We sat down with the showrunner, Bruce Miller, at BookCon this year to ask him some of our questions about adapting The Handmaid’s Tale story to television. It feels like just yesterday we were starting the first three episodes of the landmark series on Hulu, but we’re closing in on the finale of the first episode, and by Wednesday we’ll have a long stretch of time in front of us before we get more of Offred’s story inside the dystopian totalitarianism known as Gilead. While many book lovers and Margaret Atwood fans have known about this classic novel, the story has become one of the most impactful and talked about series since its premiere.
One of the notable things about The Handmaid’s Tale television show has been its deep dive into the supporting characters that we often don’t get to learn much about when reading Offred’s account. Add on top of that the ambiguous ending that seems to suggest that we don’t have the full story, the backstories of the characters have been like a kind of cornerstone for the viewer.
“I approached it [by] trying to be very very practical,” Miller explained, “Not necessarily about what kind of stories we were going to tell, but we thought through those backstories very carefully so they would be consistent as characters with those backstories, so it was really a question about what do we show in those backstories. And that’s where I had lots of those in-depth conversations with Margaret, and she had had lots of thoughts — different thoughts — about those things over the years, so it was a very lively conversation.”
And with the large team of writers in their writers’ room, they were allowed to explore multiple different avenues with the different input. “You really follow your curiosity when it comes to these things,” said Miller, when talking about expanding on characters that you would only briefly get to learn about in the book. “You were curious when you read the book about all these people’s backstories, well that’s why they’re there. But also, we wanted to expand it a little bit so you get a sense of how this happened, but not from just one point of view.”
This varied point of view is vital in showing balanced characters. Indeed one of the best aspects of the show is allowing us to come to our own conclusions about characters who are so intrinsically connected to Offred’s story. “[It’s] not an objective point of view of Offred watching TV or something, but from all [points of view], because how it happened and how it’s being experienced are all through the eyes of a lot of different characters, not one. And I think that it would reduce the scale of the story if you only knew Offred’s backstory,” Miller said.
“In the book, when she tells about Luke and Hannah, you really feel close to these people, and she does tell the backstory of Serena Joy and what she thinks she remembers,” Miller explained. “For me, I generally try to think about it this way, if people were extraordinarily different in their backstory or living in a very different world, it’s worth showing. All of these people are from a very different world, so it’s worth showing. It’s been such a transformation.”
Specifically, Miller highlighted Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, and her backstory episode, “A Woman’s Place.” Miller talked about the various visual differences in Strahovski’s costume but also in her demeanor. “We did a scene with Serena Joy in the past, and even seeing Yvonne with her hair down makes her unrecognizable, even seeing her smiling makes her unrecognizable. That difference is really important, I think for the audience, you get a fuller picture of a character that seems impenetrable.”
On that note, I had to highlight the strength in Strahovski’s performance so far. If you’ve been reading my recaps, you know that I am obsessed with Strahovski’s performance, especially when she’s in a scene with Elizabeth Moss’s Offred. Miller was happy to agree, saying, “They are terrific together. Both lovely women and intelligent and very good actors. But I think one of the things that they both bring [is] so much experience to the table. You look at Yvonne’s experience and it doesn’t seem to connect with the role of Serena Joy, but to me it does.” Strahovski is mostly known for her role as Sarah Walker through five seasons of the NBC show Chuck, something that Miller acknowledges as a strength. “She was on a long running show, that’s a huge skill, she knows exactly how to do it. So she can bring that level of intensity. We shoot very very quickly, and they do it together. They’re an amazing team, the two of them.”
During the panel between Miller and Atwood at BookCon, the pair discussed many things about the show, but one of the topics that they touched briefly on was the color palette of the show, something that I consider to be the most striking element of the show, visually. While the costumes are certainly something to be applauded, the way the show has been colored and painted adds volumes to the voice of Gilead and the tone. When I asked Miller about the muted color palette, one that seemed soft in such a cruel world, he said, “The colors were chosen to be a counterpoint to the story.”
The color palette was brought together by Reed Morano, the director of the first three episodes of the series, Colin Watkinson, the cinematographer (who also worked on one of my absolute favorite visual films — The Fall), Ane Crabtree, the costume designer, and Julie Berghoff, the production designer. The team worked for about a month, Miller said, picking the colors so that they would all work together. “I think the mandate from me — I certainly don’t know as much about color theory as those guys do — but I just said I wanted it to look like the real world. I don’t want it to look fake. The colors that we chose had to feel like real people in their real clothes in this world. And the other thing is, this is a very curated world, people have decided what the colors are, it isn’t like your wearing something by accident. They want it to look like that. They want it to look sort of, calming and beautiful, everything should look beautiful. So we were really mindful about picking the colors, because they would have been very mindful about picking the colors.”
On top of that, the superficially beautiful world of Gilead would play a powerful opposite to the realities of the flashbacks. “We wanted it to look different than the flashback, and the uniformity of color does that. And there’s a lot of the psychological things like the wives in the book wear blue, our wives wear a kind of peacock blue, just because it looked better and richer on film against the red we chose for the handmaids,” Miller explained.
