Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published more than 30 years ago, and it’s since been turned into a TV movie, a ballet, an opera, and now a series starring Elisabeth Moss that will premiere on Hulu on April 26.
“Every time someone reads it, it’s timely,” showrunner Bruce Miller told reporters in Pasadena, Calif., at the winter Television Critics Association press tour.
Yet there is a sense of urgency about the newest adaptation, Miller and cast members acknowledged. The novel and series center on Offred (Moss), essentially a child-bearing slave in the new Republic of Gilead, a theocratic autocracy that has replaced the United States after an extreme Christian sect orchestrated a coup. Women in this world are subjugated, reduced to roles that boil down to wives or breeders (the handmaids).
Miller was writing the scripts for the series during the presidential primaries. “I think none of us could ignore what was happening,” he said.
“It’s like a Shakespeare play in that it remains timeless in its context,” said Joseph Fiennes, who plays the Commander who essentially owns Offred, using her to produce children his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) cannot have.
Co-star Samira Wiley, who plays Offred’s best friend Moira, views her role almost as a duty. “It’s our responsibility as artists to reflect the time we’re living in,” she said. “This show is showing us the climate we’re living in. For me, personal issues are, specifically, women and their bodies and who has control of our bodies. Do we have control of that, or does someone else?”
The religious sect that has taken over the country is ostensibly comprised of Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but Miller said that in keeping with Atwood’s vision, the group isn’t actually Christian, or even truly religious but rather driven by the quest for power. “In the book I don’t think they ever go to church once,” he added. “It’s based on a perversion, a misreading of Old Testament laws and codes.”
As with any adaptation, Miller and the writers have made some changes: In the novel, the Commander and his wife are far older, with Serena Joy past child-bearing age. “I was very mindful of the relationship between Serena Joy and Offred,” Miller said. “It felt like they weren’t in competition. She wasn’t taking a role that Serena Joy wanted more than anything for herself.”
One important detail remains: The various castes of women are still divided by the color of their garments. Reed Morano, exec producer and director, used this to create a color palette that pops reds and blues and greens amid what could be a dreary dystopia.
“The handmaids’ red, as well as the wives, they wear almost a peacock blue, which are basically the predominant colors in Technicolor,” Morano said. “We were trying to echo that. We wanted to make a show that is exciting from a subject standpoint but really play with composition and graphic colors and make it a visual feast.”
And though “The Handmaid’s Tale” a single novel, Miller doesn’t think he’ll run out of material any time soon. “The more we look into that world a further horizon we see,” he said.