5:00am PT by Amber Dowling
How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Became the Most Unintentionally Relevant Show Ever
When Margaret Atwood released The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she wrote it on sheets of yellow paper and transcribed it on a manual German keyboard typewriter she rented while living in West Berlin. The Wall was still up, the air was ripe with an uneasy Big Brother vibe and a general sense of distrust was looming large.
In that atmosphere, the world of Gilead and the story of a handmaid named Offred was born. In the years since, Atwood has always maintained that every happening in her award-winning novel was based on some sort of real-life event in the world, from the biblical handmaids who served Jacob to the increasing infertility rates around the world. That hasn’t stopped many from wondering whether Atwood is actually a prophet, especially given how timely her story and the release of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, seem to be in 2017.
The series takes place in Gilead, a futuristic but simplified world in which fertility issues abound and women's rights are a thing of the past. In order to keep the population up, totalitarian government officials send young and fertile women — the "handmaids" — to affluent families, where they are forced to help couples procreate via sexual servitude.
Ahead of its April 26 premiere, comments sections underneath the show’s official trailer have lit up with Donald Trump supporters claiming the show is against his government. Women showed up to a Texas Senate meeting dressed in full handmaid costume to protest an anti-abortion bill. During the Women’s March earlier this year, people were sporting posters with the infamous words from the book, "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum," a saying Offred learns to mean “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Hulu ordered Handmaid straight to series in April 2016, before Trump was tapped as the Republican front-runner in the race for president. Production on season one was nearly completed in Toronto when Trump was sworn in. That makes The Handmaid’s Tale one of the most unintentionally relevant shows in recent years. And while the cast and crew may have avoided using the president’s name during a recent screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, it’s hard to ignore some of the direct comparisons of fear and isolation and how that ultimately impacts freedom.
“The book is nearly 35 years old, so if it is anti-Trump, God bless time traveler Margaret Atwood,” showrunner Bruce Miller told The Hollywood Reporter in advance of the screening. "Certainly the current political climate affected us, but it was never a discussion about particular people or particular programs that were going to be in place. Gilead has its own political structure that was established a long time ago, so that’s what we were working toward.”
For series star and LGBTQ rights advocate Samira Wiley, reading the book after getting the part of Moira — Offred’s gay best friend — blew her away.
“I wasn’t familiar with Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale before reading the script. I ignorantly thought, ‘Oh wow, they just wrote this story for this time…like right now, that’s so amazing,’ ” She said. “And then to find out it was written more than 30 years ago is insane to me.”
For Moss, who also serves as an executive producer on the drama and is in nearly every scene, the show felt even more weighted after November, when the scripts suddenly became slightly more grounded in reality.
“After the election, it just fell out of the clouds, out of our imaginations, and hit the solid ground of reality. It's like things that were out of focus all of a sudden became very sharp. It wasn't pretend anymore,” Moss said. “Personally, it affected us all deeply, but practically, the scripts already were there. It was just life that caught up.”
“I only filmed before the election, but it certainly feels relevant,” added Alexis Bledel, who plays Offred's confidante Ofglen. “Margaret Atwood’s writing is relevant no matter what time we’re in or what’s going on in the world. Certainly now, obviously, I’m proud to be on a show that will no doubt spur conversations about women’s issues that need to be had and are being had.”
Moss and Miller both maintain that while certain storylines, especially surrounding minority rights, may feel especially relevant in the U.S., the show takes a more universal world view in keeping with Atwood’s original themes.
“The book was written 32 years ago. It's anti-bigotry, racism, sexism, ignorance, deception and stupidity. So if certain Trump supporters consider that ‘anti-Trump,’ that's a connection that those people are making on their own,” Moss said.
Added Miller: "I don’t think anybody feels like the specifics of Gilead are being borne out in America or anywhere else in the world in their totality. There are terrible aspects happening in lots of places. The thing that feels more relevant is Offred, her struggle. We all feel like we’re pushing up against big powers that don’t understand us or are making our lives difficult. Then you look at Offred and see the forces she’s pushing up against while maintaining a rebellious spirit and keeping herself and her hope alive. That seems to become more relevant the more people are looking at their governments and are worried about what their governments are doing. Wondering how they’re going to react, it they’re going to speak out or just be quiet. If Offred can speak out, if she can find ways to rebel, then certainly we can.”
Given the use of the book to protest certain current political situations, such as what happened in Texas or during the Women’s March, the story is certainly hitting home for more than a few people ahead of its premiere. Moss loves that people are making the parallels.
“I f—ing love it. I would [protest in costume] too, and I do wear things with that message,” she said. “We have a right to speak, to protest and free speech, and the fact that people see value in using that iconic image of the Handmaid’s Tale dress and ‘wings’ to send a message in a peaceful way is admirable.”
Sums up Miller, for whom Handmaid is a labor of love: “I hope this has parallels to this administration; I think it has parallels to every administration we’ve ever had — for good and otherwise. It’s nonsensical in terms of a causal relationship just because of the darned time-space continuum. But besides that, if people relate it to things that are going on now — and I certainly can find lots of things to relate to in the things going on now — all the better. If people are finding, in very complicated and scary times, something that at least speaks to that level of fear and that level of complication…it helps people put things into perspective.”
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres its first three episodes April 26 on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.