While it’s certainly not the most important topic surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale, the divergence from canon has shaken up a familiar story for book readers. And while there have been countless interpretations of Atwood’s original novel, they have all brought something new to the table. One of the first big shake ups was the revelation that Luke was still alive. Miller elaborated on that, saying that the book never makes it clear what happened, and that Offred says she believes a few different truths. “She believes he’s dead, she believes he’s in prison, she believes he escaped. She believes all those things, and it’s nice mental exercise to how many things can you believe in that are kind of contradictory and yet you believe they’re all true. So, I was interested to see what the world looked like as June and Luke were trying to get away, and that was the person who could walk us through that world as much as possible.”
“Luke being alive sustains the hope of rejoining him, in a way that if he’s dead or unknown, it doesn’t have quite the power. You never feel like it can have a happy ending, and I think you want to hold out the idea that someday — even if they get back together and she’s been through such a trauma that she’s never the same — I think it would break my heart if I didn’t at least hope that they would see each other again,” Miller said, hopefully. Although it’s certainly true that Luke being alive has given Offred more drive and a potential for happiness, but is also serves as to further confuse her in her relationships with the people around her. Her relationship with Nick, with Fred, even with Serena, are all compromised in some way because of this news, and it serves as a powerful catalyst for the rest of the story.
With such a strong set and production design, no doubt there will be some viewers in the hiatus rewatching episodes and checking the background for extra hints and Easter eggs to see where season two will take us. During the panel, both Miller and Atwood related Gilead with the Nazi regime and the Third Reich, and Miller gave insight on a feature that you might have missed in the episodes. Many of the art pieces and paintings in the Waterford household is stolen from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. “The Museum of Fine Arts thing I just love so much because it was such a Nazi thing,” Miller said, “and when Julie Bergoff and I were talking about it, she got so excited about it. Because all of a sudden you have this group of pictures that you can choose from and they can say something about each person, about what’s in what room.”
Other Easter eggs like the photo in Nick’s room of him and his brother might have been a little more overt, but Miller points out another crucial Easter egg that happens early on in the show. “At the very beginning of the show, when the voiceover starts there’s a click because someone is pressing play on a tape recorder,” he hinted. “We also treated the voiceover, the sound design of the voice recorder, it’s supposed to sound like a cassette recorder. But it’s not just supposed to sound like a cassette recorder, in the book she recorded her diaries on tapes that originally had music on them. It’s a previously used and played tape, it’s not a blank tape. There’s a shot in episode 7 where you see a tape recorder, and we’re planting that like, ‘Oh, is that the tape recorder she used?’ Hannah is playing with it.”
Although we couldn’t get much about what we would be seeing by the end of season one, Miller and the writers have been working on season two already. “Next season, I hope we’re going to expand into parts of the world that we haven’t seen yet. The Colonies. What it’s like in Gilead, not just in the house, but in broader Gilead. There are lots of things, like versions of being a handmaid that we see in the book that we don’t dive into,” he explained. “We only get to see a little into Janine and what it’s like when she’s pregnant. We only see a little of what it’s like to get to your first posting, or to your last posting. But I think we’ve got a big, roiling, exciting season planned for season two, just the same way season one is roiling and exciting in shocking ways.”
“Almost all the things that we do in season two are derived from the book,” he added. “You want to logically say that Gilead is in a community of nations, how to they relate to those nations, what are the political parts of the story that are going on? Those are fascinating things that the commander is dealing with, and they’re just as likely to cause the downfall of Gilead as the Mayday movement.” Miller emphasized during the panel that he found his appreciation for The Handmaid’s Tale like many of us, as a huge fan of the novel and then also of Atwood’s. Much of what he is exploring comes from his own curiosity, “I was always like, ‘Oh, I wonder what happened to Luke?’ Now I just get to do that professionally.”
With many of the main characters explored in this first season, it doesn’t look like we’re stopping any time soon. “I just want to dive deeper into the characters and show more backstories,” Miller said, talking about what we could potentially see in the coming second season. “I would love to know Janine, I would love to know Lydia. You just follow your nose, and it’s exciting to get the chance to go deeper. And not to expand upon the book. There is a certain tone and a feel that we desperately try to hold onto. We want it to feel like an Atwood world and the Atwood voice and the Atwood characters. But within that, she’s very encouraging of us to expand. We feel like, for our audience so far, they’ve responded quite well to the episodes that really were a diversion from the book, things that didn’t happen in the book, all the Luke stuff, for example.”
The fanfiction has become a reality, I said. “Exactly. That’s all it is. That’s all it ever is for us.”
The finale of The Handmaid’s Tale will go up on Hulu at midnight on Wednesday, June 14th. With the season reaching its end, it’s all up in the air where we’ll find ourselves by the end of the episode, but we can rest assured knowing it’s not the end and that even more is coming soon.