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6 Things Writers Can Learn From The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Adapted

The Handmaid’s Tale is that rare beast, both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Just two series in and it’s obvious it will go down in television history. More importantly, countless Bang2writers tell me they want to write something ‘just like it’, that ‘says something’ … But how?

At London Screenwriters’ Festival last weekend, I lead a talk titled What Writers Can Learn From The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a brilliant session, with some great questions and observations from the switched-on delegates. Obviously I can’t cover all everything we talked about in one blog post, sadly. But here’s 6 things I think bear consideration if you want to write a highly political, thematic work like The Handmaid’s Tale, be it TV pilot, movie, or novel.

The adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is rather different from its source material (I make a detailed comparison of the book and the TV show, HERE). But let’s agree, the adaptation is the gold standard: it builds on and adds to the story world, whilst still remaining true to the original.

Ready? Then here we go …

1) Themes change with the times

In the TV show version of The Handmaid’s Tale, the story does not take place only via Offred’s eyes (as in the book). This means other characters must be ‘fleshed out’. We know much more about the motives of Serena Joy, Moira, Janine, The Commander, Rita and Nick. Emily occupies a whole story strand of her own (in the book she appears very briefly). In the book, Luke is only remembered by Offred, never seen at all. Other characters such as Eden, Offred’s mother Holly, or various Commanders, Aunts, Marthas or ‘Econopeople’ are created for the TV series.

But with all these extra characters, an interesting element is added: we see much more clearly how men, just like women, are subjugated according to status in Gilead. Though Offred mentions this in the book, she spends so much time in her room we never really appreciate or see what goes on outside.

An iconic feminist text and ‘modern classic’, nearly thirty five years have passed since Offred’s vision of the hellish Gilead and its inhabitants. Feminist discourse has changed a lot in the past three and half decades, especially with reference to both class/status and LGBT rights. So it is no accident then that we discover how bad it is for men too in Gilead, or that there is such a focus on ‘gender treachery’ (aka homosexuality) in the series.

Race does not seem to play a part in that idea of status in this story world. Audiences used to more diversity as standard may expect this, plus prioritising status will always come at the expense of something else. Offred’s daughter is black, like her husband Luke. Mixed race marriages are common in this story world. There are BAME handmaids, who are just as desirable as white handmaids (even though this means the wives will not have white sons and daughters, though this does not appear to be a concern). We are just as likely to see black Guardians and Commanders as Marthas and Econopeople. What’s important is ‘knowing your place’: were you a sinner before the old world fell?

2) Relevancy draws from the real world

Offred and the other handmaids are in sexual servitude. A lot of them were once educated women before Gilead, but now are ‘walking wombs’ (not that being an ill-educated woman means such a fate is any better!). Gilead sees itself as a protector, signified in the Aunts and the Guardians. It says women must embrace their ‘biological destiny’. It is thought God has called these women to a higher purpose, now the human race is in danger.

The parallels between the handmaids and slavery are clear. Some people believe slavery is consigned to the past, but this is not true. The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us this terrible practice is ongoing and waiting in the sidelines to take even more people. There is iconography of various utilitarian states and dictatorships in the TV show, as well as abuses of power from the ‘free’ world. From The Killing Fields and The Third Reich through to the plantations of old in the deep South, we can see moments of the worst bits of history woven together. But we can also see the best bits of human endurance, defiance and heroism too, such as the The Underground Railroad, The French Resistance, The Tenko camps, refugees fleeing war zones and defectors escaping utilitarian states in modern times.

3) Female-centric pieces NEED large female casts

This is not rocket science. The main characters of The Handmaid’s Tale are women, because it is predominantly June’s story, contrasted with Offred’s. This is a major difference from the source material, since June’s ‘shining name’ is never confirmed there. Instead we meet her and leave her as Offred, with very few glimpses of her previous life, in contrast with the TV show.

But June versus a Gilead made up of men would be a considerably different story. The sense of competition between Offred and head of household Serena Joy in the book (youth versus age; beauty versus crone) is dispensed with in the TV show. The competition is still there, but in a fully realised and three-dimensional Serena Joy, who is much younger and much more complicated.

The sheer number of women in the frame is fantastic, but it’s their variety that is truly stunning. Emily is capable and cunning, even a murderer. Janine is optimistic and child-like, but also naive and batshit crazy. Moira was childish and impulsive in the old world, but now has to take control and grow up. In the past June was content to ‘see how it goes’ … No more. A hibernating dragon has awoken inside her and she will stop at NOTHING to ensure her daughters do not grow up under Gilead rule.

