With ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Series, There’s Fresh Terror in the Tweaks

The politics of the imaginary world Gilead have been refreshed for the contemporary audience, raising more nuanced perspectives on childbearing, LGBTQ concerns, and anxieties about fetal "personhood."

Now, at the end of the first three episodes, the show is at a crossroads about how closely it will hew to the original text, and whether these changes will enrich the message or pander to the TV medium. Hulu / YouTube

The Handmaid’s Tale is having a moment. From the 1990s zenith of abortion-clinic attacks to legislative frenzies where lawmakers compared pregnant people to farm animals or “hosts,” Margaret Atwood’s 1985 speculative fiction book has always been unfortunately evergreen. A new straight-to-streaming Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss (a former Mad Men lead), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black, among other credits), and Alexis Bledel (of Gilmore Girls fame) introduces some updates, both subtle and dramatic, that make the story more current than ever.

Just within the last year, the book has been adapted into an audio drama and a full-cast audiobook. The series was planned long before the 2016 election, but the book’s renewed popularity—it jumped to the top of the Amazon bestseller list after a Super Bowl promo—exposes revived fears of a Gileadean future for the United States.

The repackaging of such well-worn material raises two questions: Can the story remain fresh, and will it cut too close to the quick? The answer to both lies in some unexpected turns and directorial choices that keep viewers guessing. From the final moment of the first episode, in which the protagonist reveals her true name before she was given the name Offred (designating her as property “of Fred”)—a revelation which Atwood has famously declined to do–fans of the book should know there might be surprises in store (and some spoilers in this article before you go on).

Some slight shifts in details of the setting make the show even more chilling than the book. Atwood set her novel in a future far enough away to feel distant but close enough to be recognizable. The show has opted instead to set the action in the present, eliminating some of the more fanciful elements like “Feels on Wheels” vans and automated prayer machines. Offred (Moss) works in publishing instead of converting books to electronic format before destroying them. Making women dependent is as easy as shutting off the bank cards like the ones viewers have in their own wallets. This up-to-date modernization adds terror to scenes like the one in which militarized religious police in riot gear open fire on protesters, especially after a Michigan Republican called for “another Kent State” in the wake of recent Berkeley protests.

Atmospherics aren’t the only thing that have been brought into the present: The politics have also been refreshed for the contemporary audience, raising more nuanced perspectives on childbearing, LGBTQ concerns, and anxieties about so-called fetal personhood.

The second episode, called “Birth Day,” focuses on a Handmaid (enslaved fertile woman) named Janine giving birth, and it explains the sharp decline in fertility that paved the way for the current order. The corresponding chapters of the book caution against feminisms that posit a shared essence of womanhood based on having certain body parts or nurturing instinct, and the book depicts a future in which doctors are only allowed to attend a birth “if it can’t be helped.” Among the horrors that the Handmaids are shown in their “re-education” are old films of birthing women hooked up to IVs and monitors. The Aunts (women in charge of training Handmaids) lament a past in which women were drugged, had labor induced, and were cut open and sewed up.

To modern feminist readers concerned about the overmedicalization of childbirth, seeing unmedicated birth with continuous labor support portrayed as a tool of patriarchal oppression is alienating. But, as Aunt Lydia explains, one of the tactics of the regime was to co-opt feminist ideology. This is a tactic that has proven surprisingly effective in our own world, with the rise of anti-abortion groups like Feminists for Life or draconian abortion restrictions passed to “protect women” from the dangers of abortion and from their own supposed grief over taking a life.

In the book, the Aunt-midwife commands Janine to “identify with your body,” while the other Handmaids surround her chanting directions like a macabre Lamaze chorus. And as they do so, the Handmaids feel labor pains and heaviness in their breasts: Biology has become destiny for all of them, and they experience its trap viscerally. Scenes of Janine’s labor alternate with Offred’s memories of her mother. Designated an Unwoman, her mother was a 1980s radical feminist who dismissed men as useless for anything other than their contribution to making more women—“ten seconds’ worth of half-babies”—and bandied about terms like “chauvinist pig.” Offred imagines telling her mother, “You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

By contrast, Hulu’s version of the scene intersperses Offred’s own memory of giving birth and her terror of having her daughter nearly kidnapped from the hospital by another patient who had a stillbirth. The televised version provides a more omniscient view of the experiences of other key characters, so the viewer watches as Janine bonds with the baby she birthed. But the child is immediately handed over to the Wife for whom Janine is a surrogate. Janine nurses the newborn, singing and cooing to her about a child she gave birth to Before. By priming the viewer with empathy with Offred’s near-tragedy, the show hints that the barbarity isn’t birth itself. It’s the rupture of the parental bond.

Another key update comes in the form of backstory for Ofglen (Bledel), a Handmaid who befriends Offred and divulges the existence of a resistance network. Where the book provides little information about her past, the show depicts her as a Harvard scientist married and co-parenting with another woman before the overthrow of the U.S. government. This backstory of same-sex marriage was not possible when the book was written and makes recent gains in LGBTQ rights feel fragile.

Ofglen’s fate as a queer woman provides a new horror: In the book, she commits suicide when she learns that she is going to be disappeared as a dissident. But the series shows her prosecution for gender treachery for having an affair with a Martha (a domestic servant). The Martha is hanged, but Ofglen’s fertility “saves” her and she is instead sentenced to “redemption”: surgical mutilation to prevent her from experiencing sexual pleasure. And even with these shocking additions, the show adheres to Atwood’s rule of “no imaginary atrocities.” The violations that are a way of life for Handmaids must be laws and punishments that have actually existed in human history.

This subplot creates another divergence that subtly signals more modern concerns around the legal status of fetuses. The third episode begins with the revelation that Offred’s period is late. The household immediately knows about it, boosting her status. Later in the episode, Offred is interrogated by authorities about the nature of her relationship with Ofglen. When she replies defiantly, Aunt Lydia shocks her with a cattle prod and beats her until the Wife rushes to stop her, screaming that Offred is pregnant. Aunt Lydia recoils, her face stricken with fear.

This small flash of horror seems out of step with the world Atwood created—where the pregnancies of the fertile few are glorified in a particularly terrible way. Ultrasounds are outlawed because Handmaids must give birth to whatever they carry; few women are able to become pregnant, and of those who do, only a small fraction give birth to a healthy baby. There is a fatalistic resignation that most Handmaids will give birth to “Unbabys,” and it isn’t until they give birth to a healthy baby that they receive their reward of being exempt from ever being deemed Unwomen and sent to work camps to clean radioactive waste.

Instead, Aunt Lydia’s fear is more in keeping with our own present-day nightmare, where lawmakers push to criminalize any loss of fetal life, even from the earliest moments of pregnancy. This movement to create separate legal status for fetuses in criminal laws was only in its nascent stages when the book was first published, and it has led to prosecutions that even Atwood would find dystopian.

Now, at the end of the first three episodes, the show is at a crossroads about how closely it will hew to the original text, and whether these changes will enrich the message or pander to the TV medium. With Ofglen the dissident redeemed, there is a glimmer of hope for a resolution less ambiguous and hopeless than the book’s. Given how Gileadean the United States is feeling right now, this might be just what the viewing audience needs.