Bruce Miller may be Margaret Atwood's biggest fan. Every year, the longtime television writer asked his agents to check on the availability of the rights to her famed dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), about a society that strips women of their rights and forces those who are fertile to bear children for rich couples. Now, Miller is finally helming Hulu's adaptation of the book, starring Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, just as the specter of the once improbable story has begun to haunt some feminists: Protestors at the post-election Women's March in January carried signs that read, "Make Margaret Atwood fiction again."
Miller started writing and filming the show long before the election. Still, he had to make a lot of tough decisions when updating the modern classic for 2017. In anticipation of the show's April 26 premiere, miller spoke to TIME about making the main character, Moss' Offred, more rebellious, creating a more diverse set of characters for the show and why he thinks the story's main conflict is actually between Offred and her former self, June.
TIME: I watched the first three episodes of the show, and it’s been haunting me ever since.
Bruce Miller: In a good way or in a bad way?
In a “Holy crap, our world is going to hell” kind of way.
I know. We unintentionally made the most relevant show on television.
Obviously, you didn’t know everything that was going to happen in the real world to make this show so prescient, but when did you come on board?
I actually read the book when I was in college in a New Fiction class — which tells you how long ago that was — and I loved it. It was one of the first books that made me think about what it was like to be a writer and tell a story. And over the years I read it and reread it and reread it. And then I heard there was going to be a movie, and that was kind of exciting.
The one with Natasha Richardson.
Right. But the movie wasn’t that memorable for me. When I started to write in television, I kept thinking it makes a better show than it would a movie just because one of the frustrating things about the book is that it ends, and you don't find out all this stuff. With a television show, you could really dig into that world. So I always had my agents check every year to see if the rights were available, and one year they came back and said MGM is looking for someone to write it and run the show. And after lots of meetings and discussions — they had a very thorough process — I was lucky enough to make it through.
It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for all that time. I’m glad I got so much experience myself before I took on this project.
The show definitely expands on what’s happened in the book. You get more backstory. You get to see what happens from the perspective of other characters. How did you decide what to expand and why, and did you discuss those decisions with Margaret Atwood at all?
Everything’s been a conversation with Margaret. It’s very unusual with something this iconic that you would have the author still living. Margaret is an expert in her own way of seeing this particular piece of work adapted: It’s been a play, opera, movie. So she had a lot of experience with what things need to change for different forms for this story. Where I might have had trepidation changing things because of my affection for the book, she certainly did not.
If we changed something, we did it thoughtfully and for a reason. We discussed the repercussions of each change with Margaret. It's been a very active conversation back and forth. And I’ve been through the story a lot. We’ve picked it apart in the writers’ room. Elisabeth, in particular, has been through the book and educated herself to the nth degree. She's memorized whole sections of it. So we took great care, and most of the changes we’ve made were actually extrapolations: Taking a thing that was a sentence in the book and turning it into a whole episode.
What was a change you're particularly happy with in the show?
One of my favorite things is the stuff in the hospital with Hannah being born. That’s mentioned in the book, but we also thought there was an opportunity to explore, "What does the falling birth rate look like to us, not in a newspaper or on CNN but on a day-to-day basis from June's perspective?" And an empty maternity ward is really that.
And also Margaret mentions in the book very briefly the police shooting protesters, but we turned that into a whole story because even the one sentence is so evocative.
I think one of the more notable changes is the age of the character of Serena Joy. Even though I don’t think her age is given a number in the book, she certainly seems a lot older than Yvonne Strahovski, who is the actress playing her. In the book Serena Joy is kind of past childbearing years, so her failure to have a child is in the past. We thought it was more interesting in the context of a show where the dynamic between Serena and Offred is playing out over time if Serena feels something she should rightfully be doing right now is being done by someone else.
I also noticed there are many more non-white, non-straight characters in the show than in the book.
In the book, it’s an all-white world. That was a very big discussion with Margaret about what the difference was between reading the words, “There are no people of color in this world” and seeing an all-white world on your television, which has a very different impact. 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? So that was part of it.
Also it just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything. I had a very spirited discussion with Margaret about it over a very long period of time, and she was spectacularly open even though she thought at first blush, "Well that would change everything." So having her as a foundational voice for the story involved in the process made all the difference.
June is a little more of a rebel in the show. She's going to protests. Her internal monologue is more aggressive. She's more likely to say something out of line. Why did you decide to do that?
There’s a spunky entertainment factor to it just in general. There's this weird absurdity to the world — "Really? This is my Thursday?" — that I decided to bring a little more to the fore.
The central conflict in the show is between June and Offred. Basically, it's two characters, one on the outside who is trying very hard not to get killed, and one on the inside who's going, "Do you f—ing believe this? This is insane. How do you not do something?" So the conflict between those characters is made a little bit more vibrant the further apart they are. The more of June's independence and quickness I can bring forward — her plucky, rebellious, mouthy self — the more dangerous Offred's life is, and the more interesting the show is.
In the book, June's mother is a feminist who marched for reproductive rights in the 1960s. She and June have very different views on feminism. Obviously, the conversation around feminism has changed a lot since the 1980s — pop culture figures and young women are comfortable calling themselves feminists now — but some things haven't changed: At the Women's March, women were carrying signs that said things like, "Make Margaret Atwood fiction again." How did you approach those changes in the feminist conversation in the show?
I tried to think very specifically about June’s life and try not to generalize it into a description of the way feminism is or has changed. Certainly, I’m no expert at all in those areas. I wanted to make this a human story. I did try to figure out what things in the book felt like they were from another time: The mom was one of them. Something about her felt dated, and we ended up not including her in the first season.
When did Elisabeth get involved and what kind of conversations did you have about the book and the character?
Well, I threw the book into the ocean, and she rose out of it in a clam shell, and I took that as a sign. She takes my seventh grade Christmas pageant dialogue and brings it to life in an extraordinary way.
They sent Lizzie the script, and it was just the old fashioned way of she read it and loved the character. I think once she read it she knew somewhere in her heart that if she had to turn on the TV and see someone else playing that part, she would die inside. We talked on the phone a lot, and I think we both had the exact same vision for the show. It was like talking to someone in the insane asylum and realizing you're having the exact same hallucinations.
And once she got here and started working, I’ve never seen anybody work those kinds of hours. You’re talking about a character who is not only in every scene, sometimes she’s in every shot for a whole episode. So that amount of effort and the pace of her work and the emotional toll it’s taken has been extraordinary.
A number of dystopias have had a resurgence in the popular conversation in recent months, including movies and books like Children of Men and 1984, as ways to digest this moment in time. What tropes from the genre did you want to adopt and which did you want to avoid?
I’m a fan of those kinds of books and movies. But a lot of what I did was in opposition to those. Dystopian worlds are always dusty and full of rubble and depressing, physically looking terrible. There are no super happy, beautiful dystopias, and I wanted there to be one. This one is controlled by people who care quite a bit about how it looks and the environment. So to make a dystopia that looks beautiful and where people are healthy and environmentally conscious and has solved lots of problems that we really would like to solve is spooky. You want people to kind of go, "Look how nice it is there! I'd live there." And then they remember the institutionalized rape. The more you can kind of mix our fears with our aspirations, the better off you are.
Maybe that's what got to me.
I think it's also Lizzie's performance and Margaret's writing. Lizzie has this raw skill that allows her to carry the story almost entirely from June's point of view, and Margaret has the skill to tell it from her point of view. The fact that the whole book is told from one character's point of view doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's expertly executed. Every single fact you know in the book is something Offred saw or heard about. There's nothing else. That's what makes it scary because you don't know anything she doesn't know, and she doesn't know sh—.