When Canadian author Margaret Atwood stepped onto the set of the Hulu adaptation of her dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she was given a strange task: to hit lead actress Elisabeth Moss from behind with her hand.
“They said, ‘We’re going to film that again, but this time hit her harder. Give her a real bop on the head,’ ” Atwood recalls, to which she wailed, “But what if I hurt her?”
In her cameo, Atwood is one of the women indoctrinating Moss’ character, Offred, into being a handmaid — a woman forced into sexual servitude and made to bear children for infertile couples among society’s upper echelons. In Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel and the Hulu series (which premieres April 26), parts of America have become Gilead, a theocracy where women are no longer allowed to work or own property. We spoke with Atwood, 77, about Hulu’s series and how close the nightmare world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is to becoming reality.
How does the Hulu series differ from the book?
It builds out some of the characters that sort of disappear from view in the book, because the narrator doesn’t know what happens to them. Another difference is that, in the book, society is so segregated. They are shipping black people back to Africa, they are shipping Jews back to Israel. In both cases we suspect they are dumping them overboard. In the series, they made the decision to make it more like now, with more interracial couples and handmaids of all colors.
Does the series look like what you imagined when you wrote the book?
They cast the commander and his wife younger than they are in the book, so I think that increases the possibility for jealousy, competition, sexual tension. In the book, the wife wouldn’t be able to have children because of her age. But this one, she’s young, so you can imagine how conflicted she is about having a handmaid.
It also seemed like there’s a lot more cursing in the show than in the book.
Oh, yeah, there’s a lot more cursing. I think that’s because there’s a lot more cursing in real life than there was when I wrote the book. So instead of making it a period piece, they made it now. There’s also a lot more devices, like cellphones, which didn’t exist when I wrote the book in 1984.
The fact that the show feels so contemporary makes it more terrifying, like it could happen today.
Back when I wrote the book, things like Tiananmen Square and the [Arab Spring] hadn’t happened, so we didn’t think of police shooting into a crowd of protesters as a possibility. But now it has [happened], so we added it. My rule for the book was, I didn’t put in anything that people hadn’t already done. And I think the series is following that rule, not putting in anything that is just a made-up thing. It’s all happened before.
Is the U.S. on the road to becoming a place like Gilead?
Well, let’s just say you’re not on the road that leads away from it. I think in some states you’re getting pretty close, but without the perks. By which I mean, in Gilead, if you’re a handmaid and you’re expected to produce babies for the state, at least you get three meals a day.
Do you see any glimmers of hope?
The U.S. is an extremely varied and ornery country. I don’t think they are going to ultimately lie down for a totalitarian dictatorship. But that’s just me being hopeful.
Meanwhile, make nice with the Quakers. They are going to run the underground railroad for women. They are probably already mapping it out.
Is this series a self-contained thing, or might there be a second season?
I don’t know whether I’m allowed to say. But why don’t I say it anyway? I know they are already talking about a Season 2. That will take us into unknown territory, will it not?
Are you thinking of writing more?
I don’t know. At my age? What do you think?
Yeah, do it!
You’re egging me on. Well, I’ll certainly have to consult about Season 2.
Atwood, Moss and others involved in the series will discuss the adaptation at a sold out Smithsonian Associates event Wednesday.