Written in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale contains numerous passages that feel startlingly relevant in 2017.
It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none.
This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Hulu released its first trailer for the new television adaptation of the book in March, Donald Trump supporters took it as an affront, labeling it “leftist propaganda” designed to turn the masses against the new president. They had to be reminded—including by Atwood herself—that the series is based on a three-decade-old novel.
But that does not mean that Atwood denies the renewed relevance of her most famous work.
The TV adaptation of the book, which shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list after Hulu aired a commercial during the Super Bowl, stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a woman torn from her own family and forced to bear the children of her “Commander.” In this theocratic society, women are not allowed to hold jobs, retain assets, or even read. Compared to the “Unwomen,” sent to the “Colonies” to clean up toxic waste, Offred is one of the lucky ones.
It’s a role that Atwood says is not so easy to pull off given that she is tasked with “conveying an emotion to the viewers that you’re trying to conceal from the people in the scene.” Moss also manages to bring an ironic humor to what, in the wrong hands, could become a dismal dystopian drag. Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale is a riveting portrait of how one woman must cope with an unimaginable transformation of the world around her.
The 77-year-old Canadian author knows that the time is ripe for a new generation to discover what she is hesitant to label a “feminist” call to action. As she tells The Daily Beast, The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 is less “alternative reality” and more of a warning about what might “actually happen” if those who fight for equal rights are not vigilant.
I want to start with a tweet you issued after Donald Trump supporters were accusing The Handmaid’s Tale of being a reaction to the current presidency, despite the fact that you wrote the book more than 30 years ago. What did you think when you first saw that?
When I first saw people saying, how dare they do this to our wonderful Donald? You haven’t read the book and you certainly haven’t looked at the original publication date. So which person in the book do you think is Donald Trump? There actually isn’t anybody like him in the book. So I just thought: that was pretty inevitable, somebody was bound to think that. And they seemed to have stopped thinking it pretty shortly after that.
The Hulu adaptation was obviously in the works long before anyone thought Trump would be president, but how do you think that fact will change how it is received?
Well I think it’s already changed it. The cast woke up on November the 9th and thought, this just took on a different meaning. And that is true. So I think had Hillary been elected, you would have had a reaction to it more like, look at an alternative reality that might have happened. Whereas now you’re getting: this might actually happen. Not in quite the same way, not with the same outfits, and probably they will not be able to shut down women reading. But the rollback of rights might well happen.
“Normalization” is a big buzzword right now and there is a moment when the handmaids are told things will start to feel “ordinary” soon. What do you think makes that idea so pernicious?
People adjust to whatever reality they find themselves in, because it’s a matter of survival. And if we did not have that capability, we would not be walking the planet today. So people in general do what they need to do to get through whatever they’re in—or they do what they think they need to do. So if your ship is sinking, you head for the life raft. Your “normal” at that moment is your ship is sinking. That’s what happens and it’s happened time and time again, but of course, that’s on the surface of things. People adjust in a surface way to keep themselves under the radar as much as they can, but that doesn’t mean that they have normalized their minds. It doesn’t mean that they don’t remember what a freer state of being was like. So the other thing that can happen, of course, is that there’s an idea in some people’s heads of a false normal. That the 1950s were a wonderful time. The 1950s were a wonderful time for some people. But they weren’t so great for other people. So when you’re thinking “normal,” you also have to ask: normal for who?
In the book, the narrator talks about the early protests being “smaller than you might have thought.” I know you attended one of the women’s marches in January. Were you heartened by the size of those demonstrations?
Yeah, they were bigger than everybody thought. So that was a pleasant surprise in the other direction. But what people are wondering now, of course, is can people keep up the momentum? But you also have to add into that mix: not all forms of protest are getting out onto the street. There’s other things that people can do that may not be as immediately visible, but that are nevertheless forms of protest.
Do you view works of art like your writing and this show as forms of protest?
No, I was thinking more of all these leaking sites that have sprung up around the government. The alt parks service, the alt White House staff, all of these different anonymous people who are giving us news from inside. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I don’t remember anything like that before.
How involved have you been in turning the book into a television series?
First of all, it wasn’t my deal. The television rights went with the original film deal, so it was actually an MGM/Hulu deal, but then they asked whether I could be a consulting producer and I said yes. What that meant was that I talked to people, but it did not mean that I had ultimate say over everything—or anything. It’s a very good team and there are some differences from the book, but we discussed those and I see the rationale for them. All and all I think it’s been very positive and all of the people involved are not only dedicated to the project, but very experienced and skilled in their field of expertise. So I’ve been lucky.
It’s interesting to see how even in the first episode there are things that happen that don’t come until very late in the book. So that seems to indicate that we will be going well beyond what you envisioned in the book.
Yeah, they did go beyond. And one of the ways in which they go beyond is that in the book, if a character disappears from view, the central narrator has no way of knowing what has happened to that person. Because it’s her point of view throughout. But in the television series, we can follow some of those people behind the scenes of the book and find out what is happening to them.
Did Elisabeth Moss bring anything to the character of Offred that surprised you?
Oh I think she’s doing a terrific job. It’s a very difficult thing to do, because you have to convey emotion without saying anything. And at the same time, concealing that emotion from the other people who are in the scene. So you’re conveying an emotion to the viewers that you’re trying to conceal from the people in the scene, and that’s a pretty tricky thing to do.
Reading the book, this passage jumped out at me: “I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even it’s false news, it must mean something.” Did you predict our “fake news” phenomenon?
No, I think George Orwell predicted it. And George Orwell didn’t even predict it, he observed it. Because totalitarian regimes, which have been numerous in the 20th and early 21st centuries, always try to control the news. They always try to get rid of journalists who are independent. And they always try to set up news organizations of their own. So I’ve seen many of them and I’ve also seen samizdat, which is real news circulated unofficially. So it’s a phenomenon that has to do with the attempt to control.