What Hints Does Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale Give Us About Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments? 


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Last month, Barnes & Noble stores across the country hosted the first in a series of Cafe Meetups where fans of Hulu’s  The Handmaid’s Tale met to discuss the show and the Margaret Atwood novel upon which it is based. Many of the discussions focused on the differences and similarities between the show and the book—which got us thinking about what that might mean for Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming sequel, The Testaments, which will be published on September 10 in a Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition. (Our next Cafe Meetup is scheduled for July 25. Find a participating store near you.)

Speculative fiction was a new genre for Margaret Atwood when she published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but over the past three-and-a-half decades, the novel has become one of her most gripping and indelible. In recent years, it has also taken on new relevance, thanks both to the politics of our era and a television adaptation that has brought it to the forefront of pop culture.

Though the novel was earlier adapted as a film in 1990 (with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and a cast including Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and the late Natasha Richardson), a standard movie runtime wasn’t sufficient to dramatize all the events and ideas it contains. In 2017, the TV series adaptation arrived on Hulu, with multiple Emmy-nominee Elisabeth Moss as its protagonist. Critical acclaim soon followed. But since, in our day, the content engines must be constantly stoked with new material lest the networks and platforms and streaming services stall out on the tracks, just covering the events of The Handmaid’s Tale wouldn’t do; the book didn’t supply enough events and ideas to fill multiple seasons of the show.

For the first season, the plot of the series follows the novel’s with a great deal of fidelity: the U.S. government has been toppled in a theocratic coup, and while war continues between the Americans and Gilead, it’s happening far away from June (Moss). A fertile woman in a time when those are in short supply, she has been forced into the Gilead caste of Handmaid. She lives in the home of a Commander named Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski); once a month, she submits to The Ceremony, as procreative rape is euphemistically known. Since female literacy has been outlawed, she has little to do with the rest of her time but shop for food, take short walks around her neighborhood (both in the company of her walking partner, a fellow Handmaid), and worry about her loved ones, whose fates she doesn’t know: her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) and her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle).

After a time, Commander Waterford invites her for clandestine hangouts in his study, where they scandalously play Scrabble and leaf through antique fashion magazines. Once Waterford is fairly sure June won’t snitch, he brings her with him to Jezebel’s, a brothel, where she has a chance reunion with her college friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who washed out as a Handmaid and ended up as a sex worker, a life she finds far more palatable.

Back home, Serena is pretty sure June isn’t getting pregnant—because the Commander is sterile—and arranges for June to copulate with the household’s driver, Nick (Max Minghella); the two end up enjoying each other’s company (to say they fall in love would be kind of a reach), and June does get pregnant. She is shocked to find out that her pious walking partner, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is involved with a resistance movement known as Mayday, which recruits her to run ops.

One thing leads to another, and both the book and the show’s first season end with Nick—not only a driver, but also an Eye (an officer of Gilead’s secret intelligence service)—telling June to trust him while two other Eyes remove her from the Waterfords’ house. For a novel, it’s an ambiguous ending; for a TV series, it’s a cliffhanger.

June/Offred (her Handmaid name, based on that of her head of household) is the book’s narrator, so while she can report to the reader some of the stories she hears from other characters, the novel formally echoes the claustrophobic restrictions of her new life. Where the first season of the TV series diverges from the book is largely through showing us perspectives of other characters that June doesn’t know about.

Emily/Ofglen, for instance, was married to a woman; the rise of Gilead meant their marriage was invalidated, but her Canadian wife was permitted to flee with their son. In the meantime, Emily started a relationship with a Martha (a domestic worker in her Commander’s household). When they were discovered, her partner was executed on the spot, and Emily was forced to watch. Emily’s fertility makes her, in the official Gilead estimation, more valuable, so her punishment is a cliterodectomy.

Serena was a conservative pundit whose theories provided some of the basis for the founding fathers of Gilead. She was passionately in love with her husband and now must live each day knowing she helped define the laws currently oppressing all Gilead women, herself included, and wonder if it was worth it to assist a husband who now has no interest in sex with her if it’s non-procreative.

Nick was a disaffected young man who saw blue-collar jobs leaving his community and was too angry to get hired for one of the few that remained, making him a prime target for recruitment by a radical anti-government militia that actually ended up achieving its treasonous mission. And Luke and Moira? They both make it out, crossing the border into Canada to start their lives over as refugees. They eventually find each other, and start working together to try to get June out.

