'The Handmaid's Tale' Author Margaret Atwood Sees a Totalitarian Drift

"The idea of a totalitarian regime is to intimidate people so much that they don't speak up," says the Canadian author.
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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was surprised when the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale last week downplayed the feminist message behind Hulu's adaptation of her 1985 novel before a Tribeca Film Festival panel.

"You cannot say The Handmaid's Tale is not about women. It is," the Canadian novelist told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday. Feminism is very much on Atwood's mind as two of her most recent book-to-screen adaptations, the CBC's preschool series Wandering Wenda and Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, go to air this week.

"If it's the kind of girl who sits at home and does embroidery, or is not allowed out of the house, she's unlikely to find herself at the center of a kids adventure series," says the Canadian author of Wenda, a plucky girl using her wits, quick wordplay and friends to get in and out of scrapes.

Wandering Wenda, from Breakthrough Entertainment and featuring one of Atwood's signature strong female characters as it bows on April 29 on CBC Kids, is an antidote to The Handmaid's Tale, which is set in a futuristic society, Gilead, where fertility issues abound and women's rights are dashed.

Atwood understands why audiences see the Hulu adaptation as an all-to-timely adaptation of her novel. She sees Trump's White House attempting to make good on oft-repeated Republican Party objectives not possible, but intended, by the Reagan administration during the 1980s when she wrote the novel.

"They're saying (The Handmaid's Tale) has immediate and new relevance because, far from being a fantasy world that is very remote from us, it is very close to the real world that's been created right now by people who, back in 1984 were saying, we'd like to do those things if we had a chance," she said of the Reagan years.

"They are now actualizing that world and that's why The Handmaid's Tale has such immediate relevance for people, especially in the United States, who are reading it right now," she added. Atwood said young women are coming to her novel and the Hulu adaptation with fresh eyes, especially after the Obama years.

"It's also a whole new generation of readers who, say, five years ago, would have thought we fought those battles, and we now have those rights, and it's never going to go backwards," she said.

"They are particularly upset because, unlike myself who's older, they don't remember anything worse happening in their world, while I grew up with World War II and several totalitarianism regimes happening at that time and happening since," added Atwood.

The Canadian novelist said The Handmaid's Tale — which she started writing in 1984 when living in West Berlin amid Cold War tensions and the shadow of Nazi Germany — brings together real-life totalitarian events from recent world history to create a drama set in America.

"The shocking thing is bringing them together and putting them in the United States," said Atwood. "But don't tell me none of this has ever happened in the United States. It began in New England as a 17th-century theocracy, not a democracy. And they got rid of people who were not of their ilk," she argued.

Atwood sees totalitarian drift under a Trump administration happening first in red states. "Attempts are being made at the state level and in fact a number have succeeded, but the United States as an entire entity is very diverse and pretty ornery, and you've already seen a lot more pushback than occurs in The Handmaid's Tale," she observed.

Atwood also warns an emerging surveillance state encourages authoritarian tendencies. "An apparatus exists that could easily produce this result. We have so much data mining and data on people. When I was writing the book, there was only credit cards to shut people down. We have a lot more stuff now," she argued.

"If the constitution goes down, that is the frail paper, the 18th-century barrier between the U.S. citizenry and an autocratic government and one that was designed to prevent tyranny," Atwood said.

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