The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are now available on Hulu; we’ve already given our thoughts on the series, which remains mostly faithful to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, but there are some changes, some big, some small, that separate the two—and we’ve broken them down for you here.
Note: These include the major setting differences between the two versions, as well as the events which take place in the show’s first three episodes, and the corresponding events of the book. Thus...
The book was published in 1985 and appears to take place around that time, maybe a few years in advance. Most of the cultural references in the book are related to the 1970s or 1980s, and the book feels of that time.
The TV series takes place in a modern world, so basically 2017 (as Jezebel noted in their review, it feels all terrifyingly within reach), and despite it being an alternate universe, that universe still feels remarkably like the one we’re living in right now. There are references to Tinder, Craigslist, and Uber, that help cement that the time on the show is our time.
And it’s not just newer cultural references. In the series, handmaids have red tags affixed to their ears. The reason for the tags isn’t discussed, but it certainly feels like these are RFID tags used to track the handmaids’ whereabouts.
The society in the book is both sexist and racist. Black denizens are known as “Children of Ham” (a reference to the Biblical Curse of Ham that some religions have used as an explanation for black skin and as a justification for slavery) were “resettled” to a place known as “National Homeland One.”
In the TV series, race is treated much differently. A major character, Moira (Samira Wiley), is now black. Offred’s husband Luke is also black. In an interview with TV Line, executive producer Bruce Miller said, “It’s easy to say ‘they sent off all the people of color,’ but seeing it all the time on a TV show is harder.” Miller goes on to say, of the decision to not make racism a focal point of the series, ““I made the decision that fertility trumped everything.”
At the end of the first episode of the series, we learn that Offred’s (Elizabeth Moss) real name is June. This is a departure from the book, where Offred’s real name is never revealed. Nevertheless, since the book’s release, many readers have assumed that is the narrator’s name.
In the book, Serena Joy (The Commander’s wife) is described as being older. She uses a cane, has arthritis, and is a former televangelist. Reading the book, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Serena Joy looks like ‘80s evangelical celebrity Tammy Faye Baker.
In the series, Serena Joy is played by Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski and the televangelism part of her personality is gone. Instead, she is infertile, and thus in need of a handmaid. Like Serena Joy, the character of The Commander (Joseph Fiennes), is also now much younger (and much more attractive), than he was described in the book.
The Salvaging scene, where the handmaids attack a man who is accused of raping a pregnant handmaid, is very different in the book and in the TV show.
In the book, it is Ofglen who attacks the man (she later explains that she knew he was innocent and wanted to spare him of longer torture), while Offred watches, horrified. In the TV show, Offred strikes the first blow, setting off the chain of events that lead to his death.
In the book, the Commander has two infertile housekeeper types (they are known as Marthas), Cora and Rita. Rita is kind of a bitch to Offred, but Cora is much more kind.
In the TV show, Cora doesn’t exist. Instead, some of her characteristics were morphed into the role of Rita (Amanda Brugel).
In the book, Ofglen’s history is never revealed. Offred seems unsure of what to make of her, until she learns that Olglen is part of the resistance. Ofglen eventually disappears in the book, and later it is revealed that she committed suicide.
In the TV show, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) has a much more interesting (and horrifying) backstory. Before Gilread, she was married to a woman and had a child. She was arrested for being a lesbian and charged with “gender treachery.” It’s only because of her fertility that she is pardoned. Still, to punish her urges, she becomes the victim of female genital mutilation.
In the book, Janine never rebels at the Red Center. She’s actually kind of an ass-kiss.
In the TV show, Janine (Madeline Brewer) is rebellious and her actions against the Aunts at the Red Center leave them to remove one of her eyes as punishment.