For fans looking for a sunny pick-me-up, The Handmaid’s Tale is not it. Based on the acclaimed dystopian novel from Margaret Atwood, the series stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a fertile woman in an infertile land, bound to a military officer in middle management of an extremist, theocratic regime. The Handmaids’ job is to bear children following a steep decline in fertility rates, while all other women serve men in roles as cooks (Marthas) and wives (dressed in blue).
Here are 10 things you might not know about the Emmy-winning series, which will compete for another 12 awards this year (including a second run at Outstanding Drama Series).
1. THE AUTHOR HAD A CAMEO IN THE FIRST EPISODE.
Beyond just adapting the novel, the series invited Margaret Atwood to be a part of the production process from the beginning, so she’s had a hand in shaping the new version of the world. She also had a hand in slapping Offred in the back of the head. In the pilot episode, Atwood has a cameo playing an Aunt (one of the cruel taskmasters lording over the Handmaids) who hits Moss’s character during her initiation into the fold. Playing an Aunt was Atwood’s idea; the slap was showrunner Bruce Miller’s.
2. THE ACTORS HAVE TO RELY ON SOUND SINCE THE COSTUMES LIMIT THEIR VISION.
The “wings” the Handmaids wear are meant to hide their faces from others as well as obscure their own vision. Costume designer Ane Crabtree said they help “heighten the cages that [the Handmaids] were in mentally, physically, emotionally,” but they also challenge the actors by removing sight from the equation. Moss and others spend a lot of time listening to their scene partners because, unless they’re looking at them straight on, they can’t see them. “What was actually a hindrance became quite a helpful vehicle for a new way of acting,” Crabtree further explained.
3. AMANDA BRUGEL WROTE A THESIS ON THE NOVEL.
Amanda Brugel plays Rita, a Martha who works in Commander Fred’s household, and her connection to the story goes way back. She first read the book in high school and wrote her college entrance thesis on it—an essay that scored her a scholarship. The main focus of her piece? Rita.
4. IT’S THE FIRST STREAMING SHOW TO WIN THE EMMY FOR OUTSTANDING DRAMA.
The Emmy awarded to the Best Drama Series represents the peak of Peak TV, and has been bestowed on such hits as The Sopranos, Homeland, Breaking Bad, and The West Wing. But The Handmaid’s Tale is unique for playing on your computer screen instead of your TV. Netflix tried for years to break into the gang with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, but Hulu sealed the deal with the dystopian nightmare.
5. IT’S GOT A SUBTLE CASABLANCA CONNECTION.
Nick (Max Minghella) doesn’t have a last name in the book, but the creators made him Nick Blaine for the series. It’s unclear whether the connection was intentional, but that makes his name incredibly close to Casablanca protagonist Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. Both characters are initially seen as out for themselves before they reveal connections to the bad guys and ultimately aid the resistance.
6. THIS IS THE TENTH ADAPTATION OF THE BOOK.
While the novel is enjoying a renewal in popularity thanks to the cultural resonance of the show, this isn’t its first rodeo outside book form. A stage version premiered at Tufts University just a few years after the book was published in 1985; there’s also been an opera and even a ballet. The Hulu show is the first time it’s been done as a TV show, but it was twice performed as a radio play and adapted into a film in 1990 starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway.
7. THEY CHANGED ONE IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE BOOK TO DIVERSIFY THE CAST.
In the novel, part of the cruelty of Gilead was the resettling (read: banishment) of non-white “Children of Ham,” which meant that every character was white. But producer Bruce Miller couldn’t imagine having such a homogenous cast. “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?” he said.
8. MARGARET ATWOOD DOESN’T CONSIDER IT SCIENCE FICTION.
Bucking the genre label, Atwood has commented repeatedly that her story isn’t science fiction, because she purposefully ensured that everything that happens in it is something that’s really happened at some time in some society. She’s long considered that something like Gilead could happen under the right conditions, an especially potent thought now that The Handmaid’s Tale costumes are being worn at protests.
9. COMPLACENCY IS A CENTRAL MESSAGE OF THE SHOW.
Reed Morano, who created the look of the show in directing its first three episodes, views the current political climate as a reason to feel more responsible in the art she’s making. She was astonished by the amount of people who don’t vote (she voted absentee while shooting the show in Toronto). “That’s the message, for me at least, in the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re too complacent. We let things happen to us. And you don’t have to let things happen to you. You can affect change.”
10. THE ARTWORK IN COMMANDER FRED AND SERENA JOY’S HOUSE IS STOLEN.
A wry touch that nods toward how Nazi officers stole important, valuable pieces of art from Jewish houses is that the Waterford home is adorned by stolen paintings. But they aren’t random. The show’s producers intentionally picked works currently housed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, because of its proximity to where the show takes place.