Tonal dread and brutality in The Handmaid's Tale

Author Margaret Atwood (left) with Elisabeth Moss, lead actress of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Author Margaret Atwood (left) with Elisabeth Moss, lead actress of The Handmaid’s Tale.PHOTO: HULU

TORONTO • This is how a war on women ramps up: First, their bank accounts are frozen and then they are forbidden to work.

Protesters gather, waving signs and chanting. Then, in this flashback scene from the first episode of the new Hulu series, The Handmaid's Tale, police open fire on the demonstrators.

Bloodied bodies fall and the camera holds tight on the story's heroine, Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, whose disbelieving face seems to ask: "What world is this?"

Based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel, the series tells the story of a country reinvented: A violent religious coup has turned the United States into Gilead, a theocracy where women have been stripped of their rights and the more fertile conscripted into "handmaids", forced to bear children for the elite.

Though the protest scene was filmed last autumn and, like the series itself, conceived long before a dizzying election season and aftermath that have catapulted Atwood's book up the Amazon bestseller list, the television adaptation arrives with a newfound and unexpected resonance in US President Donald Trump's America.

Before the series even debuts on Wednesday, references to The Handmaid's Tale - shorthand for repressive patriarchy - seem ubiquitous. A photo of a group of male Republicans at the White House debating maternity services with nary a woman in sight earned the social media hashtag #Gilead.

Last month, women in Handmaids' red dresses and bonnets sat side-by-side in the Texas State Capitol to protest anti-abortion measures under consideration.

"We thought about it in a different way," said Orange Is The New Black star Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, Offred's best friend, referring to the cast and crew's changed relationship to the show since the election.

"Suddenly, it was dangerously close to the climate that we were starting to live in. We were hoping to be relevant, but we weren't hoping it would be this relevant."

The tonal dread and brutality of Atwood's novel are omnipresent in the series, but there are potential pitfalls to adapting a feminist touchstone so faithfully, while also having to speak to a political moment the creators did not anticipate. Will fans of the novel want to subject themselves to 10 hours of immersion into their deep fears?

It was still the Barack Obama era when Hulu pursued the property two years ago as part of a strategy to broaden its identity from a glorified video recorder to a producer of original programming.

The showrunner Bruce Miller threw his hat in the ring when Ilene Chaiken, who had been developing the adaptation at MGM, departed for television series Empire.

A veteran writer-producer on shows including E.R. (1994-2009) and Eureka (2006-2012), Miller had been obsessed with the novel since reading it as an undergraduate at Brown, even having his agent continually check to see if the film or TV rights were available.

"Offred spoke to me," he said. "She's in this nightmarish situation, but she keeps her funny cynicism and sarcasm. She finds really interesting ways to pull levers of power and express herself."

But Miller was not a shoo-in for showrunner because producers were looking for a woman, he recalled. The Handmaid's Tale has been a seminal right-of-passage novel for many young women for more than three decades.

"It's sacred to me too," he said. "But I don't feel like it's a male or female story. It's a survival story."

MGM and Hulu selected him after he pitched what he described as an adaptation grounded in a recognisable reality and hewing closely to the book's first-person point of view through close-ups and Offred's Atwoodian voice-over.

Structured like a thriller where no one can be trusted, the tense adaptation does not sanitise the book's cruelty either. Offred's daughter has been taken by the state and she has become a possession of the Commander (Joseph Fiennes).

The depths of his control and the horrific absence of hers are unflinchingly displayed when Offred lies impassively while enduring government-sanctioned rape.

Close-ups amplify the claustrophobia; Moss said the camera sometimes came so near to her face that she would bump up against it.

"I was incredibly, and am still incredibly mindful, of the fact that I'm a boy," Miller said. "You always try to find people who support your deficits."

To that end, when he finished writing the first two episodes, he sent them to Atwood; she approved. He made sure his writing staff was almost entirely female and hired women to direct all but two of the 10 episodes.

Moss agreed to the part if she could be an active producer, weighing in on scripts and cuts. She pushed to hire director Reed Morano, who helmed singer Beyonce's Lemonade movie, for the first three episodes.

According to Moss, there was no effort to rewrite the series in light of the new national mood because there was no need. As filming progressed last autumn and reports of a boast about genital grabbing, among others, filled the news, any necessary critique was already there.

"We didn't pull back or lean in," Moss said. "We just tackled the story we intended to tell and that Atwood told in 1985. Behind the scenes, we were kind of taking a deep breath and saying, 'Wow, this is becoming a bit close for comfort.'

"You're in a scene and the character would say something and it would be a little more meaningful, a little more chilling, more resonant."

Moss recalled being especially struck when a character said: "We didn't look up from our phones until it was too late."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Tonal dread and brutality in The Handmaid's Tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe