The Words on the Page

The Handmaid's Tale

July 18, 2017

 

The Handmaid's Tale

by Ilene Chaiken, revised by Bruce Miller, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood

Writer's Draft - November 2015

Pilot, 49 Pages

 

"Nothing can change. Someone is watching. It all has to look the same. Because I intend to survive." - June

 

I recently read Atwood's novel, so I decided to read the pilot prior to viewing the show. The pilot covers a lot of ground quickly with large chunks being told through voiceover (always from the protagonist) and via flashbacks. In fact, the piece starts in the modern world with June's capture - yes, in the pilot, unlike in the novel, she is named, but then, quickly:

 

"June is now OFFRED. Welcome to our world. Welcome to Gilead."

 

Since June was named, I was initially thrown that this name wasn't used more. In the world of the show, June doesn't actually become Offred until she is given to Fred as handmaids are called by their master's names and these names change along with their masters. However, back in the Red Center when June is receiving her training, the character name used is Offred. Even when we flashback further and see June in the "time before," in college, the character name Offred is still used to indicate her dialogue. I initially thought that this was a convention being used for clarity and that the audience would never discover Offred's real name, but Offred and Ofglen later exchange their "before" names - June and Emily. On top of that, the final voiceover of the pilot - and only that voiceover - is attributed to June.

 

Speaking of the voiceovers, they are both indicated as voiceover after the character name - "OFFRED (V.O.)" - and written in italics. Because of this, I was initially under the impression that the voiceovers were direct quotes from Atwood's book. I am still confident some are, but they cannot all be as, "My name is June." is part of the final voiceover. As I previously stated, the fact that we never learn Offred's "before" name is a big plot point in Atwood's book. I guess that italics were simple there to stress that the passages were voiceovers, but I'm not sure that the formatting choice added anything to my read.

 

Moving away from names, something Chaiken did extremely well was introducing the world of Gilead to a reader previously unfamiliar with it by building any necessary descriptions into action lines:

 

"IN THE KITCHEN, RITA (50, gruff) kneads bread. She wears a DULL GREEN DRESS -- the uniform of a 'Martha' -- the caste of domestic workers in this society."

 

However, she sometimes brings us, the readers, ahead of the viewers' experience:

 

"Oh FUCK. We can see the terror in her eyes, even if we don't know exactly why. Later, we'll find out 'THE EYES' are the secret police of Gilead. The Gestapo. Offred goes pale, looks away."

 

I prefer scripts in which the reader has the same experience as the viewer as I feel that when and the way in which elements are discovered is important to the understanding of the story as a whole. Since this is a pilot, the explanation may have been necessary, in terms of network demands and pitching but, as a mere reader, I found it to be a distraction.

 

Along those lines, this script is a Writer's Draft and is obviously in no way final, but I found it somewhat messy. One character, Janine is introduced on page 18 as "22, ballsy," but is then again introduced - as if for the first time - on page 20 as "23, ballsy." June's daughter is Hannah throughout the script except for one passage where she is referred to as "Maya." This was especially confusing as I initially thought they were implying that June had given birth a second time, perhaps as a handmaid. Finally, there was an exchange in which Offred answers herself when one of the lines should have been Ofglen's. While many scripts have typos, these in particular pulled me out of the story and interrupted my read. I was especially surprised since the title page indicated that this piece had been revised by a second writer but,then again, perhaps that is to blame for the inconsistencies. Interestingly, on IMDb, Miller is credited as a writer the pilot episode (and the creation of the show) but Chaiken is credited as only an executive producer.

 

Adopting beloved stories is obviously a difficult task, especially as you're taking something that people have pictured in their heads time and time again and actualizing it, and, to an extent, an adaptation needs to be regarded as a separate entity. The modernization of The Handmaid's Tale is a strength of this adaptation, and it is because of that updating and the changes - like knowing June's actual identity - that I want to watch the series. I'm especially hopeful that it utilizes the novel as a jumping off point for world creation and expands, especially on June's story.

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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