‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ at BookCon: 5 Things We Learned

Since its publication in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s chilling novel The Handmaid’s Tale has never been far out of the public consciousness. But recent real world events, coupled with the premiere of Hulu’s acclaimed TV version, have brought the book back into the popular culture in a major way. With two episodes left until the series wraps up its freshman year — and a Season 2 already announced — Atwood and showrunner Bruce Miller anchored a panel at this year’s edition of BookCon in New York City on June 3, to discuss the legacy of the novel and the timeliness of the new TV version. Here are five things we learned from their conversation.

Gilead is a neighbor of Oceania
Atwood has often cited George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 as a major influence on The Handmaid’s Tale, and she revealed to the BookCon crowd that she still has her original copy, which she purchased from a drugstore in her native Canada as a young reader in the early ’50s. “This was the early days of paperbacks, and they had cheesy covers on them because that would encourage people to buy them,” she remembered. “That’s how I read a lot of classic books — you’d buy this cheesy cover, and it would turn out to be William Faulkner!” In the case of 1984, the cover featured a lot of “cleavage and leering,” a far cry from the sobering subject matter that lay inside. But Atwood wasn’t disappointed by the contents of the book. “A lot of kids in their early and later teenage years are attracted to this kind of book. It’s about inventing a world that’s different what we think it is.”

The book and the show deliberately echo the real world
One of the rules that Atwood followed in writing The Handmaid’s Tale was to find real-world analogs for all of the seemingly fantastical aspects of Gilead’s theocratic society, whether it was the rise of the religious right in America or concerns about environmental disasters. And one of the things she appreciates most about the series is that Miller employed a similar approach. “You tapped into the core premise, which is ‘Nothing goes in [to Gilead] that doesn’t have a real-life reference,” she told him. “It’s not just making stuff up, you have to be able to point to the real world.” For his part, Miller — who wrote and filmed the first season against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election — says that it wasn’t hard to find real world incidents to draw on, which was emotionally taxing, but creatively rewarding. “The fact that it was tethered to the real world is something we tried to keep going in the show. Otherwise, it just turns into coming up with cruel things to do to people, mostly women, and that doesn’t seem to be a very good enterprise to me.”

The series may have discovered the final TV taboo
So far in The Handmaid’s Tale series, viewers have been forced to see characters raped, mutilated and killed. And both Hulu and MGM gave the show’s makers the freedom to depict all of that upsetting imagery, but they did balk at one surprising thing. “The most controversial [moment] was showing someone’s period on her underwear,” Miller said, referring to a scene in Episode 3 where the titular Handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), discovers — to her relief and fear — that she hasn’t been impregnated in one of the breeding ceremonies she’s forced to participate in. “It’s not like those ads in which bodily fluids are blue,” Atwood joked. “At least it was the right color.”

What to read next
Asked by an audience member what books or TV series they’d recommend as additional reading/viewing for Handmaid’s Tale fans, both Miller and Atwood turned to history, rather than fiction. “If you want to creep yourself out, watch a series called The Rise of the Nazi Party,” Atwood advised. “That will make you feel very weird.” (That 10-part series is currently streaming on Acorn TV.) Miller, meanwhile, recommended The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a chronicle of the Nazi’s rise to power told by journalist William Shirer, who experienced some of it firsthand. “That on-the-ground detail was really important to us on the show,” he said, pointing to a scene he considers to be one of the most crucial in the entire series: a seemingly simple moment where June — Offred’s name in pre-Gilead times — and Luke are cuddling in bed together after she’s been fired from her job. “We always try to focus on those little tipping points. To me, that scene is the moment when it became a totalitarian state. When the state gets into your bedroom, than it controls the total person. That’s why that scene is in there.”

Serena Joy and the Commander aren’t as wealthy as you’d think
Given that the still-young republic is struggling to find its economic footing, it might be surprising that Gilead’s upper echelon seem so well off, with Fred and Serena Joy Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski) inhabiting a large house capable of hosting lavish dinner parties. But Atwood and Miller encourage viewers to look beneath the opulent surface of their home. “None of that is new stuff that’s being made,” the author remarked. “It’s old stuff.” And, in some cases, it’s old stuff that doesn’t belong to them. Miller revealed that the beautiful art lining the walls of their home are paintings that have been “liberated” from Boston’s famed Museum of Fine Arts. (In actuality, of course, the production didn’t raid that institution; instead, they had another artist reproduce some of the images housed in its collection.) “They’re sucking off the bigger stuff that came before,” he said. “But there’s no computers and no TVs. They don’t have a lot of those expensive things, so that they’d have money left over for this kind of opulence.”

The Handmaid’s Tale releases new episodes Wednesday on Hulu.

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