'The Handmaid's Tale' Primer: A Guide to Hulu's Timely Margaret Atwood Adaptation

What's a "handmaid" and what are the rules in Gilead? A beginner's guide to the highly anticipated Hulu drama.
Courtesy of Hulu

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale may be the most unintentionally timely show of the year. 

Ahead of its April 26 debut, the MGM Television series has been the subject of water-cooler conversation and multiple think pieces about its frightening parallels with the country's current political landscape as well as recent discussions surrounding LGBTQ rights and the ongoing attempts of third-wave feminists defining their causes.

Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood’s book on which the Hulu original is based has resurfaced on best-seller lists just as a special audiobook with hints at a Handmaid’s Tale sequel has been released. Given all that, it may seem as though everyone is privy to the world of Gilead and leading character Offred, but the Elisabeth Moss-starring series isn’t exclusive to readers and news junkies. Nor is it a carbon copy of the chapters inked out more than three decades ago by Atwood.

In that vein, The Hollywood Reporter has compiled a primer for those who are new to the beloved franchise ahead of its three-episode premiere.  

The World of Gilead

Gilead is the fictional, totalitarian world in which these characters live; it’s situated where Boston once stood. Public hangings take place at the former Harvard Wall, and all modern forms of technology — from cellphones and computers to televisions and radios — have been eliminated. The way of life is simpler and more puritan, as fertility and everything that can help increase the population takes precedence over anything else. Although it sounds like a futuristic tale, this story is supposed to take place in a current-day climate.

It’s also important to note that there are no words, only symbols in this world. Books and reading are forbidden, as these things are seen as ways to poison the mind. The same goes for any art, music or creative ventures.

The Handmaids

Women in Gilead are divided into color-coded groups based on what they have to offer. Women in blue are the wives of the powerful men who orchestrated this world and are granted more privileges than most. Women in green are the "Marthas": they do the cooking and general household chores. Women in gray are the "aunts": they are the “moral compasses” of this world and train the handmaids.

Women from all of these groups are supposed to be barren thanks to environmental (and man-made) factors. The handmaids, however, are the few fertile women left and their bodies become vessels for the official husbands and wives. Dressed in red with faces hidden with white “wings,” these women are forbidden to make eye contact or speak to anyone considered their superior. They are doled out to couples and are forced to participate in a monthly “ceremony” in which the men effectively rape them with the hopes of them getting pregnant and repopulating the planet. Any babies that are born are then given to the husband and wife, and eventually the handmaid is sent away.

Offred, the Leading Lady

Offred (Moss) is the central handmaid in the series whose story is essentially followed from start to finish through flashbacks. Before the rising of Gilead her name was June (showrunner Bruce Miller picked the name based on a popular theory from the book in which Offred’s former name is never revealed). June had a husband and daughter — only her marriage was considered invalid because it was her husband’s second and the family was forcibly split up by authorities. Her current name is Offred because she is “of” Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), the commander in her household. All handmaids take the name of their male “owners” in this way, but Atwood chose Fred in her heroine’s case because of the double “offered” entendre. 

Series Departures

The Handmaid's Tale is an open-ended book and subsequent series. That means that Miller and the rest of the creative team had a lot to work with in terms of making the Hulu story their own. Season one is 10 episodes and attempts to follow the novel, while everyone involved is confident about a second season that would include additional departures from Atwood’s work.

In terms of the first season, Miller took the opportunity to dig further into some of the fringe characters from the novel, creating rich backstories for people like Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) that give viewers additional details about the horrifying things that happen in Gilead.

Atwood’s Involvement

The prolific and award-winning Canadian author has seen several of her properties developed for television as of late and serves as a consulting producer. She’s liked the first few episodes she's seen and, Miller says, he's ready to pitch her season-two ideas as the story continues to unfold. For now, eagle-eyed viewers can look for a brief cameo in the pilot as Atwood makes an appearance at the Red Center, the place where handmaids are trained by the likes of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Naturally, it’s a scene involving Moss.

The Handmaid’s Tale premieres its first three episodes Wednesday, April 26, on Hulu. Are you looking forward to the series? Sound off in the comments below. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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