Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' Aims to Balance Faithful Adaptation With Elaboration

"There's an incredible amount of story in the book. The more we look into it, the further the horizon of stories we can tell."
Courtesy of Hulu

Source material can be a double-edged sword. It often comes with a built-in fan base, one that's easily rankled by artistic liberties. The executive producers of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale seem well aware of that.

Their upcoming drama is based on Margaret Atwood's celebrated (and many times previously adapted) 1985 novel of the same name. And when the streamer trotted out the creative team and rather impressive cast in front of TV reporters for the first time Saturday evening, much of the discussion lingered on the familiar intellectual property — "IP" for you hepcats — and how preciously they intend to handle it. "Not only is this a book that people have read and studied for years, it's been a movie, a ballet, an opera and a play a couple of times," said executive producer and writer Bruce Miller. "We're certainly loyal to the book. We think the book is excellent. With any changes we make, we are mindful that we're connected to the original material."

The Handmaid's Tale, technically categorized as "speculative fiction" in whatever existing card catalog drawers that haven't been reclaimed by interior designers, is not unlike the dystopian yarns that dominate current popular YA books. It's set in a society where rampant fertility issues have prompted a bizarre caste system, where healthy women are forced into sexual slavery for the wealthy and barren. Mad Men and Top of the Lake star Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, one such woman whose submissive demeanor masks a scheming desire to free herself.

Of course, 320 pages can't exactly be stretched out, verbatim, over 10 episodes — let alone multiple seasons. So while insisting that they've no interest in "playing games" with those who know the text, Miller also admitted that there are new stories to be mined from the world. "When you have a novel, and you have a TV show, the dynamics of the relationships have to be a little different to play over time," he added. "There's an incredible amount of story in the book. The more we look into it, the further the horizon of stories we can tell."

At the same time, Miller implied that an endgame (whenever that might be) won't be different from the text: "I liked Sense and Sensibility when I saw it, and I knew what was going to happen there too."

The drama is probably Hulu's most ambitious play in the originals space to date and also stars Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski. But Moss is front and center. And when her colleagues weren't lavishing the Emmy-winner with praise, she spent much of her time on stage explaining why she chose The Handmaiden's Tale out of the many, many scripts that came her way in the wake of Mad Men's end. Playing narrator, a devise that certainly doesn't work in all television, ended up being one of the things to cinch it for her.

Explains Moss, "It allows the viewer to have a bit of a breath from this world, to have somebody else watching and saying, "This is totally f—ed up.'"

The Handmaid's Tale, the trailer for which came out earlier in the day, premieres April 25 on Hulu.