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Margaret Atwood Is Still Seeing the Future

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was prescient when it was released as a novel more than 30 years ago. Today, as a Hulu adaptation, it’s something even eerier.

(Getty Images/Hulu)
(Getty Images/Hulu)

“I didn’t cause it!”

Margaret Atwood has clearly been asked about the seemingly prophetic qualities of her best-known book before — hence the only-half-joking response she gives when I inevitably bring them up. We’re talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu drama based on her 1985 novel. (Albeit a couple of hours later than we were supposed to; the writer had misplaced her passport and needed time to search for it.)

“I keep saying I’m not psychic,” she continues. “I was just looking at what was happening at the time.” And what’s still happening, too: “I often don’t quite know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it,” she says of the current news climate. “[Like] what Arizona recently has in mind to do, which is that if you are in a peaceful protest that … might turn violent, you can be arrested and have all your assets confiscated.” She’s referring to SB1142, the Republican-proposed measure that would have enabled prosecution of protest organizers under racketeering charges if their gathering turned violent, whether or not the violence was planned. The bill was swiftly retracted in February after an immediate public backlash. Still, that it was even proposed makes it feel as if we’re closer to Atwood’s dystopia than we were before — and The Handmaid’s Tale already felt alarmingly close to home when it was published more than 30 years ago.

It ought to be noted that we are not, in fact, living in Atwood’s Republic of Gilead: the fundamentalist nation-state that’s taken over the United States in response to environmental devastation and declining fertility, forcing its female citizens into either domestic or sexual servitude. Climate change and pollution are real, but their effects are not yet as apocalyptic as they are in the novel. Donald Trump is not the head of a theocracy, or even particularly religious. Our fertility rate is actually higher than it was for much of the 1970s. Not everything Atwood wrote is coming to fruition, or even on the road to doing so. But The Handmaid’s Tale feels as relevant now as it might have upon release.

Dystopias work like Rorschach tests: What we draw out of them often has to do with our own anxieties finding their match. The sparse supermarkets and poisoned food of the live-action Gilead are chilling, but they’re not exactly haunting on their own. To stick with us, images need something to stick to — like the idea that Americans might flee to Canada in search of the freedom they once prided themselves on, an oft-empty liberal promise that The Handmaid’s Tale makes terrifyingly literal in its first scene. The key to the book’s staying power is the totality of its vision, offering an abundance of small horrors so our subconscious can pick and choose which to glom onto.

“One of the things I always loved about the book was how it seemed to be perennially relevant,” show creator Bruce Miller says. “I read it when I was in college, in a new-fiction class. When I read it then, our conversations were very much about how relevant it was. Then I read it quite a number of times over the years. And every time I reread it, I thought, Wow, now’s the perfect time!

The irony of The Handmaid’s Tale, which stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a woman forced into sexual slavery under an American-born theocracy, is that it comes by contemporary resonance through resolute fidelity to a 32-year-old novel. When I ask Miller if he was drawn to the long-gestating project due to its topicality, he responds firmly. “I think it’s more of a testament to Margaret Atwood’s enduring vision of Gilead that connects so well to the world in different ways,” he says. “You leave it to the audience. You hope that they’ll find relevance in the world around them. But in a lot of ways, I’m more in the question business than the answer business. I’m saying, ‘Here! This is interesting!’ And how people put it into their lives is something I hope to leave to them.”

No work of art can choose its context. And in the nearly six months since the 2016 election, no series, movie, book, or podcast’s context has been altered more radically than The Handmaid’s Tale. Watching the show’s principals navigate that sudden shift has made for a fascinating press tour. More importantly, situating the show within our new reality makes for profoundly affecting TV. The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t ask for this moment. The show rises to it regardless.

Atwood favors the term “speculative fiction” to describe her work, but she readily admits that Handmaid’s wasn’t entirely speculative. The book is codedicated to Perry Miller, with whom she studied Puritanism during her postgraduate years at Harvard, and the book’s themes are famously sourced from headlines. “I hadn’t put anything into the book that hadn’t already been done,” Atwood says. “I had an extensive clipping file of things that people were saying at the time that were channeling into the book. This was back in the mid-’80s.” What’s changed isn’t the ideology, but the status of those who hold it: “These were people who had not yet achieved political power, but now they have. They are enacting the kinds of changes they were talking about then.”

In the book, those changes amount to a rigid caste system organized under a sickeningly literal interpretation of the Bible. Commanders command; Angels fight; Eyes spy; Wives confer status; and Handmaids, like our narrator Offred, bear children on the Wives’ behalf. The handmaids are reduced so completely to their reproductive capacity their names are now possessive titles. (“Offred” is “of Fred,” and when she’s rotated to a new household, she’ll get a new name.) In real life, as scores of Women’s Marchers noted, the changes Atwood is referencing amount to increasingly draconian regulation of women’s health, with 338 abortion restrictions passed at the state level since 2010 and the proposed so-called “defunding” of Planned Parenthood turning half the country’s basic health care into a political talking point. “We filmed the women’s march in the show well before the election and certainly before Inauguration Day,” Miller marvels. “Then you look at the images, and the images are so close to what you’ve done. A lot of those things weren’t at the forefront when myself and the staff got together and started to talk about what the season would be.”

