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The Untold Truth Of The Handmaid's Tale

In 1985, Margaret Atwood released her dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale," about a near-future society in which a patriarchal and totalitarian group has overthrown the U.S. government and created a new nation called Gilead. More than 30 years later, the story was adapted for television; the series, also titled "The Handmaid's Tale" premiered on Hulu on April 26, 2017 and became an instant sensation.

The story centers on a handmaid, June (Elisabeth Moss), known in Gilead only as Offred — referring to "Of Fred," as she is technically owned by her commander, Fred Waterford. Gilead took over the U.S. in the midst of an infertility epidemic, when it was becoming more and more rare for women to carry their pregnancies to term. With the creation of Gilead, those who had recently proved themselves fertile — June had a child with her husband, Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) a few years prior — are forced to become handmaids. As the assigned handmaid for the Waterford couple, June is forced to have sex with the Commander in order to conceive and give birth to a child for the couple.

"The Handmaid's Tale" was extremely well received upon its release, garnering multiple award nominations and wins. Along with critical acclaim, the series has pulled in a massive audience, which has remained consistent throughout its four seasons. It was even renewed for a fifth season before the fourth had premiered (via Deadline).

The series has a lot of fans, but even the die-hards may not know all the background information about the dystopian drama. For those who are curious, here is the untold truth of "The Handmaid's Tale."

Creator Bruce Miller was drawn to the story for decades

The series creator Bruce Miller is no stranger to writing for television — he's worked on a slew of popular TV shows such as "ER," "Everwood" and "The 100" — but "The Handmaid's Tale" was the first show he created. As it turns out, Miller had been imagining this story on screen long before he was able to make it a reality.

In an interview with The Dreamcage promoting the show's first season, Miller explained that he was assigned the book in college for a "new fiction'" class and fell for it. "I loved the story. I was always a big fan of books that built the post-apocalyptic world. After school, I read it a couple of times over the years. Margaret Atwood was really one of the people that taught me how to write and how to think like a writer ... As my career moved into TV, I thought, 'Oh, this would make a great TV show.'"

Explaining that he was fascinated by the thought of diving into all the details and "hints" given in the book, Miller saw the larger surrounding world as ripe for exploration. But more than anything, he was attracted to the characters Atwood had created. 

"It all goes back to the people who live in this world and how they survive and how they're trapped by their own choices," he said. "I wanted to tell the story about how these people lived through the experience and how they came out the other side alive and with some of their identity still intact. That was the thing I loved about the book, realizing by the end that Offred has kept herself alive."

"The Handmaid's Tale" has been adapted for screen before

Along with being adapted for the stage a handful of times (including at the Haymarket Theatre in the UK in 2002), "The Handmaid's Tale" was also adapted into a little-known film. 

The film of the same name came out in 1990, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and starring Natasha Richardson as Offred (whose real name is Kate in this version), Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, Robert Duvall as the Commander and Victoria Tennant as Aunt Lydia.

The film sticks to the events of the book fairly closely (the last act plays out a bit differently), much like the first season of the series does. But, unlike the series, the film was not well received — it has just a 32% Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes (in comparison, the series as a whole has an 83%, with the first season alone having a 94% score).

In a retrospective look back at the film (right around the time that the series was coming out), La Movie Boeuf summed up the consensus: "Schlondorff's treatment is idly drab and antiseptic, indifferent almost, as though he felt Atwood's vision was cinematic enough."

The set design is intricately detailed

The design team for "The Handmaid's Tale" don't let any space go to waste, making sure each room of the set is ripe with deeper meaning and messages. In a 2017 interview with Architectural Digest, production designer Julie Berghoff explained some of the meanings behind their set designs.

For example, the Commander's office, which Offred begins frequently visiting in Season 1, is filled with things that are off limits to women: books, art, alcohol, works containing sexual content. In a similar vein, Offred's bedroom is also a reminder of the things she can't have — specifically, how her former life has been taken away from her.

Berghoff explains, "We put a desk there, but she can't write. So it's almost like a remnant, a remembrance of 'Oh, I was a writer, an editor. I can't even sit and write anymore ... They don't want you to be vain anymore, so we basically put the shape of a mirror on the wall to make it feel like at one point there was a mirror there."

The basis for Atwood's story isn't fiction

While Atwood's 1985 work is obviously a piece of fiction, many of the horrific details of the book are pulled from real-life examples of authoritarian treatment toward women. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Atwood said, "When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched. However, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn't putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time."

Stylist recently published a highly-detailed article, delving into some of the historical terrors that Atwood pulled from. In reference to the enforced dress codes of the handmaids of Gilead, it reads, "Religious clothing can and still is forced upon women by authorities in other, more conservative, communities; the Amish, for example, insist that women wear long dresses made of dark fabrics, and head coverings every single day."

A more horrifying example is the enforced surrogacy for the sake of the most privileged getting to raise the children. The Stylist piece reads, "In Australia as recently as the '70s, indigenous children were lawfully stolen from their homes and placed in religious institutions or fostered out to white families. From the end of World War II up until the late '70s, similar programs were carried out in the USA and Canada ... let's not forget the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, which saw young girls punished for their "immorality" by being forced into slave-like conditions. The babies they bore were taken away from them and placed with adoptive families all over the world — with 2,000 alone being shipped across to the USA."

Those are just a couple examples — the complete list by Stylist is terrifyingly long.

The show attempted to make Gilead more diverse

In the novel, all people of color have been forced out of Gilead, leaving only white central characters. Similarly, there aren't any LGBTQ characters in Atwood's novel. Anyone who has seen the series knows this isn't the case for the television version — a change Miller found vital. As he told TIME Magazine in 2017: "What's the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show where you don't hire any actors of color?"