These are complex, flawed and three-dimensional women … with male characters who will do all they can to help them, or stop them. More, please!

4) Antagonists must not be ALL evil

Lots of antagonists in spec screenplays are quite two-dimensional. They may have nonsensical plans for world domination, or just be ‘crazy’ (!) or ‘evil’, just because. In comparison, the main antagonists of The Handmaid’s Tale are completely understandable (even though we do not condone them):

i) Serena Joy

Serena is possibly my favourite character in the series! She has sold The Sisterhood down the river, including herself. This is due to her desire for a baby. She will not only subjugate other women like Offred, she will subjugate herself. Serena is willing to give up her career, her morality, even her sense of self, to achieve this. She is a monster, but she is also desperate … And because of this, we even feel sorry for her.

ii) Aunt Lydia

Aunt Lydia is the classic ‘for your own good’ kind of antagonist. She is a true believer in Gilead. Even as she handcuffs handmaids’ arms to burning stoves, she thinks she is protecting them from the evils of the old world. But she is not all bad, for she truly loves babies. She also has privileges in Gilead, such as writing and vetoing the Waterfords in their own home. This is why Offred appeals to Aunt Lydia to look out for baby Holly when Offred is ejected from the commander’s home.

iii) The Commander

Mild-mannered and self-effacing on the surface, he seems harmless enough. It would appear Serena Joy wears the trousers in the Waterford home – at first. The fact is, The Commander is so entrenched in Gilead ideals, he doesn’t NEED to be a dick-swinger about it. He knows full well he has all the cards. Offred intrigues him because she can’t be cowed, swayed or blackmailed like Serena Joy.

So if Offred wants to survive and get out of Gilead, these are the people who will get in her way … But intriguingly, over the course of two series, we have seen the antagonists’ change before our eyes and become something quite different from we first assume.

5) Jeopardy is everything

Sometimes TV shows suffer because audiences can’t believe anything ‘that’ bad will happen to the characters. After all, not many shows are committed to killing off their cast! But literally anything can happen in The Handmaid’s Tale … with much of it a fate WORSE than death.

One way of doing this is by killing off peripheral characters, like Eden and Isaac. Eden is present for only a few episodes, with Isaac afforded even less ‘story space’. When they are tried for infidelity and choose love (and certain death), we invest in their fates and rail against the horror of Gilead.

So when Emily and Janine get sent to the colonies; or Nick gets taken by the Guardians; or Aunt Lydia gets stabbed by Emily and thrown down the stairs?? We can’t be sure any of them will make it back. Of course they do, but we can’t imagine HOW this will happen. This is because the writers have taken our expectations and thrown them all away.

This impacts on the main characters, too. It means Offred can end up in peril, even with a noose around her neck, or facing down a wolf … and we just don’t know how she will survive. That’s great writing.

6) Don’t forget your TOOLS

Lots of TV shows invest in style over substance. The Handmaid’s Tale, in contrast, uses all the flashy tools at its disposal … AND makes them pull their weight in the story:

  • Non linearity is a TOOL. Flashback is used extensively in The Handmaid’s Tale. This could have been boring, breaking characters’ motivations open in an overly expositional way. But instead the flashbacks form an important plotting function, contrasting the time ‘before;’ and how it is ‘now’, PLUS how this will impact. More on flashback, HERE.
  • Voiceover is a TOOL. Offred’s voiceover again could have been dull or on-the-nose. Instead, the contrast between what Offred *actually* says with what she *thinks* are masterly, especially in the first season. As June reappears, Offred recedes, meaning her voiceover is less important in season 2. More on voiceover, HERE.
  • Silence is a TOOL. B2W is (in)famous for saying there’s ‘too much’ dialogue in the average spec screenplay … But The Handmaid’s Tale proves my point. It is fierce and visual storytelling at its finest, showing more than telling. Every moment of dialogue is forced to count, with much of the worst moments in the story played out with none, or even in complete silence.

Last Points on The Handmaid’s Tale

B2W gets a lot of spec screenplays with female-centric and/or dystopian story worlds. So if you want to write something similar, I urge you to start here and make notes. Regardless of whether you actively liked/enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale series, it is a masterclass in writing. For more, check out my female antihero case study onm Aunt Lydia, HERE.

Good Luck!

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2 thoughts on “6 Things Writers Can Learn From The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. I normally like drama but my oh my could not stand this at all although seems to be a well written adaptation!

    1. This is it. We don’t have to LIKE a piece to understand it’s well-written. If only more people on the internet could understand this!

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