Exclusive: The Handmaid's Tale executive producers on how today's world shaped their TV adaptation

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Apr 26, 2017, 8:40 PM EDT

For 32 years, Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, has been the literary equivalent of an ice-cold bucket of water for a generation of women positing how bad it could get if a patriarchal and religious-zealot-filled government came to power. While it's always been chilling to read in any decade, of late the novel's become far too close to a blueprint for where the current U.S. social and political climate could go. Which obviously means now is the very best time that the book should be adapted into a television series.

Of course, the incredibly random and laborious process of television development doesn't allow prescient thinking, otherwise all TV shows would hit screens at the exact right time. But sometimes the system brings forth a series that manages to land when it's most needed, and is that ever the case with Hulu's lush and deeply thought-provoking adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.

Starring Elizabeth Moss as the handmaid, Offred (formerly known as June), and a supporting cast including Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, The Handmaid's Tale is executive-produced by legendary former TV executive turned producer Warren Littlefield and executive producer/showrunner Bruce Miller. While a film of the same name was made from the book in 1990, television is now the medium that relishes adaptations demanding the deeper exploration of themes and characters not afforded by cinematic run times. As such, writer/producer Ilene Chaiken wrote a pilot that MGM optioned, and then brought in Bruce Miller to expand for a 10-episode season.

After Littlefield's successful work on Fargo, he was asked to read Miller's first two scripts, and if interested, talk with actress Elizabeth Moss about taking on the project. After reading Miller's work, Littlefield says his instant reaction was, "Holy s***, this is powerful." Littlefield immediately picked up Atwood's book, which he confesses, "I am embarrassed to say I never read. So I literally jumped in and couldn't stop, and then read Bruce's scripts again." From there, he was able to get Moss to sign on as Offred, as they both agreed, "We have a responsibility of honoring Margaret Atwood's vision. We have the responsibility of 'Holy s***, the world is changing, and we don't want it to be, but this is really relevant."

That relevance has only snowballed since the series went into production last year. Seeing social media mired in gender and racial discord, a new political administration setting policy that has not been received well by a large portion of the female electorate, and international politics in equal disarray has not been lost on showrunner Miller, who toiled on The Handmaid's Tale pilot during the 2015 U.S. political primary season. In an exclusive one-on-one with Miller, we talk about how much of the current world climate influenced how they developed the series, how much the TV adaptation adheres to the book, and what he hopes people take away from watching such a bleak rendering of a worst-case scenario for our world.

When were you first introduced to The Handmaid's Tale, and then when did it occur to you that it might make for a great television series?

I read this book when I was in college in a New Fiction class, and it's been one of my favorite books for 35 years. I was thrilled they made a movie. And after that, as I got more into writing TV, I thought it would make a really great TV series. But someone always owned the rights.

Were you able to get those rights to make this series?

The deal had pretty much been made when I came aboard. They had an original script by Ilene Chaiken, who was involved along with MGM, and they were looking for a showrunner. It happened relatively quickly and it all happened during the primary season, which couldn't have been more perfect since I'm an exceptional political news junkie. I put Ilene's script aside, no disrespect to her, as two of our executive producers, Fran Sears and Daniel Wilson were involved in the movie, and they could come to me to tell me based on their experience what wouldn't work. To have people who have test driven the narrative helped a ton.

With the U.S. political backdrop in the periphery of your writing, did you get the sense that this work might be significantly more potent now than perhaps even a decade ago?

I was writing the pilot in the fall and I don't think anybody intended, or hoped, it would be as relevant as it is. It certainly was extremely relevant when the book came out 35 years ago, so I don't know if this book loses relevance. In every generation there's a lot of very interesting reasons to tell this story.

Did today's polarized political landscape inform how you wrote this adaptation?

I think that as a person, I was surprised by not only what anger was out there in the American electorate, but the things that they were angry about. The fact they were so vocal helped me a lot to understand that people were talking honestly about things that they don't honestly talk about. Anytime that happens, it's excellent for me to understand the points of view. It's easy to understand the people in the story you agree with, it's harder to find a reason to do what Joseph and Yvonne and Ann Dowd have done so spectacularly, which is to really understand, and love and respect these people you despise, are terrified of, or are doing important things.

How does Offred tie into that polarization today?

It seemed to me that the mood of the American electorate was feeling like there were large, intractable problems that they didn't have any way of solving, and they have no influence on the government, with no voice to change things. I kept thinking if Offred is finding a way to rebel, and she's finding a way to actually affect changes in the government in that situation, we should be grateful we're having that argument. It brought her into more relief as inspiration. When you sit all day and write The Handmaid's Tale, and you are finished doing that and you turn on the TV and someone is playing music too loud and people are walking around in skimpy clothing, thank God! All of a sudden Britney Spears is a heroine, or what Katy Perry does on a daily basis, or that a woman who ran for president. We should look around and find a way to speak out and change the things we don't like -- if Offred is stuck in her situation and still finding a way to have a life and make an impact on the world.

