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April 27, 2017

The Hand-Off

From a renowned writer to a respectful producer, The Handmaid’s Tale finds a new form on Hulu.

Whitney Friedlander
  • Take Five/Hulu
  • George Kraychyk/Hulu

Way before teen sagas like The Hunger Games and Divergent made dystopia cool — back in 1985 — The Handmaid’s Tale frightened readers worldwide with a tale of total governmental control.

In the novel by Margaret Atwood, a coup in New England brings a theocratic dictatorship to power, and women are forced into sexual slavery.

But, given recent protests that brought hundreds of thousands of women out into the streets, the April 26 debut of Hulu’s series adaptation seems supremely timely.

“[The book] is, unfortunately, more pertinent now than when I published it,” says Atwood, an acclaimed Canadian poet and novelist. “But that has been happening over the last 10 years, I would say. There were people who, when I first published it, took the ‘It could never happen here’ attitude. You don’t hear much of that anymore.”

Like the book, the series is told from the point of view of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a woman separated from her husband and daughter and forced into reproductive servitude for a high-ranking official and his wife (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski).

For series creator–writer–executive producer Bruce Miller, a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale since reading it in college, it was important to do the novel justice.

He consulted with fellow exec producers Fran Sears and Daniel Wilson, who’d worked on Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film adaptation, and Atwood herself (the novelist got a cameo appearance). He also collaborated with crew members like costume designer Ane Crabtree to depict a society that looks like a more buttoned-up version of contemporary life, because “this world is much scarier when it feels like it could be the real world.”

Miller’s no stranger to characters living in gloomy despair, having written and co-executive-produced the CW’s The 100. But Offred’s story isn’t meant  to depress viewers, he insists. He’d rather audiences consider it a tale of  inspiration.

“People feel like government is a faceless, powerful entity that they don’t have any control over,” Miller says. “When you look at Offred, who finds a way to live her life and change things, that’s what I connected to. If she’s still making jokes, I should suck it up and try to change things.”

Despite Miller’s admiration for Atwood’s prose, both he and the author know that the goal for his writers is to expand the series beyond the source material. “We do things that are mentioned in the book and turn them into whole episodes,” he says.

Nothing is sacrosanct, not even the final chapter. “The end of the book is just another example…. We’re going to have to think through [the story] and either change what’s in the book or say what would happen next.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017

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