“After the US election [we] said, ‘We’re no longer making a fantasy tale, we’re making a documentary’.”
While it would be perverse to suggest Margaret Atwood owes anything to Donald Trump, his fledgling White House administration has sparked a resurgence of interest in the Canadian author’s celebrated work, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Together with an impressive new small-screen adaptation, old fans and a new generation of readers are being drawn to her 1985 novel, which is set in a near-future totalitarian society in which women’s rights are curtailed and some, called the handmaids, are kept purely for reproductive purposes.
Previously made as a feature by German director Volker Schlöndorff in 1990, with a cast including Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, rightsholder MGM has now teamed up with US VoD platform Hulu to bring a new version to the screen starring Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley and Joseph Fiennes.
Atwood (below), who agreed to “some kind of consultant” role, was delighted her book would serve as the template for a series adaptation, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and debuted on Hulu in late April to immediate acclaim. The author asserts that all of the incidents in The Handmaid’s Tale are based on actual events throughout history, which is why she terms it “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction.
And, as production got underway in Canada in 2016, Atwood was in no doubt about how Trump’s campaign would impact the show. “The cast and crew woke up the morning after the US election and said, ‘We’re no longer making a fantasy tale, we’re making a documentary’,” she says.
The 10-part series immerses itself in the milieu of totalitarian rule. “This was a puritanical regime where nobody has any fun,” she says, referencing the book’s Gilead, a revolutionary movement that usurped the former US and forced fertile women, such as protagonist Offred played by Moss, into sexual slavery.
It dovetails clearly with the current debate on women’s rights, intolerance and fake news, and Atwood muses that Trump is emblematic of deeper undercurrents at play in the US. “He himself is not a religious theocrat,” she says. “But the religious right voted for him because they thought he would give them what they wanted, and he is quite happy to give anybody what they want as long as it’s popular.”
Belonging to a generation that witnessed power-grabs by epochal populists, Atwood was a young fan of utopic and dystopic literature, particularly George Orwell’s 1984.
In the 1960s, she was further inspired by her studies of the 17th-century Puritans. “The idea that the Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution is only partly true,” she observes dryly.
“They came to set up their theocracy and religiously persecute others, which is what they did. So that’s one of the foundations upon which we have the superstructure of the 18th-century enlightenment. But that doesn’t mean the [foundations] ever went away. So you ask yourself, ‘If America had a totalitarian regime, what would it be like?’ That was on my mind in the ’80s and also because the religious right was on the rise.”
With a similar situation underway today and Trump in situ at the White House at least until 2020, showrunner Bruce Miller, Hulu and MGM will get to delve deeper into The Handmaid’s Tale’s fiercely relevant story in the second season.
While Offred’s fate in the novel is a mystery, Atwood has revised the epilogue for a recent audiobook, which sees Professor Pieixoto — who discovers Offred’s story recorded on tapes he calls ‘the handmaid’s tales’ — addressing the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies years after the demise of the regime.
His address broadens the scope of the story, even though his findings remain vague. This begs the question of a sequel novel, but Atwood is not being drawn: “As you will see, the professor claims to have discovered some other documents but he’s not saying anything until he can authenticate them.”
She is clear about what a new audience will take away from The Handmaid’s Tale. “Maybe they’ll vote next time,” she says with a laugh. “Vote while you can. It’s a privilege.”