The challenges of The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation


The Handmaid’s Tale is far from the first show to be based on a book, but the unique nature of the adaptation has made it particularly challenging.

Season three of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale will be released on June 5. Based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, season one essentially ended where the book concludes. The novel’s cliffhanger of an ending left an opportunity to tell more of the story, and Hulu’s television adaptation has taken up the reigns.

This means that season two went “beyond the books,” something television fans have become familiar with through the Game of Thrones adaptation. It’s worth exploring however, the myriad of ways these shows have different challenges when it comes to their adaptations.

Game of Thrones showrunners were able to follow the books until the last few seasons. Although the writers had a fair amount of creative license, the author George R. R. Martin provided guidance and outlined the story’s general trajectory, including the ending.

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In comparison, The Handmaid’s Tale book only carried the plot of the show one season. The novel had a “second ending,” however, not included in the show that hints at what happens in the years following the “first ending.” In June 2017, showrunner Bruce Miller said to Indiewire that the “second ending” has been useful in crafting the show’s plot beyond season one.

"“There are tons of hints and pieces [in the Historical Notes] that we’ve been using to construct the story that falls into those years between the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the book and the historical assessment that comes afterwards.”"

Whereas Thrones’s Martin had a fair amount of involvement in guiding the story, Atwood (Handmaid’s author) reportedly has no involvement whatsoever. To The Guardian, she responded to fan criticism in 2018.

"“None of this was in any way under my control. Even if I had thrown a tantrum and said you can’t do this, that would have had no legal standing”"

Atwood appears to be a fan of the adaptation, but the fact she is providing no plot guidance puts a lot of pressure on the showrunners (Note: it’s unclear to me whether Atwood wishes she were involved in the show or prefers not to be. There seems to be no legal obligation for the showrunners to include her, but again, this might all be her choice).

Assuming Martin eventually finishes the series, the books will likely veer from the show in several ways. The Handmaid’s Tale may have to deal with this sooner, however, as Atwood announced that a long-anticipated sequel will be published in September 2019. The book will reportedly take place 15 years after Offred’s final scene in season one, and it’s unclear whether the sequel could come into conflict with any of the plot developments in season two or three.

It’s one thing to have a book contradict a show’s plot years after the television conclusion (like Martin’s books might), but it’s another thing to have books contradict a show with potentially several seasons remaining. It might not be a big deal, but it could make things more complicated for book/show fans.

Despite the unique circumstances involving the show’s adaptation, season two of Handmaid’s (first season beyond the books) seemingly received positive reception. It currently has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and 86% on Metacritic, but will season three continue to survive and thrive without any plot guidance? Some early reviews suggest possibly not (link contains spoilers!), but it’s far too early to predict what the reception to the season will be.

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Overall, the showrunners ofThe Handmaid’s Tale have a challenging adaptation on their hands. The book has “two endings,” a sequel is coming out this year, the show is “beyond the books,” and the author has no involvement in the show. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Hulu has done a very solid job thus far, but the unique nature of the adaptation may make it difficult to maintain the same level of success and praise.

Are you excited for the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale? Be sure to tell us in the comment section below!