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Whenever a movie is based on a book, something inevitably gets left out. Even the nine and a half hours of Lord of the Rings didn’t include everything (sorry, Tom Bombadil). When the movie The Handmaid’s Tale was made in 1990, not all of Margaret Atwood’s book could fit in under two hours.
But the world has changed significantly since the film adaptation, which starred Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall —starting with the rise of the internet, high-speed connections, and digital video production and distribution. Technology has enabled streaming services (whether standalone or tied to traditional networks) to tell even more of the story, and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale allows 10 hours in the first season alone.
The series — which is Certified Fresh at 100% at the time of this writing — benefits from an all-star cast, including seven-time Emmy-nominated former Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, one of the few fertile women left in the story’s oppressive future. Taken from her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenie) and their child, Offred is made a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) uses others like her to perform The Ceremony — it’s a fancy way of saying he gets to impregnate them. Alexis Bledel plays Ofglen, another handmaid paired with Offred, and who fans of the book know holds key information.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Moss, Fiennes, Bledel, and Fagbenie, as well as showrunner Bruce Miller and producer Warren Littlefield. Here are eight things they told us the series brings to life from Atwood’s book.
Moss was a huge fan of the book and had read it multiple times before even landing the role. She was excited to film scenes at the sex club, Jezebel’s, where women are treated even worse than the handmaids.
“Where [Offred] and the Commander go to Jezebel’s, that whole sequence I was really looking forward to,” Moss said.
Offred’s first encounter with the Commander is presented just like it is in the book, too.
“The Scrabble scene,” Fiennes said. “It’s quite a kind of famous moment of interaction between the two of them, their first form of interaction.”
The show also portrays the salvaging scene, where handmaids execute criminals convicted by the government by tearing the accused apart. The handmaids do stick together, especially when giving birth to the offspring of commanders.
“There’s a scene in the book where Janine gives birth,” Miller said. “It’s a wonderful scene of camaraderie between these handmaids in a sweaty room.”
Gilead is the good old US of A, by the way, that has been renamed by the new dictatorship. With the expanded scope of a television season, The Handmaid’s Tale has time to show what America looks like as Gilead and what the characters’ lives are like there. Expect to see a lot more of Ofglen here than in the source material.
“I believe Ofglen is taken in a very interesting way that elaborates in a way that, as a fan of the book, I would’ve loved,” Moss said. “There are things that maybe you would’ve wanted as a reader for them to elaborate upon that we have elaborated upon or shown a little bit more behind the scenes or what happened afterwards.”
All those embellishments take their cue from Atwood though.
“We were able to take some things that are a sentence in the book and turn it into a whole episode,” Miller said. “The book takes place in a specific period of time. Then there’s an end of the book that has historical notes on what happened afterwards.
“So, in fact, the span of time that the book takes place is her entire life,” Miller continued. “A lot of it isn’t shown in detail. It’s just spoken about afterwards. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s mentioned in the book and mentioned in the afternotes to fill in the next 30 years that we could do on television.”
Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale from Offred’s perspective, and she’s separated from Luke for most of the story, which means he’s only mentioned in memories. The show has been able to run with that and make Luke a recurring character.
“My character, Offred’s husband, only really exists in mentions in the book,” Fagbenie said. “‘Luke would say this’ or ‘Luke would do that’ or ‘I missed that moment with Luke.’ What’s really exciting for me is the television show is an imaginative expansion of what’s in the book. I feel like it’s more of a discovery of him. I kind of find out who he was through Bruce’s writing.”
Moss got some of her questions about Luke answered too.
“Exploring not only his past, but what the hell happens when she’s captured, and if he dies, if he doesn’t die,” Moss said. “That is something that, as a fan of the book, I would want to know.”
Dealing with subjects like rape and enslavement, The Handmaid’s Tale pulls no punches in portraying atrocities. That doesn’t mean it goes full Game of Thrones.
“I feel like we just wanted to be real, and we just wanted to be honest,” Moss said. “There was no intention to not be explicit or not be graphic about things. We just wanted to tell it with a truth and an honesty. It’s a fine line, because often what you don’t show can be more horrific than what you do, but sometimes you need to show things to really understand what’s happening in the world.”
Hulu knew what they were signing up for and have supported Miller’s vision.
“We have this institutionalized rape system going on, and you have to show it and show how it feels for all the different people involved,” Miller said. “Hulu have been incredibly supportive, incredibly brave, about anything we wanted to do.”
It sounds like the scripts are faithfully adapted from the book, and the actors went above and beyond to find passages of Atwood’s descriptions that they could perform on screen.
“There’s a little tidbit about Ofglen, that sometimes she had her hands in her cloak,” Bledel said. “You couldn’t see her hands. So I did that in one scene just because it was in the book.”
But the handmaids’ costumes are not designed with pockets: “There are no pockets,” Bledel added. “There are side openings to it.”
Fiennes found Atwood’s description of the Commander helpful for playing him.
“She describes him like a hard boot, but inside is this soft limb,” Fiennes said. “This almost delicate, soft limb that lives inside a very tough boot. I thought that was a wonderful metaphor for describing him. Really, he’s a normal guy underneath all of that. The boot is power. It’s kind of a look at the way that power can corrupt you.”
Moss thumbed through the book constantly while on set.
“I’ve read it so many times,” she said. “I often just open it and just read a passage. I would never in a million years be able to pick out one or two things. Every sentence, every word is so valuable to me.”
After making Westworld‘s Old West look like the real deal, Ane Crabtree designed the costumes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the centerpiece of which was the uniform of the titular handmaids. There’s more to the costume than a red robe with a white hood.
“It’s very specific,” Bledel said. “There are a lot of different pieces. It’s one cloak, but with every season, there are different additions to the dress and the cloak. My costume on most days had 12 pieces.”
Watching a procession of handmaids march in their robes is striking for sure, but the men’s costumes are just as important. The Commander’s wardrobe reveals a lot about him.
“There’s a whole regime of codes and costumes,” Fiennes said. “He’s given himself a rather swanky double-breasted coat, which is kind of nice. It’s all about armor. I love the fact that we get to see him being revealed slowly. It gets peeled off. It’s all about power and armor. That’s what his costume’s about.”
And with Luke playing a more prominent role, viewers will get to see how the rebels dress in dystopian Gilead.
“My character lives in a bit more of a modern world,” Fagbenie said. “Although it’s kind of got a little bit of a 1980s vintage flair, it’s a lot more downplayed.”
Fortunately, 2017 America is still doing better than Gilead. The idea of Atwood’s Tale is that this could happen in the present, even though it might look like a costume drama. The series will keep reminding viewers that it is, in fact, the present.
“It was very important for us to not have it feel like a Merchant Ivory film,” Littlefield said. “We needed the present day to keep butting up against this very puritanical kind of world to say, ‘No, this is now. This is today.’ In some ways, it looks like it’s from another time and place.”
“Dystopias generally are ugly,” Miller said. “They look like they’re dusty and dirty. This is beautiful, so bringing to life that beauty. In a book, you read it, but you don’t see it in every frame. Here we were able to do that.”
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Wednesday, April 26 on Hulu.