The Handmaid's Tale has been one of the most celebrated feminist stories since Margaret Atwood published the novel in 1985. Now, Hulu has brought Atwood's dystopian near-future to life in a stunning new adaptation that couldn't be more relevant to our own world. But while the series, lead by The 100's Bruce Miller, stays faithful to the message and world Atwood created, book readers are in for more than a few surprises in this new take on the classic tale.
Miller spoke to TVGuide.com about some of the changes fans can expect, what it's like being a man in charge of this feminist show, and the unfortunate timeliness of Gilead today.
[Warning: Some spoilers for the first three episodes below. Read at your own risk!]
Atwood's novel is an incredibly internalized story, with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) telling the story of her life in reflection. What were the challenges of taking an internal story like that and adapting it for television, and how did you tackle those challenges?
I think the biggest challenge is to maintain that intimacy. It's easier just to dramatize what's going on and in that, lose a little sense of point of view and how every single moment, every single action is affecting Offred, or June. So I think that the first thing you have to do is not just say, "OK, we're going to take what's in the book and turn it into drama," but in fact, you've got to realize what's in the book, and what's in the book is her perception of what's happening. That was the biggest danger area, was the fact that I was going to lose Offred and Offred was my favorite part of the book, the thing that really drew me in. So I was incredibly mindful of keeping it intimate and keeping it her perception of the world because that's what makes it scary: because you're connected to her and you feel for her and you're empathetic to her and you feel like you are her in that situation. And once you lose that, it really loses a lot of its vibrancy.
What was Atwood's role in shaping this adaptation and how much input did she have?
She wrote the book, didn't she? No, I'm just kidding. She was very involved. She had been very involved in the project before I came on, when they had developed it with Ilene Chaiken over the years. And also, she has the unique position in having had this particular work adapted a bunch of times for a bunch of different formats. So she had a level of expertise in how to help in that process that is really kind of unique. Not that many people have had their book adapted into a play, a ballet, a movie and an opera. She really understood and had a great amount of flexibility with what might change when you move it from one form to another. Margaret and I, we talked via email, we met up in Toronto, we met a bunch of friends in Toronto, she came to the set, she came to editing. She's my friend, I'm incredibly happy to say, and we talked a lot about why she made the decisions she made, because as a writer, that's what you're really trying to understand, because you're going to have to do the book yourself and you want to understand why she decided to do the things she did. So she was very involved and very open to any discussion I wanted to have, even when it was something that she wasn't open to the idea [of], she certainly was open to the discussion of anything.
You take the character of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) in a different direction very early on in the series. Can you talk about the decision to have Ofglen forcibly undergo genital mutilation surgery and how that changes things for her character moving forward?
In the book, Ofglen just disappears and we hear that she killed herself. There's no real way to confirm that. This was just one of those cases where you just follow your curiosity and you say, well, what happened to her? And I was fascinated by the idea, personally, of seeing how some of the institutions were being reproduced in Gilead. And the institution of the criminal justice system seemed fascinating in a world with institutionalized sexism and misogyny and biblical laws that were being taken literally. So that kind of lead us down a path of, OK, if I want to see how all of those things go, it would be very interesting to follow those things to the end. And making the decision about the female genital mutilation was really just kind of a practical discussion. A world that happened by accident is different than a world people created on purpose and here, Gilead is a world they created on purpose. There's motive behind it, human motive. So what we're trying to do is say, OK, what would they do to someone like Ofglen? They don't want to kill her or send her away. They want to maintain her fertility as part of their reproductive system and their focus on that. So how would they try to control her?
And also taking into account, Margaret Atwood has said many times and we've certainly took on this adage, that nothing should happen in the show that doesn't happen in the world. We don't want to make up cruelties just for the sake of doing it. Then it turns into pornography. It turns into violence. It's commentary and it helps you understand the world if you take things that happened in the world. Female genital mutilation is certainly something that happens all over the world. The difference here is that it doesn't usually happen to white girls, but it does happen all over the world. We spoke to the U.N. and we spoke to the councils they sent us to about how it happens and why it happens and what it's used for and how it's done. We took it really seriously. We didn't want to do it for shock value, even though it's very shocking. You want to do it because it seems like the thing that Gilead would do. It's a difference in the book, but it's also something that takes place out of Offred's point of view, at least in the show and also in the book. So we felt like we weren't straying so far because it was something that could have happened in the world of the book and could have happened to somebody else. But anything we did that was not in the book or anything we changed, we were incredibly serious in those discussions about why to change things.
There is a racist element of Gilead in the book that isn't present in the show. Why did you decide not to explore issues surrounding race in the series?
Well, it absolutely was central to the book and it was a big discussion and a big decision. But Margaret and I talked about it at the beginning, just because I wanted to get a sense of how she felt and how I felt, not from a statistical government point of view, but how have things changed in terms of racism in relation to the evangelical movement and people's feelings about having children in their lives that weren't the same races as they were and how has that changed. In the last 30 years, people adopt children from all over the world and that wasn't really happening then [when the book was written in 1985]. ... And honestly, I was just looking at the landscape of television. In the book, it's easy to say it's an all-white world because you don't keep seeing it all the time. You say it, but you kind of forget about it. TV, I think it would be jarring in this day and age. It wouldn't look like our world because our world, or at least the school that my kids go to and the world that I live in, is very multi-ethnic and multi-racial. And the primary goal of the show is to make it terrifying and it's not terrifying if it doesn't look like the world.
