7 things you might not know about The Handmaid’s Tale

Blessed be the fruit of wisdom

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When women start going to feminist marches dressed as the enslaved breeders depicted in a TV series, you know that a fictional story has got way too close to home.

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Such is the case with The Handmaid’s Tale, the groundbreaking 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, which has been adapted into a television drama starring Elisabeth Moss and has taken America by storm.

The Handmaid’s Tale is finally arriving here in the UK on Channel 4. Set in a dystopian, patriarchal theocracy called Gilead, the story revolves around a group of women who, because of their fertility, are subjected to ceremonial rape in a society where birth rates have dropped catastrophically. 

The series made such an impact in the States that Hillary Clinton actually referenced it in a speech on reproductive rights at Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary celebration.

Because it’s been written about to death in the US, we’ve endeavoured to find a few interesting things you might not have known – but should – before the series begins…

1. Margaret Atwood has a cameo in episode one

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Atwood’s small – but violent – cameo in The Handmaid’s Tale is quite literally a slap in the face. The author plays one of the Aunts, the class of women assigned to indoctrinate the Handmaids with the beliefs of the new society. She is the one who smacks Offred into action when she is reluctant to join in with a group-shaming circle. 

2. There’s a reason why all the Handmaids’ names start with “Of”

The Handmaids have all been assigned names beginning with “Of”, such as Ofglen, who is played by Alexis Bledel. This is because they are the property of somebody else. For example, Elisabeth Moss’ character Offred belongs to a commander named Fred. Of-Fred, see?

3. There’s also a reason why they all wear red

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The blood-red robes worn by the Handmaids are one of the most striking, visually-defining elements of the series. The Handmaids must wear red because in the eyes of the regime they are nothing more than walking wombs. They are not women, not even people – simply a device used to reproduce. 

This also explains why their cloaks are so loose, because Handmaids are supposed to be sexless, so you can’t see their curves. 

4. The white-winged “blinders” created a unique challenge when filming 

Usually, actors have the privilege of eye contact when filming, which enables them to play off each other and take visual cues. But in The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel’s peripheral vision is completely obscured by their winged bonnets. So they had to rely on sound and dialogue to know when to react, and when to play their parts. 

This would have been an immersive experience for the actors as it shows how lonely the Handmaids are, and how they are constricted to a life of solitude. The Handmaids are almost always shot in a very tight frame, too, to show how small and singular their world is.

5. There were no black characters in the novel

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In Atwood’s original story, there was a white supremacist aspect to the regime, which dictated that black people were forcibly resettled outside of Gilead. But in the series, Offred’s best friend Moira is black – and played by the fantastic Samira Wiley.

The series creator, Bruce Miller, explained in an interview with Variety the reasoning behind swaying from the book’s original white supremacist plotline…

“I think some of the largest debates we had surrounded the racial mix of Gilead. In the book, it’s an all-white world where people of colour were sent away,” he explained. “We considered and ultimately decided to change that. In a book, it’s easy to say the’ve sent off all the people of colour — but on a TV show, seeing it all the time it’s harder.

“Honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?”

6. All but one of the series’ directors are women

Four out of five of the directors of The Handmaid’s Tale are women – and six out of seven of the writers, too. And praise be, the series most definitely passes the Bechdel test, where a work of fiction features at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man.

7. There are a lot of Christian references

Obviously, with a series revolving around a Christian theocracy, you would expect a fair few references to the faith. But it’s not just the repeated murmurs of “Blessed be the fruit”, “May the Lord open” and “Praise be” – Gilead itself is named after a fertile region of ancient Palestine.

The impregnation ceremony, too, is based on a Bible passage where an infertile woman says to her husband: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale begins on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday 28 May.