‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: How the Creative Team Turned a Classic Novel Into a Modern-Day Thriller

On a frigid February day in Toronto, the parka-clad crew of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is trying to keep the flowers from dying.

The outwardly demure Handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss), clad in her red robe and white hat, is visiting an outdoor market. The wind is knocking down parts of the set and the frosty environment is threatening to kill off the lilies, which are periodically sheltered in a warm van.

Moss, who is number one on the call sheet of the Hulu drama, has bought donuts for the cast and crew in an effort to lift spirits on this chilly Monday.

“I learned from Jon [Hamm] on ‘Mad Men’ that you do have a responsibility as number one to not only be professional, but to be as positive as you can,” Moss says. Hence the treats for the crew, most of whom had also worked all day Sunday.

It’s a big commitment to take on the lead in a new series, so Moss was careful about her first major post-“Mad Men” choice.

“They offered it to me back when I was in Australia doing ‘Top of the Lake,’ and it took me about a month really to have all the conversations I needed to have,” Moss says. “When you tackle something like this that’s an adaptation of a [notable] book, you want it to be done well.”

What sealed the deal were talks with showrunner and executive producer Bruce Miller, executive producer Warren Littlefield, as well executives at Hulu and MGM, “about their vision for the show,” Moss says. “It was so impressive and also exactly what I wanted, as far as — this is not a period piece, this is set in 2017.

“It is not the distant future and it is not the distant past,” Moss continues. “It’s now.”

***

That a star-studded television version of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel about an authoritarian regime is premiering on Hulu at the exact moment when many Americans fear for their nation is “double plus weird.”

That’s how Atwood put it, when she described being on the Toronto set of the show last year. In the first episode of the 10-part season, the novelist has a small role as an Aunt at a re-education center for future Handmaids, who are assigned to powerful Gilead commanders whose wives cannot bear children.

“She was a ton of fun to have on set,” recalls Miller. “I was spectacularly pleased with the scene she was in.”

Though the author says it was tough to watch Ann Dowd, in character as an Aunt, harshly discipline recalcitrant future Handmaids, she was pleased to see her vision of the world of Gilead come to vivid life.

It’s really strong,” she says. “It goes further than the book.”

It was a journey a long time in coming. Atwood and her agent received a stream of inquiries over the years about the television rights to her acclaimed 1985 novel. But the TV rights were packaged with the film rights, and the latter had been exercised for a 1990 feature. After the film came out, that bundle of rights disappeared into a black hole of bankruptcies, transfers of ownership, and a pile of corporate red tape.

“We didn’t know who owned [the TV rights] anymore,” Atwood tells Variety. Various entities entered and exited the picture over the years, and attempts to figure out who held the rights resulted in, Atwood jokes, “a trail that petered out in the woods.”

Eventually that situation was sorted out, and finally, via MGM, a TV adaptation came together at Hulu, with the first three episodes directed by Reed Morano. That’s the short version of how executive producer Littlefield found himself tearing up in Toronto.

At a production meeting, no less. It wasn’t “a table reading, so it’s not a particularly emotional forum,” Littlefield recalls.

You’d think it wouldn’t be all that easy to rattle a man who’d presided over an entire network, as Littlefield did during the heyday of NBC’s must-see TV era. But it was a few days after Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States, and Littlefield was far from home, working on a TV series about resistance and repression within a dystopia that suddenly felt much more real.

“I got all teared up and I was like, ‘holy shit,’ ” Littlefield says. “We didn’t intend it to be this way, but it’s more relevant than ever.”

Indeed, two months after Trump’s inauguration, a group of Texas women dressed up as Handmaids to protest new laws restricting women’s health choices. In their red robes and white bonnets, they were an eerie presence as they paraded around the state capitol’s legislative chambers. And no, it wasn’t a bit of guerrilla marketing for the Hulu show. For many women, almost every day since Nov. 8 has felt like some kind of surreal advertisement for the Gilead regime, in which women are not allowed to read, use money, control their own bodies or use their real names.

Adds Atwood, “I get a lot of people who have seen the trailer saying, ‘This is a documentary.” Her response?  “Not quite yet.”

***

Moss plays two roles in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the Handmaid Offred and the person she was before the Aunts and other Gilead authorities got hold of her.