So those were some of the things that I was thinking about. The other thing was that it felt like, what's the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? When you look at it, it's the problems of white people. And the book doesn't go very much into what's happening to the people of color who have been sent away to here or there except that they probably met with their demise in the middle of the ocean. And so with all those things in mind, Margaret and I talked about it. We talked about it way before I made the decision to bring other races into the story, and Margaret and I decided on a "fertility trumps everything" model. That was the most important thing to Gilead. If the fertility rate had fallen 95 percent, all the sudden I think there would be prejudices that people were willing to let go. And that would have happened before Gilead.
And honestly, when Samira Wiley comes in and auditions for Moira, what do you say? She's spectacular. And she is Moira. She just was from the first moment she walked in the door. It made the decision a lot easier to make, once she walks in or O-T Fagbenle, who was so amazing as Luke. All of the sudden, [Offred and Luke] seem like a couple and it all the sudden disappears out of your mind. [The racism aspect] was always something I remembered from the book and something I thought about when I read the book, but I hope that people will be able to adapt to this world without too much of a bump. And back to what you asked at the very beginning, we're dealing with so many complicated and fraught issues, issues that are really things that we're arguing about now and we've been arguing about for a long time - misogyny and totalitarianism and religion and politics - biting off also just the small issue of racism in our world just seemed even more presumptuous. Like, oh yeah, we can just throw that in and deal with that as well. So we certainly are going to deal, and we have dealt [with race] along the way in Gilead. We certainly don't want to ignore it. We want it to be our world, but we just didn't want to have had that decision [to get rid of all people of color in Gilead] been made before the show started.
During the Tribeca Film Festival panel, many of the actors avoided calling this a feminist show, something even Atwood disagreed with on Twitter. Can you explain why they might have side-stepped around the show's feminism and whether you believe this is a feminist show or not?
Absolutely. The core of this show is feminism. It's a feminist novel. It couldn't be more at the core of my initial sense and understanding of what feminism was. So yes, it's a feminist show. And it would be wonderful if we could be seen as continuing that conversation that Margaret Atwood started a long time ago. So as a basic answer, absolutely, it's a feminist show. And I think everybody who spoke at the panel would agree... It's certainly, absolutely, 100 percent a feminist show and I hope it will be perceived that way. I don't want to be mansplaining how people will react to the show before it's been on television, but if we can be seen as a feminist show, I would be thrilled.
Given that this is such an iconic feminist story, how do you feel about being a man bringing this work to the screen?
Terrified. I know that they were looking for a female showrunner when they hired me and I was completely on their side. It certainly makes a ton of sense. All I had to bring to the table was my enthusiasm and just desire to do it. I was a huge fan of the book and I read it in college. I've read it 100 times since then. So I think that when you take on any project, you always try to buttress your weaknesses, no matter what it is. And in this case, my weaknesses were quite apparent. And so at least I was able to kind of say, OK, I know that I'll hire a staff of strong, female voices who are super smart and super stubborn and super artistic. And also, we hired all female directors except for one. We have a female production designer, a female costumer. We tried to surround ourselves with women artists and also, I tried not to make assumptions that I knew things that I didn't know and have those open discussions, even about things that seemed embarrassing.
The thing we ended up discovering was that, I think eight out of our 10 writers were women, and when you have someone in the room say, well, a woman in this situation would do this, and it just turns into a free-for-all amongst the women. You realize that you're trying to dig deeper. It's not a woman would do this and a man wouldn't. It's, what would Offred do? And so I think you just try to be mindful of the deficits that you have in your life experience and being a woman is one of them. It's not the only one, certainly, but it's one of them. It's a work in progress and I'm very mindful of it. I was mindful of it at the casting stage. I was mindful of it at the writing stage. And I was mindful of it when shooting and editing. I think the proof is kind of in the show and I hope that it comes across, that Offred's voice seems genuine. But we kind of had a big leg up. You're coming from a book. You're coming from this spectacular female character from a book. And so you have a bit of an advantage because you're not creating out of thin air a woman, but you're trying to adapt a woman from one medium to another.
A lot has been said about how timely the series is. Do you feel any concern that, given the current state of our society, The Handmaid's Tale might hit a little too close to home for many viewers who would rather avoid facing these ideas head-on?
I'm not worried. I hope it hits a little too close to home for viewers who are feeling anxious, because I think there are some great lessons to be learned, which is that the world can change in big ways and we should be very mindful of keeping an eye on our freedoms. As in the show, we see in the flashbacks, how in big and small ways the world can change and the things that we say and the things people say, they're going to end up mattering in people's personal lives and that we live in a country where we enjoy lots of freedoms and that those freedoms are not to be taken for granted.
The other thing is that if it does hit close to home, it also offers some really good examples of what to do. Offred is in an incredibly difficult circumstance, and yet she finds ways to express herself, she keeps her sanity, she keeps her heart alive. She also pulls levers of power. She manipulates the people around her to both increase her chances of survival, but also to build some sort of life. She makes connections with people even when they're scary. I think in a way that's inspiring. If Offred can do that in that situation, maybe we can do something in this situation. I think Margaret said it in the book, which is, "just do something." And hopefully you walk away with that. And the other part is that there is a part of doe-eyed optimism on my part, when you look in the flashbacks, the world is so jarringly different. Our messy, noisy world where people are kissing in public and on their iPhones and stuff, you learn to appreciate it, or at least I did. Spending so much time in the fictional world of Gilead, you learn to appreciate how nice it is to have a messy, noisy world and what a pleasure that is. So if you walk out of there going boy, we actually have a good thing going even though it annoys us sometimes, that's the nerve you want to hit, which is people saying, "Oh, actually there are some good things. Let's fight to preserve them." As opposed to, "Things are sh--ty, let's just throw up our hands and abandon them."
The first three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale are available to stream now on Hulu. Beginning next week, future episodes will be released weekly on Wednesdays.