In the original text of The Handmaid’s Tale, everyone we see is white.
Margaret Atwood’s 1983 classic work of speculative fiction depicts a near-future America run by a totalitarian, selectively-Bible-thumping patriarchy where all citizens are sorted by caste. The few fertile women remaining are forced into sexual slavery as Handmaids, made to bear children for the barren Wives of male Commanders. The colors that matter in this society, known as Gilead, are of uniform, not skin tone: Handmaids, literally walking wombs, wear red. (Like several other dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale has seen its sales soar in the wake of the election. Can’t imagine why.)
There were people of color in the America of before, the one where our narrator Offred — her real name has been erased; the only identity allowed for her is that she is “of Fred,” her assigned Commander — used to live. The one where she had a daughter and a husband, a job and a house, a bank account she could access. But the rulers of Gilead sent all of them to the Colonies (a.k.a. Nebraska and its surrounding states), where they, along with other Unwomen — the elderly, the sterile, the Handmaids who prove to be more trouble than they’re worth or, worse, fail to carry a pregnancy to term — live in exile, working in waste removal for as long as they can survive the radioactive toxins. Three years, give or take.
Maybe it’s better in the Colonies than in the Puritanical hell in which Offred resides: After a rigorous training-cum-reprogramming at the Red Center, where female officers known as Aunts beat and brainwash the Handmaids into submission, Handmaids are sent to live with Commanders and their Wives, where they are ritually raped each month so they may conceive a child which they will be forced to give away so the Commander and his Wife can raise it as their own. Women aren’t allowed to read, to write, to speak freely, to do much of anything, really. It’s the kind of situation that could make you want to kill yourself, but the government’s one step ahead of you there. The windows of Handmaids’ bedrooms are shatterproof.
Maybe it’s better in the Colonies, but readers never find out. Part of what gives Atwood’s novel its power is its spare, lean storytelling: Until a postscript from the future of this future, we see only what Offred sees, we know only what she knows. The Colonies, and everyone who occupies them, exist somewhere off the page that readers cannot go.
In adapting The Handmaid’s Tale for a new Hulu series, premiering Tuesday night, executive producer and writer Bruce Miller was faithful, in many ways, to the book. But one of the first changes he and the creative team agreed on was that the story needed to be updated. In Offred’s world, the present is 1985. For a modern-day audience to feel as close to Offred as possible — for her life and her fear to feel as real to us as it does to her — the present had to be this present: 2017. And that change sparked a series of other changes, most notably that the cast of characters populating Offred’s world got significantly more diverse.
Offred is still white (Elisabeth Moss, perfect). Her rabble-rousing, gay best friend is now a black woman, played by Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley. Offred’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is also black; their daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), to whom Offred yearns to return, is biracial. And while the most powerful oppressors we meet early on — the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — are white, there are people of color in every caste in Gilead. This is a nightmare future vast enough for everyone.
When adapting material as beloved and iconic as The Handmaid’s Tale (in spite of, or perhaps especially because, it has been adapted many times before), any deviation from the text is a gamble — even with Atwood on board as a consulting producer who has publicly given her blessing to this version of the story.
“Absolutely, it is a big change,” Miller said by phone when I asked about the choice to diversify Gilead. “This was a big, huge discussion, between me and Margaret and the writers. And there are a lot of factors.”
Miller first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college (“in a new fiction class, so that tells you how long ago it was”) and has been gunning to helm an adaptation ever since. So it’s not surprising to hear him say “the book is definitely our guidepost, and it isn’t just because we have blind fealty to the book — it’s because it’s good.” Miller notes that Atwood “is a very thoughtful person in terms of constructing a plot, so the decisions she made were ones that work for the show.”
“What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show? I don’t know that there is any apparent difference when you’re watching.”
But once Miller and the writers made the decision to move the timeline of the novel up about 30 years, Miller said they asked themselves what’s changed since the book came out. The conservative evangelical movement, fairly homogenous at the time the novel was published, is “a little more diverse” now, Miller said. While it is “a generally very Caucasian movement still,” the leaders of Hulu’s Gilead are less fixated on race than they were in the book. As Miller put it, their worldview is: “Being a different color is not being a heretic. Believing something different is being a heretic.”
That a black woman would be eligible for Handmaid status fit easily into the ethos of Gilead: Fertility is the most precious resource, to be mined from whoever can provide it, regardless of race. “When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously, fertility would trump everything,” Miller said. “And we’ve seen that: When fertility becomes an issue, racism starts to fall because people adopt kids from Ethiopia and Asian countries and from everywhere.” An inclusive world aligned with the internal logic of the story more than a segregated one.
As for Offred’s family, Miller said more diversity simply felt natural to him. “I didn’t know anyone who didn’t know someone who had a child of a different race,” Miller said, acknowledging that this might “just be my little bubble.”
“International adoptions, interracial adoptions, interracial marriages, it seems like just a much more diverse country than it was even 30 years ago. So I think people have gotten a little more comfortable with that idea, that someone’s child can be a different race from them.”
