As the show reigns in its horrors, we can prepare ourselves both mentally and emotionally, but in the meantime, here are some things you probably need to know about “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Apart from adapting the novel, the creators behind the series also invited the writer of the book, Margaret Atwood, to be a part of the production process from the beginning, so she had a hand in shaping the new version of this dystopian world.
Atwood served as a consulting producer and even appeared in the show's pilot; we can see her as the Aunt who slaps Offred for her disobedience.
All the scary things that happen in the book that the show is based on are facts. Even though the dystopian future painted on the screen may seem too horrible to be accurate, Atwood said she made it a point that the book depicted the actual cruelty humans have inflicted upon each other throughout history.
In an article she wrote for the Guardian in 2020, Atwood said, “I made a rule for myself: I would not write anything that humans had not previously done in some place or time, or for which the technology didn’t already exist.”
Julie Berghoff, the show’s production designer, explained the design of the set of Offred’s room in an interview with Architectural Digest. Offred’s room shines a spotlight on the life she no longer has as a writer.
A desk was placed in the room, but she isn't allowed to write. It serves as a reminder of her life as a writer and editor, even though she is forbidden to sit and write in her new life.
The actress who plays Offred on the hit show, Elisabeth Moss, was filmed without makeup. This was revealed by Moss in an interview. The chief writer, Bruce Miller, said he felt that it enabled the acting to be more genuine and raw because every expression and movement on her face was visible.
Elisabeth Moss also expressed that it was obvious if she went paler, or was flushed or cold, so you could really notice it on the screen. They also shot a lot of close-ups to emphasize her facial expressions.
The show had a close link to Beyoncé as the director behind the first three episodes of season one of "The Handmaid’s Tale," Reed Morano, was a cinematographer on Beyoncé’s film Lemonade, which accompanied her album of the same name.
Just like the music video for her song, Lemonade, those first three episodes of "The Handmaid's Tale," were flawless.
Atwood made a conscious decision to set the story in America. Though Atwood is Canadian, she didn’t think that Canada would surrender to an extreme totalitarian regime. History has proved multiple times that Canada is the place you go to when running away.
“So that’s why you run away to it in The Handmaid’s Tale. People are running away to it right now, following a historic pattern,” Margaret Atwood said in an interview with Teen Vogue.
In the first season of the show, Canada arose as a country of refuge for American exiles seeking to escape the oppressive regime but there have been even more mentions of America’s northward neighbor in Season 2.
But with a slight twist of irony, even though the show is set in America, was actually filmed in Canada.
Artwork in the Show
The Commander and Serena Joy’s walls were adorned with very famous and beautiful art. This is because they were art thieves. The couple went into the Boston Museum of Modern Art and looted their favorite works of art.
Serena Joy chose Monets because she’s a watercolorist and she loves to be out in nature. The specific artwork was chosen to represent and emphasize how valuable artwork was stolen during real-time wars.
Offred's Real Name
Offred’s name is never disclosed in the actual book. In the show, it definitely states that Offred’s real name is June. In the book, the name “June” was mentioned but it was never linked to Offred.
Readers had deduced that it was Offred’s real name, which is why Hulu decided to use it. Atwood says June was never the intended name for Offred but she has no issue with Hulu’s decision to use that name.
Racism in the Book
On-screen Moira is black but in the book she’s white. In the book, people of color are banished to the Midwest by the racist authorities in charge of Gilead. But producer Bruce Miller couldn’t imagine only having a homogenous cast and wanted more diversity on the show.
The creators behind the show felt that this wouldn’t come across well on TV. After a discussion with Atwood, the decision was made to alter this detail.
Another character whose story was modified for TV was Emily, played by Alexis Bledel. Though Emily’s orientation isn’t discussed in the book. However, her orientation and marriage to another woman were considered important additions for the Hulu series.
Atwood feels that updates like this are essential in making the show more fitting for more contemporary audiences. This wouldn’t have made sense in 1985. Audiences wouldn’t have resonated back then.
The Commander and Serena Joy are much older in the book than they are in the series. It was intentional that in the show they were made a much younger couple in order to put Serena Joy in direct competition with Offred.
Serena Joy was the engine behind this dystopian society that paradoxically gave her power as a Commander's Wife, even though it suppressed her as a woman, yet she seems to have no sympathy for Offred.
The Grocery Store
There wasn’t a more difficult set to create than the grocery store set. Reading is outlawed in Gilead so all the labels in the store had to be in the form of pictures. This duty was left up to the production design team to manage and complete.
The team had to create a unique label for everything in the store. They had to meticulously design hundreds of labels and then stick them onto the corresponding items.
It was also the most petrifying set for some of the actors. Wiley said the shopping scenes were a reminder to the viewers that the series of events was pretty current. When they go shopping it’s not on some set, set in the past. It’s a modern-day representation of grocery stores.
Those details make it a little spine-chilling as it really brings the show to life in the viewer's eyes, showing us how easily the world can change.
The Color Red
There are multiple reasons why the Handmaids’ outfits are red. Atwood explained in an interview with The New York Times the significance of the red color of the Handmaids’ outfits. The costumes worn by the Handmaids typifies fertility, which is the position's main function.
The Handmaids’ bright red outfits, then, also symbolize the 'sinful' status of the Handmaids’ position in Gilead. And the color red is also very eye-catching, meaning it's easier to spot if you’re running away.
The Wives’ outfits are also significant, with clothes signifying a woman's status in Gilead, the wives’ costumes symbolize the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary.
The main objective of the clothing, whether its color or design, is to reveal the status while at the same time it hides the individuality. The richness of the color of their garments and their embroidery exhibit their status.
The Importance of Color
The colors of the costumes influenced the color palette of the whole show. Offred’s room was white to elicit the feeling of being in a medical illness facility. This symbolized the pain and suffering of Offred’s existence in Gilead.
Serena Joy’s spaces on the other hand are decorated in blues. Berghoff told Architectural Digest that each room was designed precisely with that character in mind.
Offred’s name is also symbolic. There are multiple layers of symbolism in the book and series, Offred’s name is just one of them. Her name is comprised of ‘Fred,’ a man’s name, and a prefix meaning ‘belonging to.’
It carries the same weight as ‘de’ in French and ‘von’ in German. Margaret Atwood confirmed that the name could have a hidden meaning, ‘offered,’ meaning a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.
The dystopian society that is seen in "The Handmaid’s Tale" is heavily influenced by American Puritans, who fled from persecution in England but then re-created that same oppressive nature in America.
Margaret Atwood said, “One of the persons [the book is] dedicated to is Percy Miller, through whom at Harvard I studied the American Puritans in great detail.”
Behind the Name
The title was inspired by another famous book. Initially, the title of the book was going to be Offred – the main character’s name. However, while she was writing it, Atwood decided to look for inspiration elsewhere.
At some point, the novel’s name changed to "The Handmaid’s Tale," partly as an ode to Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales" and, partly in relation to fairy tales and folk tales.
Then there was the Opera
The book was also modified into an opera and it became a hit with audiences. Danish composer Poul Ruders, got in touch with Atwood with a proposition to write an opera based on her book.
Poul Ruders felt so strongly about it that he said if he could not create an opera based on "The Handmaid’s Tale," he would never write an opera again.
The Movie Adaptation
The movie, however, did not fare so well at the box office. In 1990, the book was adapted into a film by director Volker Schlöndorff. Natasha Richardson played Offred, whose real name was Kate in this instance. Faye Dunaway played Serena Joy.
With a bad performance at the box office and a trail of negative reviews, the film tanked. Atwood was a consultant on the film’s script but her contributions only went as far as suggesting that Americans would not say hand cream; they’d say hand lotion.
I Know that Voice
For those who listened to the audiobook, you may have been thinking to yourself, "I recognize this voice." The narrator is Claire Danes, who we all know from her famous appearances in "Romeo and Juliet," and " Homeland."
If you haven't listened to the audiobook yet, it's definitely one to put on your list for when you want a compelling story that will keep you enthralled for hours.
Modern Day References
When making the series for The Handmaid’s Tale, producers knew they wanted the story to occur in 2017 – and they wanted to ensure viewers didn’t forget that. This is why things like Uber and Craigslist are referenced on the show.
Bruce Miller told INSIDER that they wanted the show to be as current as possible. The producers felt that the show is set in the present made it even more terrifying.
