Margaret Atwood knows that the world she created in the 1980s now has a life of its own. “The Handmaids have escaped from their box. They’ve gotten out of their package. They’re strolling all over the place,” she told IndieWire at the Los Angeles premiere of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the haunting, traumatic and beautiful drama which was renewed for a second season this morning.
Atwood meant that in a literal, physical sense — officially and unofficially, women dressed as her signature literary characters have recently been spotted at SXSW, the Texas Legislature, the Los Angeles Book Fair, and the New York subway. But those appearances speak to a larger issue: “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now bigger than one book. And thanks to Hulu, we can anticipate many seasons worth of story to explore.
This was very much showrunner Bruce Miller’s intention when he took on the challenge of adapting Atwood’s historic dystopian novel as a series — and very deliberately not a miniseries, but as a TV show that could go on for years.
In theory, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the story of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a young woman living under the brutal rule of the new nation of Gilead, who isn’t just the central character, but narrates the story on screen with delicate and spare voice-over. But the show has already, in its early episodes, expanded the narrative beyond Offred’s limited point-of-view, and viewers can anticipate even more of that to come.
“I have an enormous plan in my head,” Miller told IndieWire during the Television Critics Association press tour. “There’s so many things that are mentioned in the book, so many worlds to explore.”
What that means, exactly, is hard to explain without revealing major spoilers for the novel — which will eventually, Miller promises, translate to the series. But he noted that the final section of Atwood’s book, which is told from a different point-of-view than Offred’s, will play a major role in building out what happens to all of the characters of the show — as well as the world in which they live.
Without revealing too much, “there’s a lot of stuff to cover,” is basically all we’re able to report Miller saying. But for those who have analyzed that final section of the novel for the details it contains about Gilead’s history, know that Miller has done the exact same thing, and all of that will feed the narrative as the show continues forward for future seasons.
Among those who have also ruthlessly studied the original novel is Moss, who found it to be a invaluable resource during production of Season 1. “That’s one of the amazing things, is that I’ve been able to go back to the book time and time again,” she said to IndieWire. “We shot actual scenes that are in the book and I’ve been able to go back and read that part of the book to see what Margaret Atwood felt. That is a gift as an actor that is really rare. You have this research material that is available to you, that is also so beautiful and so well-put and so well-written. I’ve never had that before.”
The series’ use of voice-over — always a dicey prospect for writers, who are often warned away from using it — is directly drawn from the novel, which is told in the first person. And the voice-over does prove to be essential in this case. That’s in part because the novel’s first-person narration is technically a key element of the novel’s plot: If you’ve read the book, know that Miller is very aware of these two words — cassette tapes. “That couldn’t be anymore important. It’s the whole book,” he said.
Beyond that, Miller felt that using voice-over was important as a tool in character development, given how much Offred, as an oppressed person in a totalitarian regime, has to live inside her own head. “There’s a huge gulf between what she’s allowed to say and how she projects herself in the world of Gilead and what’s going on in her head,” he explained. “Really, the main conflict in the show, in some ways, I always feel is between Offred and [her real self]. That her real persona is always saying, ‘Don’t take this shit from people. What’s wrong? Smack her. She’s a bitch.'”
Regarding the voice-over, Moss noted that “It’s possibly been one of the most challenging parts of making this show, finding the balance, finding what is too much? What is too little? Our overriding law has been — it is an addition. It’s supposed to enhance a scene. It is never supposed to take the place of anything. It is never supposed to be ‘oh, we can’t show this so we’re gonna talk about it.’ It has to be something that enhances the scene.”
“I think it’s fantastic because it’s a way of letting the audience in,” Moss added. “You have a character who can’t speak. You have a character who is forbidden from speaking about how she feels – literally. How are you going to show that? How are you going to let the audience in to what she’s thinking and feeling? For me, it’s been a great way of communicating with the viewer – of letting them know ‘I’m with you. I think this shit is fucked up, I think this is crazy, I think this is terrible. This is now how things should be.'”
There’s also this crucial element, for Moss: “It’s basically a way of bringing Margaret Atwood’s voice into it.”
That was a major factor for Miller as well. “One of the lessons they pound into young writers often is, ‘Don’t use voice-over; I think the addendum I tried to add to that is, ‘Don’t use voice-over, unless you’re taking it from a Margaret Atwood book.'”
Atwood herself remains a bit surprised by what’s happened to her iconic Handmaids. “They’re now an immediately recognizable symbol. They have been for a while, but I can’t control them now.”
The Handmaids may be loose in the world, but everyone involved in the show is clear on what they owe to their creator.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu. The series is produced by MGM TV.