Margaret Atwood shares the scary truth behind the masterful Handmaid's Tale

Rozanne Els attended the 20th Anniversary Festival of TimesTalks, a live conversation and performance series presented by The New York Times. Bad weather kept The Handmaid’s Tale actress Elisabeth Moss from attending an exclusive screening of the second season’s first episode. But afterward the author of the dystopian novel the series is based on, Margaret Atwood, had plenty to say to Tina Jordan, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, about the story she “knew would get [me] in trouble.”

New York - The Handmaid’s Tale is often almost too gruesome to watch. Not so much for the physical violence (though there is much blood spilled,) but for the unending emotional torture that the women of Gilead endure, and the unwelcome realisation that this story is not – and never has been – all that fictional.

People have lived these horrors in the past; it will befall others in the future. That is, if history continues to repeat itself as it is wont to do. Margaret Atwood, whose novel on which the series is based was published in 1985, has repeatedly stated that “everything that happens in the book has already happened,” and the show has kept to that rule. “Anything they put in, they researched. I did that back in the 80s because I knew people were going to say, ‘This is not believable.’ I wanted to be able to point to my sources, all of which I carefully kept.”

Margaret Atwood at the 20th Anniversary Festival o


When the show debuted in the first half of 2017 – only a few months after Donald Trump’s election as American Commander-in-Chief – it seemed to find a special kind of resonance. It presented Gilead as a fictional version of future America where women are enslaved and the abuse of power has rendered the constitution meaningless. The women are raped, beaten, bereft. Their children have been taken away. So too any rights they might have had. Equality. Economic independence. Autonomy over their bodies. Respect. Decency.

People started to point to similarities between the show and real life – even though the book precedes these events by more than three decades and the TV show had already been filmed by the time the 2017 presidential election rolled around. It feels familiar because it is familiar. As Atwood again says, “whatever detail is in there [the book or the TV series] has a precedent.” 

The second season of the show also keeps true to Atwood’s reality rule: Everything viewers will see in the new season has an example to point to in the past. “Yes, yes, yes! Otherwise you’re in fantasy land. So no dragons. I’m sorry about that,” she needles the audience. 


One of the show’s most striking accomplishments is its casting. Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred and Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia act with a veracity that demands you follow them wherever this dark story might go. Part of their credibility lies therein that there is no make-up and no special effects to speak of.

Atwood says that she and Moss have talked about “the makeup thing,” and that Moss believes that when you have makeup on “it acts like a kind of filter or screen, whereas if you don’t have it, the camera is right there with your every twitch.” These are not glamorous roles. These characters are real people, Atwood says. “I have to say,” she suddenly adds, “that Ann Dowd is really the nicest person.” As one of the most terrifying and complex characters on the show, it seems pretty darn impossible…Dowd’s Aunt Lydia reminds Atwood of her fourth grade teacher and “petrifies me every time she opens her mouth!”

She tried to not write The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood say. She put it off as long as she could, and even tried writing a different book, but she soon realised that she had to do it, “or else.” She never expected the book to enter the cultural conversation as it did. “I had no idea that it would move in the direction it has,” she says and tells a story of her friend, novelist Valerie Martin, who was the first person to read the manuscript. “I said, ‘I think I’m gonna get into a lot of trouble.’ And she said, ‘I think that you’re gonna make a lot of money!’”


The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 premieres on M-Net later this year.  

(Photos by Griffin Lipson/BFA. Courtesy of TimesTalks)

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