The second and third seasons have continued what the first started, building out the world of Gilead, proceeding from the glimpses afforded the Junes of both the novel and the series.

There are the Colonies—territories ravaged by environmental and nuclear disasters, where “Unwomen” (those who can’t or or aren’t permitted to occupy any of the few castes available to them) work without protection to clean up the sites, subsisting on contaminated water and food until radiation sickness kills them.

There’s an episode set in an Econo-household (disappointingly, we see the show’s Econowives’ uniforms are just gray, like the Marthas’, and not striped as in the book) in which June does end up being spirited away from the Waterfords’ household and goes on the run.

In a particularly shocking episode, June and the Waterfords travel to D.C., where the Washington Monument has been turned into an enormous crucifix, the Lincoln Memorial has been destroyed, and, under tight collars that cover their mouths and necks, Handmaids’ lips are closed with metal rings.

We also learn more about the world around Gilead: the other sovereign nations whose diplomats are now working out whether and how to recognize a government brutally abrogating the civil rights of half its residents; and see what life is like in Canada for the former Americans who’ve escaped but are still processing their traumas.

Some scenes created for the show echo current events of our day: June holes up in the former offices of the Boston Globe, where evidence remains of staffers’ brutal executions; the episode aired just two months before the shooting at Annapolis’s Capital Gazette last year. In another episode, Emily and her wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall), try to escape and are detained at the airport by a power-tripping ICE agent who tells them their legal immigration protections have disappeared, as occurred when President Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order was first signed in 2017.

Though June’s story in the novel ends with her being marched out of the Waterfords’ house, there does follow a section of “Historical Notes,” transcribed from an academic symposium on Gileadean Studies held in 2195, that hint at the future that awaits her. A Prof. James Darcy Pieixoto, an archivist at Cambridge, speaks about reassembling a text—which he and a colleague have dubbed “The Handmaid’s Tale”—from voice recordings made on ’80s-era audio cassettes; he speaks about the details Offred may have changed or elided for safety’s sake, and what she couldn’t know about Gilead due to her limited vantage point.

This 13-page epilogue condenses a huge amount of data the show has mined for plot and worldbuilding: this season, we’ve seen June record her voice to send to Luke, perhaps creating the account the archivists will pore over in more than a hundred years’ time (the idea that this story is being told via whatever audio storage media is available would explain some of the more egregious needle drops this season. “Que Sera Sera”?).

In the book, Prof. Pieixoto refers to Gilead’s “racist policies”; the show has been criticized for ignoring race, and given our current political moment, it’s impossible to imagine that the theocratic movement that created Gilead wouldn’t also be white supremacist—though we did get a moment in a recent episode in which Lydia (Ann Dowd) and two fellow Aunts are considering Handmaid assignments and indicate that one won’t be acceptable to a couple who’ve refused to take a “Handmaid of color.”

Prof. Pieixoto singles the Aunts out for special note, calling them a “crack female control agency” and citing an architect of Gilead who believed “that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves”—a notion that just played out on the show in an episode flashing back to Lydia’s origin story as a kindly elementary school teacher who, after a romantic rejection, turned her rage against a student’s single mother by exploiting newly restrictive laws to get the child sent to foster care for spurious reasons.

The Handmaid’s Tale is about to end its third season, with the finale dropping on Hulu July 24. The imminent publication of Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, will bring a whole new vein of material to be mined in potential future seasons. As a critic of the show, I have sometimes been frustrated by moments when characters seemed to be making decisions for the sake of the plot; the idea that June would, in the Season 2 finale, be on the verge of escaping Gilead with her baby and decide to give up her chance on the groundless hope that she might also someday free Hannah from her new family is preposterous. But even in moments like these, characters’ essential natures have remained true to their portrayal in Atwood’s novel. That, paired with the fact that Atwood has been a consulting producer throughout the run of the show thus far, would lead one to believe that, while The Testaments will vault us 15 years past the end of June’s story in The Handmaid’s Tale, she and her fellow Gileadean narrators will still be recognizable to those of us who’ve been watching her on Hulu for the past three seasons. It also seems likely that we shouldn’t be too optimistic about where Atwood will leave June this time.

Do you have opinions to share about the similarities and differences between Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Margaret Atwood’s novel? Do you want to speculate about what readers might discover in The Testaments? On July 25, many Barnes & Noble stores are hosting Handmaid’s Tale Cafe Meetups where fans can come together to discuss the show, book, and more. Find a participating store near you.

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