In one of the several essays she has written about her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood described the U.S. reaction to the book as “How long have we got?” The answer, so far at least, has been “about 30 years and counting…” However, as with other great works of fiction – dystopian, speculative, or otherwise – The Handmaid’s Tale is built around an unfortunate prescience that remains all too relevant and seems more so with each passing day.
Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in the midst of the election of Ronald Reagan in the U.S., during a period of conservative political revival driven largely by a well-organized and tenacious movement of religious conservatives that would reshape the political landscape. In this movement, Atwood saw the influence of 17th century Puritanism underpinning the backlash against feminist concepts and the perceived excesses of the sexual revolution. Equal parts satire, speculative fiction, and dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale quickly became one of the most celebrated and controversial works of the latter twentieth century. And as the push of forces that inspired Atwood’s tale have only seemed to grow in fervor and prominence in the intervening years, The Handmaid’s Tale feels all too pertinent in a political climate where women’s reproductive and healthcare rights are debated by a room full of men, and administration rolls back protections for women in the workplace.
With Hulu’s highly anticipated adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale just around the corner, here are a few reasons why we’re excited for this adaptation, and why the moment is perhaps all-too-right to revisit one of Margaret Atwood’s most celebrated and disconcerting works.
With the final trailer for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu has set the stage for what very well may be the definitive adaptation. Everything about it simply feels right – from the world not that far removed from our own, to the stark imagery and unsettling details (the Handmaid’s training, the noose on the wall, the hints of what to expect in the sex scenes) – it’s all tinged with persistent weight of oppression.
The Underlying Story
Margaret Atwood is one of the most celebrated and influential writers of her generation for a reason. Her novels, more often than not, defy both convention and the tropes of the genres she dabbles in. With The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood wisely sidesteps the sci-fi trappings that generally go hand-in-hand with dystopian fiction. In writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood made the decision to base situations in the novel on atrocities that human beings had already committed, and limit herself to technologies readily available at the time. While this may sound mundane, it is crucial to the story’s evergreen nature. Atwood is not imagining a world of outlandish tortures that may not come to pass, but rather drawing inspiration from events that have shaped human history – things that mankind is very much, and very unfortunately, capable of.
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”
It would be impossible to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale or the upcoming adaptation without acknowledging the parallels between the story and the political battles raging in the United States: the decades-long fight for equal pay for women, the ubiquity of victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault and rape (incidentally, Margaret Atwood will cameo in a particularly uncomfortable and relevant scene on this subject), and the ongoing struggles over reproductive rights and basic healthcare for women. The line up above may have come from the Commander in Atwood’s novel, but it is also a regrettable truism of politics and governance: “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” And while “The Handmaid’s Tale” may carry that to an extreme, women are none the less most often in the “for some” category of that equation.
Margaret Atwood has never been shy in citing her influences for The Handmaid’s Tale or her long interest in dystopian literature. The Handmaid’s Tale is the product of her fascination with towering works in the genre like Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Huxley’s Brave New World. Although one can see the strains of each in Atwood’s work, it is perhaps the crushing oppression and near-future trappings of Orwell’s 1984 that had the largest impact. But, beyond dystopian literature, The Handmaid’s Tale grew from Atwood’s feminist leanings and her interest in 17th and 18th century America, and more importantly the roles of women in those eras. It is not surprising that like 1984 and Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale has seen renewed interest in the era of Trump, but unlike those novels, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a U.S. not that far removed from our own, and the map for how we could get there is all the more unsettling in post-9/11 America.
How long have we got?
That does seem to be the question. In realistic terms, The Handmaid’s Tale is a satire and, as with all great satires, gains its considerable strength by pushing real-world-inspired events just to or past the point of credulity. Are we living in a U.S. moving toward a Gilead-esque future? Odds are that we aren’t. But when we watch the threat of climate change being ignored and regulations meant to safeguard our environment rolled back, or when there is legislative debate on women’s access to healthcare that does not involve women, or when stories of declining fertility make national news – well, it’s not that difficult to ask, “How long have we got?”