Throughout the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred’s prior life with her family and friends like Moira (Samira Wiley) is depicted in flashbacks, alongside scenes of Offred in the present day trying to adjust to her passive, constricted role as a Handmaid. Given that births are extremely rare due to environmental pollution and other factors, Offred’s fertility is of paramount concern to the entire household of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

Through voiceovers, the audience hears Offred’s commentary on her life, which is laced with wit and caustic observations, as well as moments of sadness and fear.

“There’s so much repression that we must be inside her head to know what’s going on and how she’s fighting that,” Littlefield observes.

The major thread of the first season, which Littlefield says sticks “quite closely” to the book, concerns Offred’s desire to find her young daughter. She assumes her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), is dead, but doesn’t know for sure. Those unknowns can be deeply painful, but also allow Offred slivers of hope.

“It’s not a grim show,” Miller notes. “It’s not a hopeless show. There is a kind of despair-porn aspect to [TV], and I don’t believe in that.” He notes that “whenever anybody runs into a random person on this show, that person almost always helps them.”

And yet, for Moss, it wasn’t terribly difficult to summon the sense of creeping fear and raw disjunction that Offred often feels.

“The day after the election, we came in and did the scene where the Commander explains to me” what a Latin phrase carved into Offred’s closet means (it translates as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”). “It was definitely more moving and felt darker than it might have before,” Moss says.

“All of the creative people working on the show feel a lot of responsibility” to this particular story, Littlefield says. “I think the weight of that, the responsibility of that post-election, only got greater.”

Working on a show that illuminated themes of resistance and solidarity in the face of hatred and ignorance was one way to feel less powerless about what’s going on in the real world, according to Moss.

“When you feel helpless or you don’t know what part you have in everything … the part you have as an artist is this: to communicate and shed light on the darkness,” Moss adds. “That’s something we all feel really privileged to be able to do. At the same time — it’s still entertaining, it’s still a story. Unfortunately it’s rooted more in reality than it ever was.”

***

For all the drama’s real-world parallels, Miller says when he was revising scripts or working with editors, the election results didn’t prompt him to make any notable changes to the drama, which wrapped production in February. Much of the first season had been written before shooting commenced last September in Toronto, and Miller says he “didn’t make any conscious decisions to change anything after the election, but I’m sure it had a subconscious effect on me, as it did on all of us.”

As Miller notes, the novel remains “relevant in almost any time period,” in part because Atwood’s scrupulously researched book is based on historical facts. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a work of fiction, of course, but everything that Offred and other characters experience has its basis on something that has actually been done to human beings by some regime somewhere.

Keeping it real — in terms of fidelity to the source material and to the reality of acts of oppression throughout history — was a big part of the vision Miller sketched out when he interviewed for the showrunner job more than a year ago.

“When I went in and pitched the story, I said, ‘The success or failure of this project rests entirely on attention to detail,’” Miller says. “Gilead needed to be drawn precisely and needed to feel real, or the story wouldn’t feel scary.”

Of course, some changes were necessary. In addition to making Fred and Serena Joy younger than they were in the novel, the producers decided that the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” would not be all-white, as Gilead was in the book.

“In a book, it’s easy to say, ‘They’ve sent off all the people of color,’ but on a TV show, seeing [an all-white cast] is harder,” Miller says. “Honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?”

So casting for the show was color-blind, which resulted in such major roles as Luke and Moira going to non-white actors.

It’s also worth noting that four of the series’ five directors, including executive producer Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes, were women, as was the majority of the “Handmaid” writing staff.

Atwood was on board with the decision to make the TV show’s ensemble more closely reflect reality. And after all, to the Gilead regime, a woman’s ability to bear a child mattered more than anything else. Fertility “is the paramount concern,” Atwood says.

***

Tonal control and an attention to detail were among the tools that the “Handmaid’s Tale” team used to make Offred’s world frightening and yet feel very real.

Given that the slightly retro clothing could have made the show feel like a costume drama, production designer Julie Berghoff made sure to incorporate “as many modern locations as I can, to show the viewers that this is now. This could be your world tomorrow.”

The solid, roomy home Offred resides in is, as Atwood notes, a “creepy haunted house” (which is just one of many things that Berghoff got right, the author says).