The Powerful Dialogue
Offred’s narration is a very important part of the series. That’s why Elisabeth Moss took Offred’s voiceover very seriously. Moss memorized all of the voiceover dialogue and recited it to herself in her head as she filmed each scene.
This really put her in Offred’s shoes. Even from early on, Offred recounts her room in the Commander’s house, and the viewers get insight into how she attempts to survive.
Offred’s nights spent with the Commander in his study offer her a small break from the ordeal that is her life. The Commander’s office comes to symbolize everything that the women in Gilead cannot have. There are books and explicit art.
At one point he pulls out Scrabble and it becomes obvious that if he was a smoker he’d surely be sharing cigars with the other commanders in there.
The Significance of the Ceiling
Even the ceilings play an important part in telling the story. There’s a whole scene in one of the episodes where Offred is looking at the ceiling. The ceiling in the Commander’s office is particularly intriguing and intricate in design.
As many of the scenes take place in his office, it's almost like a prison, with the ceiling seeming like a dartboard for him. He could sit back in his chair, throw a dart at the ceiling and say, “we conquered Florida.”
The 2016 election changed the way the cast set about tackling the show. They felt they had a bigger responsibility to make the show excellent and have it have all the integrity it should have Wiley said.
The producers did this by highlighting Moira's character. Throughout the book, Moira’s connection with Offred epitomizes female companionship and in Offred’s flashbacks, Moira also embodies female resistance to Gilead.
The climate at the time made this show even more relatable. Just as the series acted as a mythic commentary upon the culture wars and. social issues during that time, it also prefigured the #MeToo movement's fight.
But Elisabeth Moss disagreed and said in an interview with Time that she differs from the notion that the show responds to the election as filming started way before that.
At Least It's Comfortable
Elisabeth Moss loved wearing her outfit on the show. Because she’d be wearing it all the time, she wanted the dress to be comfortable. She also wanted it to be something she’d want to put on every day, even though it was austere.
Costume designer Anne Crabtree was able to deliver just that. It may seem odd to hear that she loved wearing something that symbolized so many negative things but Moss swears by it.
Onwards and Upwards
The first season of the hit show ended where Margaret Atwood’s book ended, so from season two onwards it’s an entirely new story written specifically for TV.
Though the show continues past where the book went, there are still elements from the book that are expanded upon in the subsequent seasons.
Margaret Atwood started writing the book in 1984 on a rented typewriter whilst living in West Berlin – which at the time was still encircled by the infamous Berlin Wall.
Margaret Atwood said living during that time in divided Berlin was very much helpful to the mood she created for Gilead in her book, "The Handmaids Tale."
A Ripple Effect
The iconic costumes also played a big role in women’s protests and in courthouses across the country. Women dressed up as Handmaids to send a strong message to the world, about women’s rights and women’s rights to autonomy over their own bodies.
The costume designer, Crabtree believes that this attire was used as a way of controlling women by the patriarchy and women have now chosen to take that narrative and change it.
Amanda Brugel who played Rita on the Hulu series was obsessed with the book and her character since she read it in high school. Like a lot of us, Brugel was assigned "The Handmaid’s Tale" as part of a reading plan back in high school.
She admits that she had become so devoted to the series that she had written her college thesis on her favorite character in the novel, Rita.
Serena Joy named the baby Nichole as a reminder to her husband that the baby was not his, but Nick’s instead. This might be a theory but it’s definitely one that’s convinced us and many others.
With everything that Serena Joy did, knowing her the way that true fans of the show know her character, we wouldn’t put it past her.
One of the show’s scariest characters, Aunt Lydia, was a school teacher in her days pre-Gilead according to the backstory developed by the writers.
Actress Ann Dowd says this makes sense to her. She can only imagine the names she was called and the treatment she was given at an all-girls school. This is where she would have developed her tough skin.
Serena Joy's Prison
Serena Joy is in a prison of her own doing, she helped create and orchestrate what has now become Gilead. But now she feels trapped inside a place of confinement that she herself made.
She may have come to a point where she’s realizing that this society might not be the best for her but she has no way out. She’s a war criminal – if she escapes to Canada she’ll be thrown in jail.
