When Naomi Alderman’s speculative novel The Power came out in 2017, the Washington Post hailed it as “our era’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’” The 378-page book is an epic exploration of power and gender, set in a world where women suddenly acquire the ability to generate electricity from their hands. As women learn to use their newfound strength, they start to overthrow, then oppress, the men who once dominated them. The book follows several characters in their entangled stories: politician Margot and her daughter Jos, gangster’s daughter Roxy, false prophet Allie, and journalist Tunde, the one male protagonist.
In the US, the book came out in October 2017, several months into Donald Trump’s presidency and right alongside the surging #MeToo movement. Amid incessant news about the sexually predatory behavior of prominent men, many readers found catharsis in The Power’s vision of a world where women lived without fear or self-diminishment. In one particularly prescient chapter, Margot gets so angry during a gubernatorial debate that she electrocutes her opponent onstage; though she assumes her outburst will cost her the race, she ends up winning easily. Vogue called it “genius … a reversal of the 2016 presidential election debates so delicious it stings.”
The TV adaptation of The Power premieres on Prime Video tomorrow. The show faces a dilemma: Its source material is now old enough to feel dated, but too recent to be classic. How will it update a book that seemed so timely seven years ago? Or will it fumble because it can’t figure out how?
On the one hand, the story’s bleakness might work better now than it did then. In 2017, Hillary Clinton hero worship lingered among her grieving supporters and the “Nevertheless, she persisted” set; in 2023, it has fallen out of favor. Among progressives, it’s trendier to remember Clinton as “a neoliberal war hawk,” not a feminist trailblazer. It makes The Power’s arc more fitting: As governor, Margot develops private military training camps for teenage girls, whom she then ships out to war en masse, profiting from her defense contracts. Turns out Margot is a war hawk too. With The Power, Alderman rejects the idea that the world would be a better place if women like Clinton led it; she blows past the kitschy ethos of “the future is female.”
The show faces a dilemma: Its source material is now old enough to feel dated, but too recent to be classic.
On the other hand, the story’s gender framework seems quaint in retrospect. A much-quoted passage from The Power’s final pages reads: “Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.” It’s an elegantly phrased epiphany, but by now, the notion that gender roles are constructed is a leftist truism. It’s no longer innovative to point out that manhood and womanhood are defined in opposition to each other. Instead, it seems odd to leave the conversation there, instead of making room for a more expansive definition of gender, one that exists beyond a binary.
The Power has ample opportunity to reboot its cultural relevance for 2023. But the TV show largely disappoints. In the eight episodes made available to critics (there are nine episodes total), the show makes its source material more family-friendly, but it loses what makes the book so haunting. It focuses more on the dull pleasantries of women’s empowerment than the thorny questions of how power engenders violence. It adds superficial footnotes to the book’s representation of gender that come across as didactic and cringey.
Margot (Toni Collette) undergoes an especially dramatic rebrand. In the book, Margot is bitterly ambitious. She scoffs at early video evidence of teenage girls generating electricity. When she finally acts on this new development, it’s only so her boss can’t say she did nothing. She’s calculating and single-minded; her own kids “don’t cross her mind.” But in the show, she’s an earnest public servant and congenial manager. She implores her boss to pay attention to an urgent problem affecting young women; she dismisses a meeting by telling her staff they “kick so much ass.” She smokes a joint with her daughter Jos (Auli’i Cravalho), and they develop a secret handshake, whispering, “Sparkle fingers, unite!”
TV Margot is the platonic ideal of a modern woman, career-driven but still nurturing. Though her husband Rob (John Leguizamo) accuses her of prioritizing work over family, she protests, “I am killing myself to get home in time to read Izzy’s stories with her, and check over Matty’s homework.” She’s busy, but she isn’t callous; she wants to be a good mother and wife. It makes the character less threatening and less interesting. In the book, her rancorous ambition erodes her relationships with everyone in her life, especially Jos. It causes conflict; it raises the stakes. In the show, Margot’s main problem is so average as to be unmemorable: She wants a work-life balance.
The dilution of the show’s main characters — from spiky, seething individuals to sympathetic tropes — undermines the story’s necessary amorality.
Other characters get their rough edges sanded down too. Roxy (Ria Zmitrowicz) gets a doting mother instead of an abusive one. Allie (Halle Bush) becomes silent and long-suffering instead of cocky and seductive. Tatiana (Zrinka Cvitesic), first lady of the fictional country Carpathia, who is a minor character in the book but a major player in the show, gets a heartwarming backstory about her love for her sister, which replaces a plotline where she becomes a fascist dictator. As for Tunde (Toheeb Jimoh), he makes becoming a vulnerable man in a woman’s world look easy. Instead of getting sexually assaulted at a protest in Delhi, he tells Margot in the safety of her office that recent shifts in the social order have primarily impacted him by showing him how to be a better ally.
The problem is not that these storylines deviate from the book. Plenty of the show’s changes are compelling to watch: Leguizamo as Rob, a fringe character in the book, is a reliably excellent addition, a refreshing source of comic relief. When Rob goes for a night swim after getting existentially drunk at Margot’s work party, Leguizamo makes the scene one of the best in the show. Meanwhile, new character Zoia (Ana Ularu) lends urgency to one of the book’s underexplored subplots about women subjected to sex trafficking, and Ryan (Nico Hiraga), Jos’s love interest, gets to flourish beyond his original status as a neglected outcast.
But the dilution of the show’s main characters — from spiky, seething individuals to sympathetic tropes — undermines the story’s necessary amorality. By dispensing with the book’s most unflinching depictions of the violent psychology of power, the show makes the characters seem like badass babes, or good women who are just going through it these days. It makes them consistently redeemable, which is a shame, because the book is at its best when it pushes its characters to such gruesomely corrupt heights that readers can’t root for them, at which point the rah-rah revenge fantasy of empowered women crumbles to reveal a grim truth: Any of us would make an excellent oppressor, if only we were given the chance.
There are notable exceptions: Roxy and Tatiana exhibit chilling behavior from the beginning of the season, and they only get more terrifying from there. It’s a delight to watch the actors who play them, Zmitrowicz and Cvitesic, fling themselves headlong into these roles, just as it is gratifying, in Episode 8, when Allie’s morality falters and Halle Bush finally gets something to do. But for the most part, the TV show makes its characters fussily likable. So far, it endorses exactly the kind of feel-good feminism the book was so determined to satirize.
As for the show’s interest in complicating the gender binary, it does include a trans character and an intersex character, neither of whom was identified as such in the book. But neither of them gets to do much beyond solemnly explain what being trans or intersex means. It’s an annoying device, one that makes the characters feel more like diversity training facilitators than people having a conversation. It feels like the second-shortest possible route for the studio to check its “Gender diversity” box, right after, “Maybe throw a they/them in there?” In a show all about rapidly shifting cultural conceptions of gender and legislation of people’s bodies, it’s a missed opportunity not to further explore how individuals can escape the dominant narratives of their perceived gender.
The Power seems like it’s ramping up for a second season. At the very least, it’s left out many of the book’s crucial plot points, so it has plenty of material left to mine. It’s possible that the series is waiting until Season 2 to challenge its characters with greater moral ambiguity, or to explore how queer characters resist the newly created binary of those who do and do not have the power. It’s even possible that all of this will happen in the unreleased final episode of the first season. But so far, The Power pulls its punches. ●