This isn’t the first time The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted. When the 1990 feature starring Natasha Richardson and written by Harold Pinter was released, however, it arrived at a time of post–Berlin Wall optimism, reinforced by arguments like Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1989 essay “The End of History?” (“War over, la-di-da, we don’t have to worry about that kind of thing anymore” is how Atwood summarizes it.) Such blithe optimism is on full display in Roger Ebert’s review, which now reads as head-smackingly obtuse: “I am not sure exactly what the movie is saying here. Is it a) that women are enslaved by their role as the bearers of children, or b) that poor and powerless women are carrying an unfair share of the burden by having all the kids while the rich women enjoy life?” The movie failed to strike a chord, making just $5 million on a $13 million budget. Atwood describes the book’s cultural impact in the intervening decades as “a plateau”: “It was a teachable high school text. I don’t mean it was without enthusiasm, but it was sort of accepted as a thing you would teach, but not necessarily something that might apply to your life tomorrow. You didn’t think, ‘Oh, oh, here it comes. You thought, ‘That’s interesting.’”

Now, though? Atwood started to notice an uptick in popularity during the Obama years, with its abundance of laughable-risible faux pas, like Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comments. (“What understanding of elementary biology do you not have?” Atwood asks rhetorically.) “Then, right after the election, it really came up.”

In order to succeed as a story, The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t succeed just as an allegory. It also had to work as television. In stepped Miller, who inherited the project from Empire’s Ilene Chaiken. He recruited a cadre of collaborators, including a largely female writers’ room — a composition he takes care to note; Miller is acutely conscious of being a man in charge of translating a seminal feminist text — and directors like Lemonade cinematographer Reed Morano, who helmed the first trio of episodes. Together, they set about expanding the Handmaid’s world into a full-fledged television show, one that could support multiple seasons and points of view while still centering Offred’s experience.

Rather than just handing off the rights, Atwood stayed involved with Handmaid’s, giving feedback on Miller’s scripts and ideas, though not the filmmaking. She describes her relationship to the cast as “more or less like a fairy. I came and waved my magic wand over them and said, ‘You’re all wonderful.’ I wasn’t telling them what to do.” (In a neat bit of role reversal, she makes a cameo on the pilot, necessitating she be told what to do. No spoilers, but her instructions were to “Get in a real smack!”)

The author is openly enthusiastic about the possibilities of television as a venue for adaptation: “I think the new web-streaming … [model] has been really good for novels,” she explains. “It has allowed people to adapt them in a much more thorough and nuanced and leisurely fashion, especially longer novels. You can do things with that format that you just can’t do in 90 minutes.” (She specifically cites Game of Thrones, which she’s on the record as enjoying.) The Handmaid’s Tale will be closely followed by yet another Atwood series — Netflix and the CBC’s 19th-century crime story Alias Grace, starring Sarah Gadon and written by Sarah Polley.

Most of the show’s changes from the novel are less alterations than augmentations. Atwood had the freedom a visual storyteller does not to keep many of the details necessary for a televised treatment vague (What kind of cars do people drive? What kind of architecture does Gilead have?). And as a second-class citizen in a society where women aren’t allowed to read, Offred’s ability to let us in on the state of the world is inherently limited. “One of the things about totalitarianism is that people disappear, and you can’t find out what happened to them,” Atwood says. “[Offred] can’t find out and she doesn’t find out. She has no access to that information except gossip and rumor, which she doesn’t know if it’s true or not.” A show told entirely from Offred’s perspective wouldn’t be very interesting. A novel’s strength is enveloping us in a single point of view. A show’s strength is in sampling several complementary ones, giving us the widest possible cross-section of this brave not-so-new world.

So Miller concentrated his energies on world-building, both on a character level and a logistical one. “I found that there were lots of other places in the story where my curiosity just led me to ask, ‘Well, what happens next?’” he says. “‘How did that work, or how do you become an Eye? What happens to the Commander when he’s not at home?’ I was just naturally following my curiosity.” He channeled that curiosity into an obsessive attention to minutiae, realizing that the smallest of additions could have much broader implications: “If you show a Volvo driving past, does that mean that Gilead has diplomatic relations with Sweden, or wherever they make Volvos now? Does that mean that they approve of the government? Does that mean they have trade relations? Everything means so much in this world.”

The show offers a few answers, each with its own significance: Gilead does trade with Mexico, for example, but has a tense relationship with Canada, where one woman escapes to and gives a tell-all account to the Toronto Star. The entire world hasn’t gone completely off the rails, it seems; somewhere in this fictional universe, there are people watching Gilead with the same horrified fascination we are. The series also lets us in on interactions that the book’s Offred couldn’t observe: what happens when a “gender traitor” — Gilead’s term for homosexuality — is charged with breaking the law, which has now been replaced entirely by Scripture; the strained relationship between Offred’s Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who once advocated fiercely for a regime she’s now barred from participating in. Even the more straightforward aspects of fleshing out Atwood’s vision deepen its impact, as when we see the Commander browsing the internet on his laptop. The paradox of Gilead is that it’s a near future that’s regressed into the distant past. Little reminders like those tell us that modernity still exists; Gilead’s just voluntarily given up most of its trappings. “I don’t think [Miller] has done anything that is not resonant with the core idea,” Atwood says. “It’s been very interesting to me to see where that has taken him.”

