(Courtesy of @handmaidsonhulu)
Making its way from book to screen, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to breathe new life for audiences with its ever so timely themes. Villain Media was in attendance at the BookCon 2017 panel moderated by Maddie Crum, Culture Reporter at Huffington Post, whered author Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin) and showrunner Bruce Miller discussed how the critically acclaimed novel was adapted as a miniseries event for Hulu.
Based on the classic novel, in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society has take over the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted fundamentalism from its militarized values. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s household. In this terrifying society, Offred must navigate between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids. In a world where anyone could be a spy for Gilead, Offred must survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.
Here are 7 lessons we learned from The Handmaid’s Tale panel from BookCon:
7. Don’t Call It A Sci-Fi Novel!
Margaret Atwood: I did read books of nonrealistic kind; it was the ‘50s! Publishing in that decade were Raymond Bradbury and John Wyndham, but before that time, we had Brave New World, which appeared in the ‘30s and 1984, which appeared for me just in time as a young teenage person. So I still have my original copy of it; this was the early days of paperback. Paperbacks were distributed in drugstores. And they had cheesy covers on them! That encouraged people to buy them! And that’s how I read a lot of books! You get a cheesy cover and it’d be William Faulkner! 1984 had a lot of cleavage leering on the cover. I was immersed in them; a lot of teens were attracted to this kind of book.
Along with that, I was reading a lot of other kinds of books that were tied with it. There was Darkness at Noon, which was about the Soviet purges and trials. Remember I was born in 1939. World War II began in that year. That was a formative event in my life. In the late ‘40s, it was the golden age of comic books and radio dramas. There was a lot of this thinking around. it was natural for me to read those kinds of books, even though they were frowned upon by respectable people. I was not worried about that. I was not properly socialized. I didn’t care if I was reading respectable books or not. My dad was a scientist and he liked to read sci-fi; he thought it was funny. I liked them but I didn’t feel able to write them.
6. The Motivation Behind The Writing
MA: I think I decided to give it a try because of conjunction of three things. Number One, my study of 17 century American Puritans; not a democracy. Just letting you know, it was a bureaucracy! My study of early utopianism and the rise of religious right, who were saying at that time, what they were going to do if they ever got the power to do it.
So remember what year I was born? It was 1939! Who was World War II with? Hitler wrote a book called Mein Kampf. In it, he wrote all the things he would like to do if he had the power to do it. And then he did get the power to do it; and he did them. So I never became a person who never believed it can’t happen. I never was a person who believed, “Oh they’re just funny! they’re just fooling around to get votes!” I don’t believe that. I actually believe people are going to do the things they say they’re going to do; if they get a chance to do them.
My question to myself was, if we’re going to have a dictatorship, what kind of dictatorship would it be? That was the answer and it was based on history and probability, and what it would definitely not be. It would definitely not be an atheist/communist dictatorship. What’s your other choice?
5. The Historical References
MA: Everything in it is based on what people have already done multiple times. There was a questionnaire sent to me by a French publication. One of the topics was people torn apart by mobs, which happened in episode one. There was a battle in the French Revolution, where a man was torn part by a mob. And the other one was a novel based on real stuff, takes place in a coal mining town. There’s a revolt against the oppressive coal-mining regime. The manager of the company store gets torn apart by a mob, because he had been sexually exploiting the women of the coal miners.
4. On Adapting The Book
Bruce Miller: I read the book in college in New Fiction class. I read it a bunch of times over the years. Mildly dyslexic, I tend to read books over and over again. I was excited to see the movie. I was excited to hear they were making a TV show. Years went by and it didn’t come out. I was just excited as a fan of the book. They were looking for a writer to write a new pilot for a TV show. But I’m a boy…they wanted a female showrunner, which I was 100 percent for. I wanted the job so very much! We settled that out and as soon as I got the job, we started talking through email and met in Toronto. It was her encouragement to think freely about adapting the book to another medium. She had done it before; it made it easier to think big and make changes.
And then I had to send her the two scripts I wrote. So if you will, imagine that! I didn’t go to the bathroom that weekend! Whether she liked it or not she was exceedingly kind! And it’s continued ever since. She’s been very generous.
MA: You get to the core of the premise. It has to be life reverent. It’s not about making stuff up. You have to be able to point to the real world and say this is where I got it. I have read a lot of prison memoirs, concentration camp memoirs. People have managed to get through it somehow; their inner life.
3. The Presidential Election
BM: I started writing well before the primaries began, before those debates began. I had finished before the season got into full swing. We were writing during the election. And then we were filming during the election. We filmed even on election day. We started in September. Through the whole process of choosing candidates in exceedingly long campaigns, it was part of what we were experiencing. For me it didn’t change consciously what we were doing, it unfortunately made it easier to find examples. But easier to find the language people used to justify this kind of thinking. The fact people are explaining it to you that was helpful to us as writers. Your story is only good as your villain. Alan Rickman is much more interesting than Bruce Willis in Die Hard!
MA: They’re not bad guys in their own mind. That’s important to understand. There are very few people who think they are bad guys.
2. Audience Reaction
BM: It’s a little bit different with a TV series. A book is finished and there is a section to it. But this is an ongoing machine. You’re building a car during the Indy 500. I’m in a difficult position. I don’t want to tell people how to respond to this show. I don’t want to tell them ahead of time how they’re supposed to feel. That seems to be the definition of mansplaining.
But on the other hand, you want to talk about what you have written. It’s been dicey. I’ve been thinking about this book for a very long time. And I’m very close to the book. But I am a curious news junkie, no more politically astute than any other news junkie. I do feel out of my depth during those discussions. I’m very happy the show is sparking them. And I’m very happy to keep pushing them.
1. Differences Between TV & Book
BM: I just followed my curiosity. It is from Offed’s POV. We try to say every story is a June story. It’s about Offred’s experience in Gilead, or whether it’s the story of what happens to Luke. Knowing that story has an impact on Offred and her survival. It’s a very strange world. Offered pays even though she wasn’t involved in Serena Joy’s fight. All the satellite events happening always come in on her. We go to colonies, and the criminal justice systems. As a reader, I’m curious about them.
MA: The book leaves them open. They’re in the book. They’re all open questions because she cannot know the answers. She’s not allowed to question things.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale airs Wednesdays on Hulu. The Hulu drama has also been renewed for a second season.
Transcribed by Jorge Solis