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Atwood on the totalitarianism in The Handmaid’s Tale

The author says people in strictly controlled societies will betray one another, regardless of sex

Alexis Bledel in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood will not do as you please. True, she appeared, as expected, the other evening at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall for an invitational screening of the new TV adaptation of her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The event, put together by Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, an activist and former politician, was a fundraiser for LEAF, the Women’s Legal and Education Action Fund. Some of Atwood’s oldest friends and colleagues were there, along with representatives of Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education and U of T’s Women & Gender Studies Institute.

For an hour, the audience of about 200 sat riveted and rapt, in horror and fascination as the first episode of the 10-part series unspooled on the big screen. They held their breath in the opening moments as the protagonist, played by Elisabeth Moss, is captured by the authorities and delivered to her fate as a breeder in a dystopian society. And they chuckled knowingly – there was even a smattering of applause – as the book’s iconic author, in an eye-blink cameo, smacked Moss across the face in an early scene.

As the lights came up, Atwood, 77, made her way gingerly to the front. She wore an outfit of casual all-black, offset with a red scarf and a pair of what looked like sparkly house slippers. Somebody asked how she felt seeing her 32-year-old novel, which had been adapted into a 1990 film by the German director Volker Schloendorff, re-emerge into popular culture: Back on the bestseller lists thanks to the election of Donald Trump and now an acclaimed TV series.

“Summing it up? One word: Weird,” Atwood replied in her usual droll delivery. She explained that she had not initiated the series; in fact, the television rights had been sold off in a package with the film rights decades ago, and it had taken the TV producers about a year to track down which corporate entity owned them.

“So, I wasn’t asked whether they could do this show; I was informed that they were doing this show. And then I had the choice as to whether I wanted to be a consultant. To which, of course, I said yes. But if you know the film business, you know what that means. It means that you can have lots of conversations, but you have no control over what they actually do.” Still, she appeared giddy at the results.

She mentioned Bruce Miller, the series’ creator, who told The New York Times recently that he’d wanted to adapt the book ever since he read it as an undergraduate at Brown University. “Poor Bruce. Of course, the producers were originally looking for a female writer. He made a very strong pitch. He introduces himself by saying, ‘I’m Bruce Miller, I’m the chief writer, I’m the show runner and I’ve got one penis too many.’” There was laughter.

“He made up for that by hiring a bunch of women in the writing room. Except he says he can’t get them to agree on things. ‘So – from a woman’s point of view, do you think this – ?’[he would ask].” “‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ – and then they have a fight.”

“That’s instructive for him,” Atwood said. “Why should they not have different opinions? Men do.”

One woman said she was struck by the theme of women betraying each other.

“It’s not just about women,” Atwood explained. “It’s about people. It’s about a totalitarianism.” She paused for a second or two, and the questioner began speaking again: “I guess we assume women would be on the side of …” but Atwood cut her off. “Yeah, I’ve got more to say,” she said.

“So, in a totalitarianism – who’s been in one here?” A few people raised their hands. Atwood explained that, in early 1990, when the original film adaptation came out, she and the filmmakers held two screenings, one in West Germany and the other in East Germany. The Berlin Wall was in the midst of being dismantled, she recalled. “And the reaction of the audiences was very different.”

“In West Germany, they’re talking about aesthetics and directing and, you know, colour choices and biographies and things like that.” In East Germany, “they watched it very, very intently. And they said, ‘This was our life.’ They meant the feeling that you couldn’t trust anyone.”

“There were a lot of people reporting on a lot of people. Not because they were women and not because they were men, but because that’s what happens in totalitarianisms.

“So, starting from the premise that women are human beings – a radical position of mine – there’s no particular reason, within that group called human beings, that women are necessarily going to behave more angelically than people have behaved in history.” She added: “Why should we expect all women to behave well? Why should the bar be higher for them? I support the right of Lady Macbeth to exist.”

A young woman in the back asked why the story is set in the United States.

“Because that’s where it would be,” Atwood replied, to laughter.

Someone else asked about the role of religion in a fascist state. “Okay, so, for me, a religion is anything that can create heretics. How about that? You know, Maoism? Lots of heretics. It’s an ideological absolutism. And we can’t pin that on every religion nor every believer in a religion.”

She went on: “People do make the mistake of saying, ‘Well, of course it’s all based on Muslim religions, isn’t it?’ And I say, ‘Oh no it’s not.’ All you need to do is turn back the clock to about 1850. … One of my friends just sent me a list of reasons that you could get put into a women’s insane asylum between, I think, 1867 and 1888,” she said.

“I think I’m going to put that up because it’s just fascinating. It included novel reading.”