This year’s much-buzzed 10-episode adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was streamed on Hulu in collaboration with MGM Television, rocketed Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel back onto bestsellers charts. The tale about the totalitarian republic of Gilead is told through the eyes of Offred, a female banished there, played by Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss.
“People are certainly paying a lot more attention to issues of governance, authoritarianism, and women’s sovereignty since the November election,” says series showrunner Bruce Miller, who worked closely with Atwood. “She was very gracious with her time as she walked me through the thinking behind thousands of individual decisions she made while writing the book.”
Miller first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college. “It was the first piece of fiction that showed me how spare, careful prose could have incredible impact. It taught me how to write,” he says. As a passionate fan of the book, Miller was leery of altering the plot, but believes that television offers a broader portal into the warped republic of Gilead. Miller explains: “She created an entire world, but the novel only explores Offred’s [the narrator’s] corner of it. We have the time to go deeper into all the compelling aspects of Atwood’s Gilead.” Puritanism’s vehement repudiation of witchcraft and religious tolerance has long fascinated Atwood, whose massive oeuvre includes such well-known works as Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace. Born in 1939 on the cusp of WWII, Atwood notes, “Mussolini and Hitler promised they were going to lead wonderful places. But first they had to get rid of those people.”
Following the war women were seduced to remain housewives, with a new washer and dryer, a vacuum, and split-level bungalows, Atwood says. According to Freud, she adds, “you wouldn’t be fulfilled as a woman unless you checked your brain elsewhere.” It was an oppressive contrast to the fierce Rosie the Riveter can-do attitude that had permeated WWII.
Although Atwood is a champion of women’s rights, she is hesitant to call herself a feminist because of what she views as the word’s muddled connotations. “There are a hundred kinds of feminism, and I don’t want to put myself in the box without looking in to see what’s there first.
“I’ve been around quite a while, and I’ve seen feminism roll through all kinds of phases. Is it the kind where you’re not allowed to wear a dress? Where you can’t be creative?” To her the broad term “has to do with equalizing opportunity, but it doesn’t have to do with women being exempt from the human race and not having anger, rage, jealousy, and fear. Women aren’t angels, and they shouldn’t have to be because of men.”
Isolation is another of Atwood’s pervasive themes. She says that she is less influenced by growing up in rural Canada than by the craft issue of giving a novel the shape it demands. A crisis, forcing the main character to fall back on their resources, is essential to the plot. “There has to be something to solve,” Atwood says. “If it’s going to be about people having a good time on page one and on page 50, are you going to read on to page 60? Stories have momentum, otherwise they’re not stories. They are someone sitting next to you on the bus talking about their Paris vacation and you can’t get away. Something needs to happen when you turn the page.”
In The Handmaid’s Tale, what can be especially alarming is how the oppressive existence of Gilead, a domain where harsh and strange punishments are de rigueur, is considered completely ordinary. Thirty years ago, when Atwood first published the novel, she says, “only a quarter of people would have said this could be a possibility. No one anticipated Donald Trump, so MGM took a big risk and a shot in the dark when putting this together.”
The timeliness of the television series may be disconcerting. But even though Gilead feels closer than it did when the novel came out, it is still far from reality. “We’re not at the point of people thinking this is normal,” Atwood says. “We’re not there yet.”
Today, 4:15–5:15 p.m. Margaret Atwood and Hulu showrunner Bruce Miller discuss The Handmaid’s Tale, in Room 1E10.
Today, 5:30–6:15 p.m. Atwood will sign in the Autographing Area.