With a few exceptions, the book is always better than the movie. But TV is changing that with a new type of adaptation: cinema-quality series that allow writers the time and space needed to develop fully realised characters. When screenwriters condense a novel into a two-hour film, something will be left behind, but with 10 TV episodes (and subsequent seasons), there's an opportunity to not only do the original story justice, but to innovate.
This can be seen in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's novel by the same name. In the series, the character Ofglen (played by Alexis Bledel) has a backstory that's not written into the book. The book's omissions make her more mysterious, leaving readers to make their own conclusions, while the additions from the series make us feel more connected to her struggle.
In Atwood's novel, we only encounter Ofglen through her interactions with Offred; everything outside of that is unknowable. Her life before and after Gilead (the new world order) are blank spaces, and she isn't in the Red Centre at the same time as Offred like the other Handmaids, so she stands isolated like an island.
Ofglen is first mentioned in chapter four, when Offred describes the shopping ritual and the way Gilead keeps Handmaids in check by assigning them to pairs. Offred has only been stationed at Commander Waterford's home a short while, maybe four or five weeks, at this point. This is what she has to say about her first meeting with Ofglen:
"Her eyes are brown. Her name is Ofglen, and that's about all I know about her. She walks demurely, head down, red-gloved hands clasped in front. This woman has been my partner for two weeks now. I don't know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn't there anymore, and this one was there in her place. It isn't the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn't be an answer."
This quote illustrates how easy it is for a Handmaid to get lost in the system in Gilead, as identities are even more tightly controlled in the book than they are in the series. We never get to know Ofglen's real name, and Offred's remains a mystery, too. What we do know is there was an Ofglen before the one we've come to know . . . and there will be another after.
At first, Offred distrusts Ofglen, but only because she plays the role she's been forced to act out. In this sense, Offred criticizes Ofglen because she mirrors her own acquiescence. They are both kowtowing to their oppressors and they resent each other for it. "I think of her as a woman for whom every act is done for show," Offred thinks. "She does such things to look good, I think. She's out to make the best of it. But that is what I must look like to her, as well. How can it be otherwise?"
Much later in the book, Ofglen opens up to Offred. We soon learn she's a member of the Mayday resistance and someone Offred can confide in. Ofglen attempts to enlist Offred by asking her to find and share information about Commander Waterford. But Offred has become passive and complacent due to her affair with Nick — she doesn't want to jeopardize what she has with him, and the thought of getting involved leaves her feeling exhausted. In some ways, Gileadean way of life becomes ordinary, just as Aunt Lydia had promised it would.
Offred is shaken out of her complacency by the Salvageing, a reminder of Gilead's brutality. In this scene, Aunt Lydia accuses a man of rape and tells the Handmaids his penalty is death by "particicution." Ofglen gives herself away as a member of the resistance by rushing to kick the accused man in the head several times before the other Handmaids have a chance to pile on. Stunned by this show of violence, Offred asks why she did what she did, and Ofglen explains the man was not a rapist but rather a member of Mayday. She wanted to spare him a slow and torturous death by making him unconscious before the other Handmaids could pick him apart.
By the next chapter, just pages away from the book's ending, Ofglen has vanished. Offred goes out to meet Ofglen for a routine shopping trip and she finds a stand-in. When Offred asks this stranger what happened to Ofglen, the new Handmaid says, "I am Ofglen." Offred has these final thoughts about her:
"Word perfect. Of course she is the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen. I never did know her real name. That is how you can get lost, in a sea of names. It wouldn't be easy to find her, now."
Then, as Offred and the new Handmaid are concluding their shopping trip, she tells Offred the old Ofglen blew her cover during the Salvageing, and when she heard the black van coming for her, she killed herself rather than face torture and reveal the names of her Mayday compatriots.
The TV Series
In season one of Hulu's show, we come to learn than Ofglen's real name is Emily and she used to teach cellular biology at the nearby university, likely Harvard. She also reveals that she's gay and her wife and son were able to flee to safety. Most "Gender Traitors" are sent to the Colonies, but Ofglen is spared because she has two working ovaries and can still bear children. Not long after she reveals her true identity to Offred, Ofglen is replaced by another Handmaid, as she was caught having an affair with another woman, and put on trial. Ofglen gets sentenced to "redemption," which means she gets to live, but she's forced to undergo genital mutilation to prevent her from "wanting what she can't have."
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the TV show's creator, Bruce Miller, had this to say about the changes he made to Ofglen's character:
"She's in the story and she just disappears. I was interested to see what it would be like for a woman . . . when a society went from being a thriving, modern country to a theocracy overnight and what happened to . . . the criminal justice system. It's so strange to us to see it happen to an American, or what we consider an American. Look at all the rights we have. One of the ways to recognise that is to strip them all away."
When asked why he chose Emily as Ofglen's given name, he said his inspiration came from Emily Brontë: "I've always liked how fiery Emily Brontë was."
With season two of the series already hinting that Ofglen's story will shoot off in even more unexpected (and dire) directions, we're excited — and nervous — to see what happens to her next.