they do so because they are lower in rank than the wives, and must fulfill all three of these female roles in Gilead. Their omission from the series makes narrative sense, as Offred fails to interact with any of them in Atwood's novel.

7. The Nursery

In episode three, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is so excited about Offred's late period that she even begins constructing a nursery. While it was obvious that Serena (who is a lot older in the novel) very much wanted a baby, at no point did she have reason to start plotting out a baby's room.

8. The Ceremony

The series uses almost all of Atwood's description of how the ceremony goes down, from The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) reading passages from the bible to Serena's disdain for Offred. There are a couple of key details missing, however, such as Serena allowing the household to watch a little bit of TV while they wait for her husband, or how everyone in the household must watch the monthly ritual. Also missing? The prerequisite visit to the doctor's office Offred must endure to ensure that the ceremony always takes place during her most fertile time. In episode four, Offred finally does visit the doctor (played by Kristian Bruun) during a one-off scene.

9. Escape From the Red Centre

While Moira does indeed pretend that a toilet is overflowing in the Red Centre in order to steal an aunt's clothes and make her big escape, June never joins her. Instead the escape is something June and the other girls talk about at length as they wonder whether Moira made it and where she could be now. 

10. Offred's Confinement

In the fourth episode, Serena Joy confines Offred to her room for two weeks after she fails to get pregnant. While Offred being forced to spend time locked in her room is alluded to in the novel, it is never as prominent as it's made out to be in the show.  

11. Ofglen No. 2

In the fifth episode, viewers finally learn why the new Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) is so pious: in her former life she was a drug addict who lived in a dumpster, and the way she’s being treated now is infinitely better than life before. Rather than risk losing any of that, she’s become a true believer. That backstory is never explained in the novel, although the new Ofglen is absolutely more pious than the original.

12. Ofsteven and the Joyride

In the novel, Ofglen just completely disappears one day, and Offred never learns what happened to her. In the series however, following the awful procedure Ofglen is forced to have, she is placed into another home where the wife is actually sympathetic to her. Also, there’s a dog. Still it’s not enough to help mend the newly named Ofsteven’s psyche, and she winds up stealing a car at the market, going for a little joyride and killing a guard. The last viewers see of her, her future is unknown. 

13. Serena Joy's Backstory

In the sixth episode of the series, viewers learned more about Serena Joy and her quest to bring Gilead to fruition alongside The Commander. Through flashbacks it was revealed that she was one of the strongest voices of the movement until her voice was silenced. Meanwhile in the present-day storyline, visiting trade delegates from Mexico revealed that Serena was an avid protestor who wrote a book about "domestic feminism" and was once arrested. 

None of that backstory was present in Atwood's book. In fact, the only glimmer of the character's former life comes with Offred recognizes her as a former TV evangelist who used to have a following thanks to her beautiful singing voice. This version of Serena doesn't sing at all, although she does paint. 

14. Luke’s Status

The seventh episode of the season took a standalone approach when the writers went back in time to explore what happened to Luke (O-T Fagbenle) following his separation from June and Hannah. As it turns out, he made it all the way to Canada thanks to a group of rebel fighters, but not without a few casualties along the way. In the novels, Offred can only speculate what happened to her husband, but he’s mostly presumed dead. 


15. Nick’s Backstory

Although Nick’s true alliances always remain something of a mystery in the novel, there are no flashbacks divulging where he’s been or how he grew to be involved in the creation of Gilead. In the show, however, such scenes were crafted in order to give the character more depth.

16. Janine Goes Off The Rails

In “The Bridge,” viewers learned that Janine wasn’t as insane as she was made out to be, and that her commander was indeed making her false promises about how they’d be together with the baby in the long run. That thread (and Janine’s new placement) led to the character threatening to jump off a bridge with her baby, and it came down to Offred to stop her. Unfortunately, after handing the baby over Janine jumped on her own, and at the end of the episode it was revealed that he had survived. None of that went down in the novel; in fact Janine’s baby never made it in the first place as it turned out to be a “shredder.”

17. Moira’s Second Escape and Offred Helping Mayday

In the penultimate episode, The Commander brings Offred back to Jezebel’s at Offred’s request; she has found a way to help Mayday and what they need most from her is to grab a package from there they’ve been struggling to get out for a while now. While there, The Commander requests Moira’s presence, figuring that to be Offred’s real motivation in asking to return. The two squabble about giving up versus fighting with he has a shower, and in the end Moira is convinced to escape for real this time but not before getting Offred her package. Later on in the finale, it’s revealed that Moira made it all the way to Canada, where she establishes herself as a refugee. None of this actually happened in the book.

18. Hannah Reappears

One of the most brutal scenes in the finale was when Serena took Offred to see Hannah, but wouldn’t allow her out of the car to actually make contact with her daughter. While Serena did indeed divulge that she knew where Hannah was in the novel, she never went so far as to outright threaten her safety if Offred didn’t comply. She merely used pictures and updates as motivation.

19. Janine’s Stoning

In a full-circle moment, the handmaids were brutally asked to stone Janine for putting a child in harm’s way. Of course, none of them could do it. One of the leaders of that pack was Offred, who knew she’d be punished for her refusal later on. That part is inconsistent with the novel, although the series got back on track for the big finish when “Eyes” came to take Offred away, and it’s unclear whether they were coming to make her answer for her lack of stoning or because Nick had set something up to save her.  

New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale are released Wednesdays on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. This post will be updated every week during season one as more differences are revealed.

Twitter: @amber_dowling