The actresses have said that the head coverings they wear when they go outside are like blinders, completely cutting off their peripheral vision. The actresses can't see each other unless they're looking directly at each other. They have to act largely based on what they can hear.
There were no black characters in the original source novel, because Gilead (the repressive theocratic regime that had taken over the U.S. government by the time the book starts) had classified all black people as Children of Ham. This is a reference to the belief held by some fundamentalist Christian denominations that black people are descended from Noah's son Ham and are therefore subject to a "curse" leveled at Ham by Noah. In the novel, black people are forcibly resettled in the upper Midwest (Chapter 14). The producers of this show made a conscious choice to deviate from that aspect of the book so that there would be a chance to include black characters (and actors) in the show, including the casting of Samira Wiley as Offred's friend and fellow handmaid Moira. In a January 2017 interview with TVLine, executive producer Bruce Miller explained that the producers engaged in a "huge discussion with Margaret Atwood, and in some ways it is 'TV vs. book' thing," arguing that in a TV show it would be harder than in a book to explain the persistent absence of black characters. He continued, "What's the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering [the story of handmaid Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?" He also justified it by reporting that the "evangelical movement has gotten a lot more integrated [since the book's publication, and] I made the decision that fertility trumped everything." The source novel also included a brief explanation for the absence of Jewish characters in the story: the Gileadean government gave them the options of either converting to Christianity or emigrating to Israel--though the ones who chose emigration were really loaded onto ships that were then dumped into the ocean.
In the original novel by Margaret Atwood, the main character is known only by her patronymic, Offred (or "of Fred," since she "belongs" to a Commander named Fred). Her real name is never revealed, though many readers interpret her name to be June, based on various subtle hints in the text. In a 2017 article for the New York Times Book Review, author Margaret Atwood says about the interpretation, "that was not my original thought, but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish." In the 1990 film adaptation of the novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1990), the filmmakers chose Kate as her pre-Gileadean name, and state it clearly.
Margaret Atwood has said that pretty much everything that happens in the novel has happened somewhere in history: The Bible, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, the backlash against 1980s feminism, etc.
As explained in both the source novel and the show, the secreted motto that Offred finds ("Nolite te bastardes carborundorum") is a mock-Latin phrase that was once a common joke among children who studied Latin; the novel's author Margaret Atwood first heard it as a wisecrack in her childhood Latin classes. A May 2017 article in "Vanity Fair" explained that the phrase, which dates from the late 19th or early 20th century and is supposed to mean "don't let the bastards grind you down," contains only a few words that are actually Latin. Regardless of its dubious grammatical or historical origins, though, its presence in the novel as a source of hope for Offred has (in the three decades since the novel's publication) in turn caused it to become an inspirational and beloved motto for some of the novel's readers. In an interview in "Time Magazine", Atwood remarked on how "weird" it is that "this thing from my childhood is permanently [tattooed] on people's bodies."
Original author Margaret Atwood was quite involved in the script adaptation of her 1985 novel insofar as the update of the vernacular over the intervening 32 years. According to showrunner Bruce Miller, she had to ask the scriptwriters to explain the meaning of the term "carpet munchers."
In a New York Times essay published in March 2017, as well as in the new introduction to a 2017 edition of her novel "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood said that when she started writing the book, her title for it was "Offred." This is the name given to the main character by the repressive regime that is enslaving her. In addition to its primary meaning (that she is the property of a commander named Fred), Atwood also explained that she intended for the name to also remind the reader of the word "offered," meaning, "denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice."
The popularity of this series prompted a surge of renewed interest in Atwood's book that had never been out of print since its publication in 1985. The film adaptation, The Handmaid's Tale (1990), on the other hand, had become almost entirely forgotten and so difficult to find, the demand for it on Amazon and eBay had risen to such an extent that some consumers had reportedly paid upward of $100 for an original copy.
In an essay that was published in the "New York Times" in March 2017 and also as the new introduction to a 2017 edition of her novel "The Handmaid's Tale", Margaret Atwood explained that the inspiration for the handmaids' uniforms and especially their face-hiding headdresses "came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child."
During a November 2017 interview on the Alabama Public Television program "Bookmark with Don Noble," Margaret Atwood explained the significance of one aspect of the show's set decoration: "Written words are the big forbidden sexy no-no thing in this culture [Gilead]. It may interest you to know that in the [television] series, all of the paintings in the Commander's house are from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And the signatures on them are the only things you can read in that house, apart from what's in library. So I said to the people running the show, 'did you borrow them from the museum?' And they said, "no, we got this nice man in China to do them for us at twenty bucks a pop'.... It shows that these people are like other totalitarianisms in that they loot things, and the people at the top get to have them."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The repressive theocratic regime that has taken over the U.S. in this show and in its source novel is called "The Republic of Gilead." Gilead is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, first in Genesis 31:23, both as a geographic location and the source of a figurative or literal balm (curative or healing substance). There is a spiritual called "There Is a Balm in Gilead" that is in the hymnals of many Christian denominations, and in the book "The Handmaid's Tale," Offred remembers the hymn. She even makes a joke to herself about it, thinking, "there is a bomb in Gilead."
When Offred and the Commander play Scrabble for the first time, the first two tiles they turn over are the letters "M" and "A,". They are the initials of the author of the show's source novel, "The Handmaid's Tale"--Margaret Atwood.
During a game of Scrabble between the Commander and Offred, one of the solved words is "zygote" (an egg that has been fertilized by sperm) which is ironic, considering the peculiar nature of their relationship.