Writer-producer Bruce Miller is among the millions of readers who have been profoundly affected by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
More than 30 years after the book’s publication, Miller adapted it as a series for Hulu and serves as executive producer and showrunner. He knew that the novel’s underlying message — that environmental degradation will fuel unprecedented
political and social conflicts — had only become more urgent in the generation since Atwood introduced the world of Gilead, a breakaway republic in the U.S. that mounts a totalitarian response to a fertility crisis spurred by war and radiation damage.
At work on the fourth season of “Handmaid’s Tale,” which is coming next year, Miller spoke with Variety about the delicate process of ensuring that the climate-change warnings in the Emmy-winning series are not lost.
“Handmaid’s Tale” makes it clear that the fate of humanity and the planet are intertwined. When you began to adapt the novel for TV, did you feel the need to amplify the environmental themes?
The prominence of that part of the storyline is from Margaret’s book. The background noise of the book is all the things we’re talking about now. They’re functions of climate change. We’re seeing diseases that are a condition of climate change and lack of sustainability. COVID is an example of that. In the book, it’s a plague of sexually transmitted diseases. The shifting foundation of the environment is very much underneath what’s happening in Gilead.
It’s not explicit, but there are signs in the series of how the leaders of Gilead enforce principles of conservation and sustainability. They prize the natural world.
Gilead is a counterpoint to what else is going on. One of the things we try to show is that Gilead often has noble goals even though they have absolutely horrendous ways of trying to reach them. They’d like to clean up the environment. They believe that from a religious point of view, the earth is a gift from God. A lot of the show is about how Gilead has made progress in sustainability. Almost all the cars are hybrid in Gilead. That means for us that road noise in the sound mix is much lower because those cars are quieter. … Every year we try to add a few more birds to the mix of bird sounds on the show. Bird populations that had been suppressed would be starting to come back in Gilead. You want the birds to sound like what it would if the earth was a little more sustainable. What we’re showing in Gilead is a fascist totalitarian reaction to a real problem.
In the most recent season you depict the area of “the colonies,” where groups of “unwomen” punished for challenging the brutal order of Gilead are sent to work as prison labor tasked with cleaning up radiated soil. The notion of the colonies is raised in the book, but not in much detail. How did you go about developing the
look and feel of those very jarring scenes?
We looked very carefully at places that used slave labor to clean up a mess — disposable labor like the people they sent into Chernobyl [in the 1980s]. What we really wanted to do was make sure that the work they did wasn’t impractical. We also wanted to make it clear that in Gilead, there was this idea that you will find redemption through work. There’s that famous sign outside of Auschwitz: Work will make you free. The idea is that they’ve twisted this labor into something redemptive. We wanted to make sure that they were getting something done that is hard to get done any other way. Digging contaminated soil is very expensive and difficult, and it requires a lot of protective gear. They have to do it by hand, and they don’t worry about the people.
Were you able to research what that would look like?
[“Handmaid’s Tale” executive producer] Mike Barker and [production designer] Elisabeth Williams had huge discussions about what it would look like. We tried to be very realistic about how to create that environment in a way that felt really awful. What that place was really like and what clothes they would really wear. Cotton dissolves under those fumes; that’s why they give them plastic to wear. The devil’s in the details. We do a lot of research for the show with the United Nations and U.N. High Commission for Human Rights on what conditions are like in prison camps and labor camps today.
Given that the state of the environment is so central to “Handmaid’s Tale,” will we see a big climactic event related to climate change as the series progresses?
Absolutely. Sustainability and environmental issues underpin a lot of the storyline of infertility. That is the underpinning of everything that Gilead uses as an excuse for its misogyny. This is a show that has its basic foundations resting on environmental stories.
Variety’s Sustainability Resource Guide is presented by Toyota Mirai.