Canadian author Margaret Atwood started writing The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin in 1984, when the wall was still up and the East German Air Force would release sonic booms, reminding her of their proximity, every Sunday. An obsession with that regime’s totalitarianism, coupled with others behind the Iron Curtain, prompted her to write her most famous novel, which is often required reading in American high schools. (That is, when they are not banning it.) And now, of course, it’s a new drama series which premiered on Hulu on Wednesday.
We sat down with Atwood, 77, to discuss the eerie relevance of her work today and what she thinks of the latest adaptation of her novel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It feels like this series was put into production the day after the election, which, of course, it wasn’t — they were already well into it. What do you think about the series’ relevancy and the renewed interest in your 32-year-old novel?
MARGARET ATWOOD: I need to share this with you: I rigged the election. [Laughs] I do feel like. “Did I will this into being? Is this my fault that we have this now?” It is very peculiar. They did start it well ahead of the election and then as the election progressed and more things got said… but I have to say that things got said in previous elections that fit the same patterns. Such as the wise Republicans who said there was real rape and unreal rape and you knew if it was unreal rape because if you got raped, you didn’t get pregnant because we were told a woman’s body has a way of shutting down. So The Handmaid’s Tale has come up in previous elections but it really came up again on Nov. 9. And it has not stopped since that moment.
You had posters from the Women’s March with the lines “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.”
Yes, we had those. We had women sitting in the Texas legislature [dressed in red Handmaid’s dresses] surrounded by men with guns which is just like a still right out of the television series.
What makes your novel, and now the television series, so terrifying, goes back to your initial decision to base every action by this totalitarian government on some antecedent in history, whether it’s the Bible story of Jacob and his two wives and their handmaidens who were there solely to provide his barren wives children or that heavy pollution has led to failing fertility rates. When you were writing this back in 1984 in West Berlin, what prompted that thinking?
Well, I had been cutting things out of newspapers for a while. But there were three backstories to writing the book. One was 17th-century puritan culture and literature and theology, which I studied long ago at the beginning of the ’60s. Every country has a foundational paradigm and that’s one of the foundational paradigms of the United States, the other being the 18th century Enlightenment. So you’ve got 17th-century puritan theocracy and 18th century Enlightenment sort of superimposed upon it, but the original stuff never really went away. And it would bubble up from time to time. The most recent one being the kinds of language applied to Hillary Clinton during the election, which was straight out of the 17th century. It was witchcraft and demonology language. Some people actually thought she had demonic powers, which if she had had them, maybe she should have used them.
The other thread was my teenage love of dystopians and utopians and sci-fi. And my interest in writing a dystopia. Most of the ones I had read had been from a male point of view. I wanted it to be a totalitarianism where everyone is being treated badly but in different ways, except for those at the top. So in a hierarchical situation like that, women at the top are doing better than men at the bottom but not as well as men at the top. And that’s more or less our world.
The third thing was when I was reading in the papers about totalitarianism throughout the 20th century, and my belief that it will never happen here is never true. My other belief is that people who say they want to do extreme things will do them if they get the chance. I had followed the story of Mr. Hitler and his book [Mein Kampf], which was disregarded at first, no one paid any attention to it. But when he got the power, he did the things he said he was going to do. Now people have more power to do those things and they are doing them.
The Handmaid’s Tale has already been through the Hollywood system. It was a movie back in 1990 that starred Natasha Richardson as Offred. But it wasn’t a big hit. What do you chalk that up to?
Things go in waves. Second wave feminism happened in the ’60s and into the ’70s. And then people got tired. And others felt they had achieved a certain number of things and it was other people’s turn. It’s generational. When you’re a certain age, you think your mum is old-fashioned. Offred (before she becomes Offred) is like that in the book. Her mom was a ’70s feminist and Offred thinks she is quaint, going on all these marches, wearing overalls. So the book was written at that time of “mum is quaint.” And then I think people move into other phases.
The series expands well beyond your novel.