It’s one thing to read about a society in which everyone is white; it’s a very different experience to see that society on screen, in hour-long episodes, for weeks at a time. “There’s a very practical thing of, what’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show?” Miller asked. “I don’t know that there is any apparent difference when you’re watching.”
And then there’s the argument so obvious in its strength, you’d think the Oscars would never be so white again: “I wanted to cast the best actors I could,” Miller said. “Samira just has a light bulb inside her. And Moira in the book was a lot like Samira in real life: She’s a very engaged, incredibly outspoken gay woman. So those things matched up nicely. She just brings such charisma and sparkle.”
“But it really boiled down to this: Why would we be telling Offred’s story and not the story of someone [in the Colonies]?” Miller said. To do so would essentially be to deem the experience of this white character as more worthy of our attention than the experience of a black character.
It’s not just the world within The Handmaid’s Tale that Miller and his team needed to consider. For all the talk about of how alarming it is that the threat embedded within The Handmaid’s Tale feels as relevant today as it did in 1985, one arena where it seems progress is moving forward — in fits and starts, but still — is in the awareness, even outrage, surrounding the lack of diversity in Hollywood. The audience that will be consuming this show is more vigilant than ever about the implications of casting, or failing to cast, actors of color. We’ve reached a point, as audience members, where the absence of performers of color is far more distracting, not to mention off-putting, than their presence.
“Once you decide it’s going to be a diverse world, it doesn’t change the story,” Miller said. What it does, really, is enhance the story: It adheres to the spirit of the narrative instead of its letter, and the show is stronger for it.
This, one hopes, is something the entertainment industry will take away from Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale. Considering how many of our television shows and movies are based on existing source material — the percentage of new films and shows that aren’t based on comic books and TV shows or movies from the 1980s and 1990s seems to shrink with each passing day — Handmaid’s Tale is a case study in how flexible a director’s concept of what’s canon should be. Casting “the right person” for an iconic character doesn’t have to be so surface-level. An adaptation or a reboot doesn’t have to be that derivative. It could be, as this Handmaid’s Tale is, an opportunity to bring new resonance and complexity to an old narrative.
Audiences are already hungry for this. Think of how people have been clamoring for a black James Bond since before Daniel Craig announced his retirement. Or, more recently, think of the backlash to Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix: Yes, it was keeping with the comic books upon which the show was based to cast a white actor (Finn Jones) in the lead role. But Iron Fist was created in 1974. The series failed to adapt to modern sensibilities and, as GQ put it, that meant it was still “about a rich white guy stumbling onto a city that embodies the Orientalist martial arts fetishism of the ’70s and beating Asian people at their own culture.” It was widely panned.
“When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously, fertility would trump everything.”
Iron Fist is hardly the only story that could benefit from more conscious casting. So many of these iconic narratives — especially from comic books and fairy tales — would be all the more meaningful and relevant if the lead characters were played by people of color. Imagine a Superman reboot starring a Latino actor. What is Clark Kent’s perennial struggle if not that of an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the United States through no fault or desire of his own, desperate to assimilate and contribute to his new home but thwarted and rejected at every turn? Would that be so blasphemous, or would it make a new Superman movie actually worth watching for the first time in decades? It’s not like the Supermen of late have been hitting it up, up, and away. Do you even remember who played Superman before Henry Cavill? No, you don’t, but here he is. He was a white guy with a very Christopher Reeve-like jaw, and he was such a forgettable Superman he is now appearing on The CW’s fleet of super-shows playing a different superhero.
Our era of reboots is littered with such missed opportunities. Did Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast really need both Belle and the Beast to be played by white actors? If so much of Belle’s identity is rooted in the idea that she is an outcast in her “provincial” town, wouldn’t that theme have come through more vividly if she weren’t a white girl like all the other white girls in her neighborhood?
The only reason to insist that these characters stay white is if their whiteness is key to who their identity; most of the time, it’s not.
A new adaptation presents an opportunity to do exactly that: Adapt to a modern worldview, ditching whatever dated, closed-minded, or now-irrelevant choices were made in the source material. Directors and showrunners who can appreciate that chance, instead of squander it, could save us from the sameness that drags down so many franchises flooding our screens. And some shows, like The Handmaid’s Tale, are already doing just that. Take Riverdale, the CW’s sudsy series inspired by the Archie comics, which reimagines Josie and the Pussycats as an all-black girl group. The TV Land reboot of 1988 cult classic Heathers is taking similar liberties with its originally all-white clique: Heather McNamara will be a black lesbian, Heather Duke a genderqueer person originally named Heath.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale a case study in understanding what is and isn’t vital about a story: It elevates what is essential and edits the rest accordingly. Critics are already enamored with the three episodes made available for review. Maybe the success of the series will inspire those in Hollywood overseeing the adaptations and reboots to come to think more expansively about the worlds they’re building. Under His Eye.