Within that house unfolds a restrained tale that nevertheless offers the kind of intense emotions of a Gothic saga — and yet there are elements of a suspense yarn in Offred’s story as well. Offred is a spy in the home of her powerful Commander; she must be sharp and observant to ensure her own survival. As the story progresses, she’s drawn into the webs of other espionage networks and resistance agents, and some characters from those worlds will be explored in the more fully in the TV series than they were in the novel.

“Atwood’s world really lends itself to the thriller genre,” Miller says. “Offred is constantly in mortal danger, and violence can come at her from any direction. That’s the core of the show and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble sustaining it.”

One of the most challenging aspects of Offred’s difficult life is the fact that Serena Joy needs her — but Offred serves as a reminder of Serena Joy’s infertility, which is an understandably painful topic for the Commander’s wife. Though in the TV show, the Commander and his wife are significantly younger than they were in the novel, Miller confirms that Serena Joy and her husband believe that she is unable to get pregnant. (Miller says it’s possible that Offred could conceive this season.)

Serena Joy and her husband are not supposed to have sex, which the Gilead regime decrees should be restricted to acts of potential procreation. So Offred must endure a periodic ritual in which the Commander grimly copulates with her as the Handmaid is coldly “embraced” by Serena Joy.

Of course, that awkward act doesn’t begin to address any of the characters’ normal human needs for companionship and intimacy.

Offred “misses the connection” of sex with her husband, Miller notes. “The Commander is the same way — he is getting sex, but he’s not getting intimacy, and he needs it too,” Miller says. That situation leads to an growing but dangerous connection between Offred and the Commander, one that partially relieves the tedium of Offred’s mostly empty days, but also puts her in danger. 

For all the story’s focus on sex and the restrictions around it, “The Handmaid’s Tale” rarely employs nudity. That’s not out of a sense of prudishness, Miller explains, but part of an effort to keep the character development from being exploitative or prurient. In the novel, Atwood describes Offred not looking at her body as she gets in the bath, in part because she resents how much her physical self now defines her.

That moment is exactly the same in the Hulu series: “She looks straight ahead,” Miller says.

After the novel was first published, Atwood recalled meetings with some potential film producers who had superficial and voyeuristic takes on the material.

Meeting with Miller was an entirely different experience. Bruce “got it that this was not fun and games” Atwood says. “This was a Puritan theocracy. It’s not as if these women were being treated as fun concubines. It was the opposite. He understood that part.”

***

Miller first read the book in college and has read it dozens of times since. He peppered Atwood with questions throughout the writing and filming process.

“I’m very happy to talk about these things and throw in my two cents’ worth, which can either be paid attention to or dropped overboard,” Atwood says. But the producers very much wanted and valued her input. “Margaret and I communicated quite often through the whole story-breaking process and through filming regarding big and small details,” Miller says.

“We had breakfast when we first came up to Toronto — we just wanted to sit down with her and open a dialogue,” Littlefield says. “I think we had one hour scheduled and we went for two. We just couldn’t stop talking.”

As for Atwood, she says she’s pleased that the series was able to “build out” the storylines of characters who have a large impact on the narrative but are only glimpsed here and there in the book — characters like Luke and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), for example.

“In the book, if a character disappears from the view of the narrator, you don’t know what has become of them,” Atwood says. “We are able to follow some of those other characters more than in the book and hear more of their stories.”

By the time she began meeting with the creative team, Atwood had overseen many different kinds of adaptations of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in a range of artistic arenas, so she had considered many of the creative team’s questions.   

“What surprised me most was how many specific details she remembered about her thought processes during her writing of the book,” Miller says. “She wrote the book 30 years ago and has written many, many things in the interim, and yet she remembered her reasons for making many decisions, large and small.”

It’s been 32 years since the publication of the novel, which she began researching and writing years before sending it to her publisher. The four-decade wait to see this realized on the small screen may well have been worthwhile.

“We are in an age of the multi-episode series with our production values. We were not in that age in 1990,” Atwood notes.

As for Miller, he says that as dark as Offred’s tale might get, he finds lessons for the present moment in her endurance and her will to keep going.

“I find hope at the end of every episode — that she’s survived, usually with her wits and the power of her intellect,” Miller says. “She is like a friggin’ ninja in this world.”

Amber Dowling contributed to this report.

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