Elisabeth Moss doesn’t just play Offred on the show, she’s also a producer behind the scenes. Many actors would usually be put down as producers for vanity credits on their shows but Moss didn’t want a vanity credit, she wanted to be hands-on. Though she says it’s a lot more work, she finds it immensely fulfilling.
She’s involved in every part of the production process from casting, director hiring, cinematographer hiring, and crew hiring. She even gets to see all the cuts from directors' cuts to producers' cuts beforehand.
Scary Ann Dowd
Ann Dowd’s acting is so incredible that the extras are scared of her on and even off-screen. Though the Commanders and Serena Joy have proven to be despicable, Aunt Lydia is the one that has us cowering and clutching at our pearls.
According to the cast, the extras can’t tell the difference between her and her character. Dowd is aware of this fact and occasionally picks on them behind-the-scenes.
Block Their Vision
The wings we see the Handmaids wearing are just another way Gilead imprisons these women. The wings on their hats have taught the actresses to depend on their hearing intently to their scene partner to act out the different scenes because the wings inhibit their vision.
This has brought about a new way of acting for these women. The wings also aren’t very sturdy so the costume department has to hand-make a constant supply.
Move over Netflix, Hulu was the first streaming service to win an award! The iconic series won an Emmy award for Outstanding Drama.
Though there was a lot of skepticism and streaming services weren’t considered when nominating shows for the Emmys, this series proved that it could not be ignored.
Gilead was an extremely environmentally friendly place. The people of Gilead believe that the sudden drop in fertility rates is due to the environment.
Everything on set was made to look as natural as possible. If you take a careful look, there are no microwaves or laptops in sight and all the cars are electric.
Before Gilead, Serena Joy was a religious author and public speaker. She published a book titled "A Woman’s Place" which became the backbone of Gilead. The book describes domestic feminism where women should submit to being mothers and child-bearers rather than chasing high-powered jobs or fulfilling careers.
One of her speeches on submission was cut short when she was shot in the stomach. Her injuries were so bad she wasn’t able to have children of her own.
Where is Luke?
In the book, what happens to Luke is unknown. Offred believes that he is a prisoner somewhere, in unpleasant, or even more painful, circumstances.
On the show, Offred seems to think that Luke is dead. But she doesn’t have proof of this. Do they have a reunion in the next series?
Janine's Missing Eye
Janine doesn’t have her right eye removed in the book, this is quite different from what we see in the show. In fact, she is not portrayed as especially defiant at the Red Center and doesn't even lose her eye in the book.
Rather, she is an informant and the Aunts even asked her to spy on the other girls. In the show, Janine, is 'just happy to be alive,' despite having lost her eye for being insubordinate.
In the book, Nick is not just the Commander’s driver. Nick is one of the guardians of the Gilead regime. He and Offred have chemistry and Serena Joy succeeds in arranging a meeting between the two in an effort to get Offred pregnant.
But on the show, Nick is merely referred to as the Commander’s driver, and a low-level officer of Gilead assigned to the Commander’s home.
On the show, we see that each handmaid receives an ear tag with a number on it. Offred’s number is 1985 for the year the book was originally published.
The ear tags are GPS trackers that the government uses to keep tabs on handmaids to make sure that they do not escape.
The Colonies are visually inspired by nuclear wastelands, prisoner camps, and other repressive states. The barn that the characters live in was chosen because of its perforated walls.
This allowed natural light to come in through the cracks. The film crew took advantage of this and filmed mostly at sunrise or sundown to add a romantic tone to the setting.
Moss' Musical Influence
Much of what draws viewers to the series is Moss's unflinching portrayal of Offred. Moss also has a big influence on the musical score of the show.
She describes Offred’s emotions and what she wants the scene to say to composer Adam Taylor. He then comes back with a masterpiece that is fitting for every scene.
One of Margaret Atwood’s sources of inspiration for the ‘particicution’ ritual in the book was the Dionysian revels in Ancient Greece. This is known as ‘salvaging’ in the series depiction of the republic of Gilead.
These haunting scenes are carried out by the Aunts. The 'salvaging' and its aftermath show Gilead at its most cruel. It is unclear why it's called 'salvaging', a word that means “saving.”