Ironically, the ways in which the show deals with race is one of the biggest criticisms it faces. A 2017 Guardian article pointed out that what the handmaids go through is eerily similar to what Black women went through on a daily basis during slavery — yet that parallel is ignored in the show. "None of these details are the inventions of Atwood's imagination or embellishments from Miller's writer's room; this is what actually happened during 245 years of slavery in the US – albeit to black women rather than white ones," the article reads. "Isn't it odd, then, to neither openly acknowledge this history, nor grapple with its legacy on screen?"

Vulture also addressed this issue in 2017, writing, "The show doesn't end up considering the racial dynamics of June's family, or what it means to be a handmaid of color ... In reality, though, it's more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognize that Gilead isn't a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been."

Moss forgoes makeup for the role

Moss has garnered a ton of attention for her stunning performance as June, a role which requires many closeups on her face as she deals with hardship upon hardship. With each of these closeups, June's current emotion — whether it be sorrow, rage or rarely, joy — is crystal clear. What also becomes clear to viewers with these closeups is June's lack of makeup. Naturally, a handmaid wouldn't be allowed to wear it — as vanity is not an option for the handmaids.

A character not wearing makeup isn't new for film or television, but it is rare for the actor to not be wearing any makeup (minimal makeup is typically applied on the actor for filming purposes, even if to give the impression that no makeup is on the character). "The Handmaid's Tale" uses a much more natural approach and Moss forgoes makeup for most scenes. If makeup is applied, it's typically to make Moss look more tired.

As Moss told Yahoo! Style in 2017, "If you're not sleeping a lot because you're working your [butt] off and you get dark circles and bags under your eyes — the more you have, the better. You're supposed to look stressed. In fact, one night I got sleep. I came in and my makeup artist was like, 'Oh dear,' and was disappointed that I didn't have the dark circles under my eyes that we needed."

Moss memorized her voiceover dialogue

"The Handmaid's Tale" is a great example of how powerful voiceover can be when utilized well. With June's voiceover, the audience is given an essential look into who she is as at her core, rather than the "identity" she is forced into as a handmaid. Discussing his surprise over how perfectly the voiceover worked for the scenes, Miller told Vulture in 2017, "We shot these bits of Lizzie just sitting in a room, quietly going through emotional phases, and when I watched it paired up with the voice-over, it worked perfectly. And I said, 'That's lucky!'"

Except, it wasn't luck — it turns out that Moss had memorized all of her voiceover dialogue so that she could run it through her head while filming the scenes that the voiceover would match up with. "Paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of stuff that she memorized and walked through emotions while she was sitting there silently

Moss is a bit more modest about this feat. She told Vulture: "It's a part of the script. Why wouldn't I memorize it? How else am I supposed to know what I'm thinking? I'm sitting there for 30 seconds. I have to be thinking about something ... I just thought that was part of my job."

The 2016 election impacted the show

Upon its debut, many people viewed "The Handmaid's Tale" series as a response to the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump — an alleged rapist, amongst other things — was elected president. Not only has Trump been accused of rape and sexual assault — one of the many horrors the handsmaids must suffer through — but many of his supporters believe in things such as abortion and other means of controlling women's bodies, the inspiration of the "Handmaid's Tale" novel, show and film.

It's an intriguing connection, but also one that mostly is not true. The Hollywood Reporter pointed out in 2017 that much of the first season was completed before Trump was elected, making it "one of the most unintentionally relevant shows in recent years." When the cast and crew returned for a second season, however, the general atmosphere was much different on set, and those election results were undeniably on some minds as perceived similarities presented themselves in the daily headlines.

Samira Wiley, who plays Moira (another handmaid and close friend to June), spoke with Vanity Fair in 2017 about how the election impacted everyone. "Coming back to the show, it was. . . 'Oh my gosh, we have an even bigger responsibility now.' To have this show be excellent, have it have all the integrity it should have."

"The Handmaid's Tale" broke an Emmy record

At the 2017 Emmys, "The Handmaid's Tale" swept the night. Of their 13 nominations, the series won eight of those, including three acting categories (for Moss, Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel), directing, writing and production design, amongst others. The series also won the coveted Outstanding Drama Series — often the last award presented.

With this win, the series became the first show from a streaming service to ever win the Outstanding Best Drama Emmy. With streaming services becoming more and more prominent — and continuing to produce award-worthy content — this record is one that could go down in the history books.

Backstage after the show's win, Miller said (via Deadline): "The way that Hulu handled our show, they were bold and behind us and really committed to making something interesting. If the streaming services continue to do that, I don't see a limit to how many [Emmys] they can win."

There's no plan for how many seasons The Handmaid's Tale will have

The first season of "The Handmaid's Tale" covers all of the events of the novel — so the second season alone was an unexpected delight for fans. Now, with Season 5 on the way, Miller says he doesn't currently have an end date in sight. 

He recently told The Hollywood Reporter, "I certainly don't [have a number of seasons in mind]. I always thought I did and that, I think, is a pandemic change. I thought I had a beginning, a middle and an end — and I still feel like I very much have an end — it's just that I'm finding more interesting paths along the way and more interesting things to do as we move towards more fascinating parts of the story."

Miller continued on by declaring that there was another person vital in deciding how long the show would go on for. He said, "When I said that I'll do the show as long as Lizzy [Moss] wants to do it, that is born of the pandemic and born of the work she's done this year. She deserves to have me there writing for her as long as she wants. She earned that this year. I will write beautiful words for her to say for as long as she wants to say them."

It's clear Miller is proud of the work he's done with "The Handmaid's Tale" and is content with continuing to explore for as long as possible. In that aforementioned interview with The Dreamcage he did when the show first came out, he may have best summed up his mindset. 

"I've loved this story for 35 years," he said. "I thought it was amazing and I am lucky and privileged to be part of it now."