“I was loath to change anything from the book that didn’t need to be changed,” Miller recounts, “not out of some misplaced sense of loyalty or fealty to the book, but because the book works as a story.” When Miller did make significant tweaks, he made sure they were “either [to] adapt [the book] to television or to change character dynamics to make them more interesting and more sustainable.” Serena, previously a middle-aged former televangelist, is now a young, attractive woman who’s nonetheless unable to conceive. The choice could be — and was — read as a classic example of TV’s “make it hot” complex, but the change was intended “to make Offred and Serena more direct rivals,” Miller explains. “Offred is filling a sexual or reproductive role that Serena Joy wanted to be fulfilling herself. In the books, Serena Joy is older, and it seems like a past that she wishes she had, but not a present.” Strahovski’s Serena is at once more sympathetic and more monstrous than she is in the book. Now that she’s closer to Offred’s age, we can see how the two women are each other’s twisted mirror image. And where the book’s Gilead has exiled all nonwhite citizens, both Offred’s best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), and her former husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), are played by black actors. “I just wanted to make it feel like the real world,” Miller says, “and make it feel like a world where things [like race] disappeared a little in service of a bigger goal, which in this case was fertility.”

Besides, Miller points out, “Gilead isn’t scary unless it feels real.”

The flip side of Miller’s logic also proves true: The Handmaid’s Tale is scary because it feels so real. And that seeming reality ensured that the show was going to be drawn into ongoing conversations about identity politics and structural misogyny, whether or not its principals were prepared to engage.

The adaptation was always going to be fiercely protected, held up against the ideas the novel helped spread and fortify. The Handmaid’s Tale got its turn in the hot seat during a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend. During the discussion, Moss said, “For me, [The Handmaid’s Tale is] not a feminist story. It’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights. So, for me, I never intended to play [Mad Men’s] Peggy as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist.” Costar Madeline Brewer echoed Moss’s thoughts: “It’s just a story about a woman. I don’t think this is any sort of feminist propaganda. I think it’s a story about women and about humans.” A day earlier Miller told The New York Times, “I don’t feel like it’s a male or female story; it’s a survival story.” To many fans and some critics, the quotes collectively read as an attempt to distance the creators from the politics their show embraces.

Atwood is quick to clarify on the actors’ behalf. “They wanted to say that they were actors, and they thought it was a really good part. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t all feminists! It’s like saying to a violin player, ‘OK, so the only reason you chose to play this concerto is that you’re a feminist!’ All they needed to say was, ‘It is not only a feminist story, it is also a story involving all human beings in it.’ Because of course, totalitarianisms affect everyone inside the totalitarianism.”

Though they may have misstated it — as Atwood cautioned on Twitter, “They are actors. … Not wordfolk” — Moss and Brewer were gesturing at one of The Handmaid’s Tale’s main tenets. All-encompassing oppression is a core theme of both the book and the show; it’s also the takeaway that’s most forward-looking. Suffering here isn’t limited to Offred, and The Handmaid’s Tale pushes our empathy beyond her. Like the patriarchy, Gilead hurts even those it ostensibly helps: the Handmaids, obviously, but also the Commander himself. Men and women are forbidden from having any sexual contact beyond the deliberately unerotic “ceremony” whereby a Commander attempts to impregnate a Handmaid. Offred’s Commander misses human interaction so badly he invites Offred for a humble game of Scrabble — but only under the cover of dark, because even a Commander can’t act with impunity.

“Everybody, even in our society, is quite looked at,” Atwood says. (Another point of resonance: the omnipresent surveillance state.) “We’re looking at people all the time. But in that society, the rules are much more rigid and the penalty for breaking them is much more severe.” That status quo both demands and extracts some superlative performances from Moss and her costars: What people say is so tightly regulated that actors must communicate predominantly with tone and expression. Such microregulation is one of the lesser tragedies of The Handmaid’s Tale, but a tragedy nonetheless. Nobody is free under this system, including the people it’s built to favor. They just don’t realize it until it’s too late.

“Well,” Atwood says, laughing, “there’s a reason Mike Pence won’t go out to dinner with any woman other than his wife!” Even when someone wears their restrictions like a badge of honor, they’re still restrictions. The Handmaid’s Tale teaches us to pity our oppressors, even as it gives us the tools to identify, expose, and overthrow them. “It’s a story in which the top-down hierarchy means those at the top have a better time than those at the bottom,” Atwood notes. “Women at the top have a better time than men at the bottom, but they have a worse time than men at the top, and that’s how those things work.” She means in Gilead. She also doesn’t.