We can go behind the scenes and follow characters we can’t follow in the book because she can not know what happens to them.
Like what happens to Ofglen (played in the series by Alexis Bledel)?
And that is like a real totalitarianism. You read about Joe Stalin’s purges and people just disappear. And then you wouldn’t mention them. That is what Orwell is channeling in 1984. Those people would disappear, not only from your life but from the record. They were gone.
How involved were you in the series? Did you collaborate much with showrunner Bruce Miller?
We talked a lot. I think it will be more involving in the second season because we will be in uncharted territories so more invention will have to take place.
Is that exciting for you?
Yes, it is. We did a special edition of the audio book, which concludes with a Q&A session with the professor. He explores some of the edges of things in his answers, written by me. That will be interesting but I can’t predict what we will do.
So what you’ve seen so far in the first series…
It’s very good.
Are there scenes that are upsetting to you? In your New York Times piece, you talk about the scene where you have a cameo, where the women are all ganging up on Janine for being a victim in a gang rape, forcing her to admit the rape was her fault.
Poor Janine [played by Orange Is the New Black‘s Madeline Brewer]. She really had a rough road in this series but she is so good.
Are there other scenes that stand out to you?
It’s very upsetting when Janine has the baby and it gets taken away from her. That made me cry. Really shocking was what happened to Ofglen, which I don’t want to spoil.
Yes, episode 3 is quite rough.
It’s bang, right between the eyes. But Bruce Miller followed the rules. Nothing that has not happened in society was included, and what happened to Ofglen has happened in modern society. It’s not just something that happens to people over there.
Were there images you wanted to see visualized in a certain way?
The thing looks gorgeous. Let me just say that. The photography, the saturation of color — it is really quite gorgeous. Now in the novel, I never pictured overhead shots. But with the overhead shots, you can get this patterning. It’s like the old Busby Berkeley musicals, or Esther Williams, where people are making floral pattern scenes. It’s visually alluring. It has a style that is very lush and seductive and therefore all the more chilling because it looks so beautiful and normal.
Normalizing is a big thing with this series. And we are brought into the process, via the show’s flashbacks, of how this somewhat free society, became so dogmatic, so quickly. That to me is the most terrifying part of it. Like the scene in the café, when Offred (Elisabeth Moss) before she becomes a handmaid, stops in to get a coffee with her friend Moira (Samira Wiley), only to be called a slut by the man working the register. It reminds me of the rise in anti-Semitic and racist talk on the rise here now.
Sometimes those aren’t even the true feelings of the person before that moment. They become not only socially acceptable feelings, but socially demanded feelings. They might not have been their feelings at all before then, but this is what we have to do. Let’s do that, it’s the acceptable thing to do. The corollary of that is when the Handmaids are urged on to basically kill a man. They never would have killed a man before but this is what you do now. And it’s safe to do that; it’s unsafe not to do it. When there is a mob, or any sort of group ganging up, like the coffee shop scene which is part of that, the safest place is always the middle of the mob. Until, of course, we change our minds as to who the mob is. During the witchcraft trials, the safest place to be is among the accusers. That is what causes mob behavior — it’s safer in the mob. You don’t want to be ganged up on. You don’t even want to be the person heroically defending them. Because then you will become one of those attacked. That’s how Salem worked. It’s unsafe to defend people against that behavior. It’s safer to be among those doing the attacking.
So what do you think of all this happening to you right now, with your book and the renewed notoriety?
It’s a fun way to be 77. It’s not usually what happens to you at this age. Usually, you are sitting in the rocking chair and people are saying, “Fine achievement, fine lifetime achievement,” and that’s kind of it. So it’s very interesting to me and I’m glad it’s so interesting to many other younger people. And it ought to be because this is the world they are increasingly living in. On a note of hope, America is very diverse and has a lot of energy and I think people have been awakened by these events and they have become motivated in a way that they weren’t before.
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are available on Hulu now, with new episodes being added to the streaming service each Wednesday.