[Spoilers: skip the next two questions if you want to watch the series without knowledge of the book]

The book is written in Offred's voice, which can be problematic in television narrative when you want to broaden the character base for the audience. Why keep her inner voice as a voice over in the series?

I think her limited perspective makes it scarier. In a lot of ways, it's a thriller and a suspense, survival story. She doesn't know what the weather is going to be tomorrow.  She doesn't know anything, and that limited perspective is terrifying for us. So, I found it more than just a good structure, but a character in and of itself, to retain that kind of point of view. I'm a very big believer that when I write, I depend on point of view a lot. I want to know who we follow in the scene and whose story it is. The entire book is Offred's point of view. Every single thing that happens, and in fact by the end of the book you find out she's recorded these memoirs, and that's what the show is. Now, do we follow other people's stories? Absolutely. We find other people's back stories, but the conceit of the show is that all of this stuff, some way, shape or form, is being reported to us. It's all a bunch of tapes found, and recorded by Offred, and she's telling us the story. The stories off her point of view are stories she's either heard, or intuited, or guessed at, or heard later.

That's a great turn in the book for the reader, and one for the audience watching a series. Are you going to hold that back to reveal in your own time?

Voiceover is central to this story and Offred is central to this story. First of all, the book has been out there a long time. A lot of people have been assigned it in high school. I'm not hiding anything in the book. We deviate from the book. I certainly depend on the book, but when you are doing a series, you are doing a different thing. So we're definitely not showing it, but for people who know, we have a bunch of hints along the way in the first season, including her voice over, the way we are recording it is to make it sound like a cassette. It also helps me, the writing staff, and Elizabeth, to think about the character as June talking after all of this happens, about how she felt while it was happening. It gives us a sense of how to think about the scenes. It's sort of a mental game that you have to go through as it's in retrospect.

What's Elizabeth Moss bring to Offred?

She's astonishing and we're lucky to have her. It's exactly who I wanted, just better. I was thrilled that she might be available, and I was thrilled that she wanted to do it. The work she is doing is beyond comprehension.

How is the cast impacting how you write them, or feature their characters in your adaptation?

Especially trying to get to know the motivations and emotional life of people who are doing things you consider to be cruel, is something we wouldn't be able to do without Joseph, Yvonne, Ann, and some other actors playing characters that could be mustache twirly, arch-villains. It's bringing those people to life as real people. Everybody in the story needs to be believable, or its not scary. If the Commander is someone you never meet and can't get your head around, then he can't exist. So I think that was the best thing about the cast. And one of the most wonderful things about working in TV, is you say, 'Oh, if they can do this, I wonder if they can do that?' So you can push what is very complicated stories and characters, you can make even more complicated.

So what has writing this series done to you as a person? Has it changed how you look at the world, and actually see other people who aren't like you?

I think it's absolutely impacted me, especially in terms of professionally really thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of having certain things in common with a story. Does it help you tell a story, or does it impede you, or give you perspective? When you are drawing a picture of a society that is saying things out loud that you don't ever hear, and you feel are opinions that people don't hold anymore, it influences every decision that I made in terms of hiring, or how to think of different people for different roles. Also, in terms of how not to overcompensate and making everything a statement or a decision that was based on gender, or race, and look past those things as people. To generalize a person to represent anything -- their whole gender, their whole race, or their whole world -- I'm very reductive thinking about what does Offred have for breakfast? How does Offred feel about that? So thinking about a specific person is always my go-to. But a story like this where society is treating a group of people, you really start thinking about how do I treat a group of people? Do I treat them as a group, or differently than I treat another group in general? From the very beginning, the writing staff is all women but one other man. The key was being able to have those conversations for realsies, openly, and talk about all this stuff. It was fun and educational. People were incredibly articulate and fearless and respectful. All television shows promote interesting conversations, but this particular show has really started some particularly interesting conversations.

What's the walk away you hope to get from viewers of The Handmaid's Tale?

I think that provoking conversation is one aspect. However, I think the problem is that often times you provoke conversations where it's just two people taking turns talking. But if you can provoke some better listening that would be a goal for a show like this. To look at someone in an extreme situation, and talk about it, and through that recognize something you can translate to your normal life. Also it would be to recognize the freedoms we have in our society, and appreciate them. It's a hopeful story in that way, which is you walk out of your house and hear music with terribly explicit lyrics and think "Thank God!" Because that's what the free world sounds like.

The Handmaid's Tale is now available on Hulu.