Making 'The Handmaid's Tale' as a tale for our time

The making of Hulu's new original series based on Margaret Atwood's epic novel.

— -- If Hulu's new original series "The Handmaid's Tale" feels timely, that's both by design and happenstance.

Based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name, the series stays true to the novel's dystopian world, the Republic of Gilead, in which a totalitarian theocracy has overthrown the U.S. government and women are forced to bear children after a fertility crisis. But it also updates that world to more closely resemble our own.

"This is an alternative world, but it lives in the present," executive producer Warren Littlefield told ABC News. "It's New England, it's unbelievably beautiful. We want to seduce the audience into that world, and when you look closely it’s horrific."

In the Hulu series, Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss), who narrates the story, was married to a black man and has a biracial daughter from before the government takeover.

"The book is a white world, where minorities have been sent off to colonies," said Littlefield, who also produces TV's "Fargo." "We discussed it with Margaret. ... We really didn’t want to present a world that didn’t more closely resemble the world we live in. June’s marriage and child -- that reflected the world we live in and that made it more powerful."

Said creator and showrunner Bruce Miller, "I just want to make sure it feels like the real world, like it’s grounded. Because it’s not scary if it’s not the real world."

Adding to the show's urgency is the cultural and political moment in which the series has arrived, making it feel eerily prescient.

The book, which has never been out of print, rocketed to the top of the bestseller list right after a preview of the series aired during the Super Bowl.

"Then we woke up in November, and had this holy s--- moment, and I said, 'I think there’s even more pressure on us,'" Littlefield recalled. "The fact that the Republicans and [now President Donald] Trump made it through the electoral process and [is] in the White House, that’s powerful. But we saw the seeds of this kind of nationalistic behavior with Brexit, the rise of the alt-right over the last few years, and a lot of people who wanted to push back on women’s rights.

"We knew we were playing with a powerful thematic," he continued. "These guys won and this man’s club takes us closer to the dystopian world that’s depicted in our show. That sets off even more alarms."

Ultimately, Littlefield, his team and cast set out to create a dramatic thriller. What they got, he said, is an "emotional roller coaster ride that has echoes of the world we live in more than we intended."

And if Offred has anything to teach the audience, Littlefield said, it's that "it’s not enough to just be a bystander."

"If there’s a shout out to the audience, it's don’t stand on the sidelines," he said.

Keep reading for more on the making of "The Handmaid's Tale" from its creator and some of its stars.

Bruce Miller:

MGM, which made the 1990 film "The Handmaid's Tale," starring Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn and the late Natasha Richardson, still had the rights to the book when it approached Showtime about doing a series, according to Littlefield. That projected stalled and MGM took it to Hulu. Littlefield came on board and brought in Moss as a star and executive producer.

Bruce Miller, who has written and produced for numerous series including "ER," "The 100" and "Medium," jumped at the opportunity to be the series' showrunner. "The Handmaid's Tale" had been one of his favorite books since college. But Hulu was hesitant to hire him.

"I was the wrong gender, I think they were primarily looking at women, and rightly so. I would have completely been on board with that except I wanted the job," the veteran showrunner told ABC News. "I was dying to do it and dying to make sure it was done right."

As it turns out, he was the right person for the job. Atwood loved his initial adaptation.

"I was starstruck," Miller said about meeting Atwood for the first time. "She’s very good at making you un-starstruck. I consider her a very good friend. She’s a lovely, super intelligent woman, inspiring in every way, and also another writer, and we tried to talk about it as writers."

Atwood, who is an executive producer of the series, became a "treasure of a resource," Littlefield said, getting involved in all parts of the process, not just the writing. She even appears as an extra in the first episode. (Hint, she slaps one of the handmaids.)

Samira Wiley:

"Orange Is the New Black" star Samira Wiley plays Offred's best friend Moira. Miller said he made a conscious choice to cast a black woman in the role.

"First of all, in a world where the fertility rate fell 95 percent, [it’s possible] people would put aside their racism perhaps to have a child," he said. "I thought it was important to tell the story of everybody who’s in our world."

When Wiley auditioned for the role, he said he knew he had found his Moira. "She was so good, and she was Moira," he said.

For Wiley, who hadn't read the book when she came in to audition, the script was the draw.

"It was such a compelling story and something that I, after reading the first script, had to get more of," she told ABC News. "More specifically, I was really drawn to the character of Moira. She had something in her that is just so attractive, that I was so attracted to as an actor. She’s a bada--. She’s a leader. Her voice is going to be heard."

Wiley was also influenced by the events happening in the real world during the presidential campaign and after the election.

"There was a thinking that this could never happen. And unfortunately, that is the thinking of the people of Gilead or pre-Gilead -- that we see through flashbacks how this happened," she said. "It came not all at once. It came gradually. People were of the mind that it could never happen and it happened. I hope people watching this show can think of this in conjunction with the society we’re living in."

Wiley hopes the show starts a "national conversation about the time we're living in and how it relates to the show," she said. "I hope there are conversations that are being had that wouldn’t have otherwise been had if this show wasn’t on television."

Alexis Bledel

"Gilmore Girls" star Alexis Bledel, who was offered the role of Ofglen, was also aware of how "timely" the series was when she signed on. But, she told ABC News, "Day to day, I think I was really focused on creating a really true adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s work."

She added, "That’s a real responsibility and you want to do her work justice of course. Of course, we were helped by Bruce Miller’s wonderful script and his vision for this update. And I was just trying to create a character that felt like a real person and imagine what it was like to her."

Bledel, who is almost unrecognizable as Ofglen, said, "I just loved how multilayered she was. What an incredible acting challenge."

Joseph Fiennes

British actor Joseph Fiennes plays Commander Frederick in the series.

"When I first read [the book] I was struck by the damage of fundamentalism. I thought also it was just an extraordinary piece of writing," Fiennes told ABC News.

The actor fell in love with the complexity of his character.

"There’s a sense of him wanting to reach out and want to make sure that this girl ... is not damaged in that way and yet at the same time he’s a man that is tasting power and is corrupt and cannot but help himself," he said. "It becomes a very complex relationship but she navigates her need to survive through him."

He also teased what's ahead, "It gets worse in the best way."

The first three episodes of the series are available on Hulu today, with subsequent episodes arriving weekly thereafter.