There are sure to be countless stories arguing that now couldn’t be a better time for a TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel about a dystopian society in which a restrictive religion rises to power and divides women into sects based on their reproductive abilities and a warped interpretation of the Old Testament. But the subject already hit home when the book was published in 1985, and has continued to do so ever since.
The new series, which premieres April 26 on Hulu, stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a woman separated from her husband and child and forced into a world of sexual slavery as a result of her puritanical society’s attempts to save the human race’s dwindling population. On Saturday, Moss and other members of the cast and crew gathered at the show’s Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena, Calif. to discuss its ongoing topicality.
The series doesn’t fit into one genre bracket.
“The book was always considered speculative fiction. It’s not really science fiction, because it doesn’t take place in a technical world. But I would say it’s a thriller, because we’re always terrified something bad is going to happen to Offred, and by extension to Lizzie [Moss],” says creator Bruce Miller.
The writers are aware that a series based on a book has a spoiler factor.
“We’re adapting it to be in the form of a television series,” Miller says. “Not only is this a book that people have read and studied for years, it’s been a movie, it’s been an opera, it’s been a play a couple of times. There [are] certainly a lot of other adaptations out there. But we’re certainly loyal to the book. We think the book’s excellent. Any changes we make are mindful of the fact that we’re really connected to [the] original material. But I also think that when you’re making a television show, you make lots of changes because the story’s continuing.”
“I don’t think anybody is looking to surprise,” he adds. “I don’t think we’re playing those kinds of games with the audience… I liked [the movie] Sense and Sensibility and I knew what was going to happen then too.”
The subject is one that’s always been timely.
“The book’s been around for 35 years, and every time someone reads it, they say, ‘Wow, this is timely,’” Miller says. “One of the things that’s most interesting about the book is how relevant it is all the time… I was writing the pilot script during the primaries and during all those debates, so we were of course mindful of that.”
There’s no plan to end after one season.
“How many seasons do I want it to go? C’mon,” Miller says. “There’s an incredible amount in the book, and the more we look into that world, there’s a further horizon we see.”
The series picks up on the book’s strong message about religion.
“Interestingly, they’re dealt with in a very specific way,” Miller says. “It’s a society in a pervasive misreading of Old Testament laws and codes. Even Margaret Atwood has said they aren’t Christians.”
He adds that, as in the book, the series shows the destruction of houses of worship that differ from the new ruling society.
“There are a lot of parallels between the book, and certainly the TV show, and life in Puritan times,” says Miller. “This country gets a rep for being a place where people came for religious freedom. The Puritans that came liked their religious freedom and no one else’s.”
Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, a friend of Offred’s from before the revolution who’s now stuck in a similar situation, says that you can’t ignore the strong message the story has about women in today’s society.
“I do think that this is the time that we’re living in now, and I feel like it’s a responsibility as artists to reflect the time that we’re living in,” she says. “This show is showing us about the climate that we’re living in. For me, personal issues and specifically women and their bodies and who has control of that—do we have control of it? Does someone else have control of it?—that shows in the book and that shows in the [TV series] and it shows in time that we’re living in right now.”
Wiley notes that, as an actor of color, she appreciates being part of the production, but that when she read the book, she didn’t think any of the characters were people of color. “There are little tiny things that were different changes from the book,” she says. “There are things like that that are more accessible to people now, but are still true to the central story from Margaret Atwood.”
This is also a story about power.
“So much of this story is about power and the shifting back and forth of it as well,” says star Elisabeth Moss. “So much of what I found interesting about Offred is what she does to gain power to survive. Instead of leaning away from being a woman and her sexuality, she leans into it and can hopefully get out and find her daughter.”
The series gives several cast members a chance to break out of being typecast.
“For me, this role has been an opportunity to delve a bit deeper,” says co-star Alexis Bledel—known for her role as Rory Gilmore in the teen dramedy Gilmore Girls—who now plays a fellow handmaid. “Ofglen is an incredibly complex character, and she has her life outside of Gilead—she has a family and a job that was stripped away from her—and there’s an incredible amount of attention that’s running beneath every scene.”
“I blame Ryan Murphy for getting me into TV through Running with Scissors,” says Joseph Fiennes, who plays the Commander, the character to whom Offred is assigned. “I like funny, smart, challenging, complex pieces. This, for me, checks all those boxes. I’m looking all the time for a challenge. I’m looking to enjoy myself as well. When I read the book, it felt that it was so complex… I just liked Offred’s story. I loved the story of a survivor… I love that she finds power in a position of nothingness.”
Elisabeth Moss wasn’t going to let this role slip from her grasp.
“It’s such a great character that Margaret wrote,” she says. “I thought about it for a while when I was offered it. I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone else doing it. As a competitive actor, I was like, ‘Nope.’”
Is Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, the matriarch who rules over the handmaids, really a villain?
“I adore her,” Ann Dowd says. “Bruce and Reed [Morano, director and executive producer] have been very helpful in reminding me that, at the core of her choices, she loves these girls. She is keenly aware that if she doesn’t get them to get the drill, they’re not going to make it.”
Much of the show features Moss’ voiceover and close-up shots.
“It’s a point-of-view show,” Morano says. “This is sort of an uncomfortable world, and we wanted the audience to feel that, so we glued the camera to her bonnet, basically.”
Moss says the camera was so close to her in some shots that she couldn’t even move her head forward.
“Voiceover was a huge bit of thinking on my part before we started,” Miller says. “The movie didn’t use voiceover and the book is voiceover. And, as young writers, we’re often told, ‘No voiceovers and no flashbacks.’ But you need a way to get back what you can’t show on her face.”
Cinematography is also key to the story.
“It’s a world of color segregation [in the book],” says Morano, who trained as a cinematographer. “We basically were trying to stay true to all of that. At the same time, there had been this movie and I know certain colors that work really well… To make an image more rich and more painterly, the color for the handmaids is red and [the color for the] wives is blue. Those two colors are the predominant colors in Technicolor … it really creates an opportunity for graphic images.”