If you've seen the trailer for Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, you probably noticed that something major has been changed from the book: The Commander is...kind of hot?
In the 1984 novel by Margaret Atwood, the character in charge of Offred's fate is described as a "gray-haired, neat" older man in a black suit who looks “like a Midwestern bank president.” The show, however, cast Joseph Fiennes, who can only be described as a stud. (Warning: Mild spoilers ahead!)
This could easily be mistaken as a push for sex appeal. I mean, if you're going to have to watch a monthly coupling ritual, wouldn't you rather it star Shakespeare in Love? And how many times have film and TV adaptations strayed from the original material in an effort to beautify? But I think there's something more complex going on here.
In The Handmaid's Tale, mass pollution and growing infertility has led to a coup by a religious group known as the Sons of Jacob. These fundamentalists call for a return to traditional values (sound familiar?), which basically means they want to cosplay as Puritans, and you know what that means — bye-bye women's rights.
Under the laws of the Republic of Gilead (formerly known as the United States of America), high-ranking couples unable to have children are given a handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose in this new society is to deliver a healthy baby. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a handmaid assigned to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Every month, the three must take part in a ritual ceremony, which involves the Commander penetrating Offred as Serena Joy holds her arms down.
In the book, Offred takes up an affair of sorts with the Commander, mostly because she has no choice. He literally holds her life in his hands — how could she refuse him? As a reader, I felt total disgust. Here was this older man, tired of his barren wife, using his power to co-opt a subordinate into a sexual relationship. When the Commander looks like Joseph Fiennes, it's a little more complicated. This isn't to say that good-looking men can't be lecherous, or that Offred will necessarily find this particular man attractive, but it does make me wonder if perhaps the show is sending a message. Will Offred feel more conflicted about the affair? Will it complicate things further for her? All those feelings you feel when looking at Fiennes' soulful puppy eyes serve to create a more complex knot of storytelling.
It's also worth noting that the Commander isn't the only character who's been beautified. Serena Joy, described in the book as a former televangelist with a club foot, is now portrayed as an apocalyptic Betty Draper, whose icy expression would stop January Jones in her tracks. This also muddles the waters — it's harder to feel bad for the Serena Joy, who's just playing with Offred out of spite. But one look at Strahovski's expression when Serena is watching her husband with Offred, and your heart kind of breaks for her. This is a woman who should be in her prime. She loves her husband, and wants a child. And yet she can't conceive one. It's a differently nuanced narrative than the one put forward by Atwood, especially if you add in the fact that as a wife, Serena also enjoys a powerful status that she uses to control others. (For more details on the female hierarchy in this brave new world, click here.)
What's more, having these two characters be younger also compounds the very real stakes of the fertility crisis, which is the reason for this insane system. The reason Serena Joy is unable to have a child is not that she's postmenopausal, but rather that years of pollution, natural disasters, and shifting social norms have made it dramatically more difficult to conceive. It's an issue that has been used to explain dystopian societies in the past — think of 2006's Children of Men — and given the way our own birthrates are falling, it isn't to be taken lightly.
This doesn't mean that shows and movies should get a free pass when casting parts for looks only, or changing a character's age for sex appeal. (I see you Riverdale — thanks for permanently ruining Ms. Grundy.) But in this case, it seems like an important creative choice — and I can't wait to see how it pans out.