In dystopian ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ a warning for a new generation not to take rights for granted

April 25, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
America's democracy and Constitution have been replaced by a theocratic autocracy where women have lost their rights and many of them have become property, valued and controlled for the ability to bear children for wealthy families. That’s the story of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a novel that’s now a major television miniseries. Jeffrey Brown talks to author Margaret Atwood and others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a novel beloved by several generations of readers is a major dramatic television series, and it comes riding a wave of interest, after the election of President Donald Trump.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

ACTRESS: When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this world, America’s democracy and Constitution have fallen, replaced by a theocratic autocracy called Gilead.

ACTOR: I have to let you go.

JEFFREY BROWN: A place where women have lost the right to work or own property, where many of them are property.

ACTRESS: You girls will serve the leaders and their barren wives. You will bear children for them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The so-called handmaids are valued, and controlled, for their ability to reproduce in a future America where most women are infertile.

Designated by their bonnets and red dresses, they are kept under an ever-watchful eye.

ACTRESS: There’s an eye in your house.

MARGARET ATWOOD, Author, “The Handmaid’s Tale”: I made sure that every horrific detail in the book had happened sometime at somewhere. So, think of it as a cake in which I made the cake, but all of the raisins and chocolate chips are real.

JEFFREY BROWN: The series “The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on the classic 1985 novel of the same name by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. She calls it speculative fiction.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I get in trouble over making a distinction between sci-fi and spec fiction, but my only point is that there is a difference between a galaxy far, far away and this planet, really could happen now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Atwood mixed elements of totalitarian systems of the past, including the Soviet system, and strains of American life, from the Puritans to the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s.

The novel found an audience from the start and has kept it, never going out of print, and joining high school and college reading lists across the country.

ACTOR: Only a very few women could bear children. These women were called handmaids.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been adapted for opera, ballet, and the 1990 film starring Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson, and now this Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss, who read the book as a teenager, playing Offred, a handmaid just assigned to a new household.

ELISABETH MOSS, Emmy-nominated Actor: And the glass is shatter-proof, but it isn’t running away they’re afraid of. A handmaid wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge or a twisted sheet and a chandelier.

I love that the heroine of the book is an anti-heroine, that she’s a human, that she’s a wife, a mom, is a normal person and then is sort of picked up, taken, and dropped into this scenario and has to figure out how to survive.

She does a sort of thing that often prisoners will do, which is, they have to adapt to the prison environment, and they have to hold their enemies closer than their friends.

JEFFREY BROWN: The series is striking in how disturbing it is, both in the dark version of society it portrays, and, at the same time, its beautiful look, a combination sought by series showrunner Bruce Miller and executive producer Warren Littlefield.

WARREN LITTLEFIELD, Executive Producer, “The Handmaid’s Tale”: You recognize this world. It’s a beautiful world. They want it to be cleaner. They want the food to be healthier. They’re trying to raise fertility rates. Those are all good things. That’s very inviting. So, we come into our world and it feels pretty good, until you look closely.

BRUCE MILLER, Showrunner/Screenwriter, “The Handmaid’s Tale”: Dystopia in our time had been synonymous with rubble and dust and robots and scrounging around for food. And this is just a different kind of dystopia. It doesn’t have dirty in it. It’s just a terrible reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked Miller and Littlefield about working on this series where so much is about what happens to women.

BRUCE MILLER: You know, I tried my best along the way to shore up that part of my personality that I couldn’t change, that part of who I am that I couldn’t change, by hiring, you know, as many people who were kind of spectacular women’s voices, either with Reed Morano, our director, or Lizzie Moss, of course, our star, but also our writing staff is prominently women. I think we had all female directors, except for…

WARREN LITTLEFIELD: Four out of five of our directors for the 10 hours are women. And many of our department heads, our wardrobe and production designer. We really built a very strong core of women who brought this show to life, because — for that very reason. We’re not.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea for the series and the shooting began well before the election of Donald Trump, but, since November, Atwood’s book has returned to the bestseller list, and the series is generating many questions of parallels to today.

ELISABETH MOSS: There’s a huge sort of awakening amongst people my age and people in their 20s and younger with what’s happening now, as far as, oh, wait, someone can actually take that away from us? It’s a brand-new concept to a lot of women.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I think one of the things that’s happened to them is, rights were won for them long ago, and they just took them for granted.

Their interests were other. And then, suddenly, bang, a lightbulb goes on, maybe somebody’s going to take these rights away. And that may happen in all areas of life, including health care, minimum wage, and including forcing people to have babies.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s not very hopeful.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, it’s not me making this absence of hope.


JEFFREY BROWN: But you can write the future. You could write a more hopeful future, hmm?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I could, but I would have to make it plausible, would I not? So, I do believe that America is quite an ornery and diverse place, and I don’t think people are going to roll over easily for this.

But a totalitarian gets serious the moment at which it fires on a protest crowd.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first three episodes premiere Wednesday on Hulu. After that, episodes will come out weekly.

For the PBS NewsHour I’m Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have more online. Author Margaret Atwood explains her inspiration for the blood-red costumes worn by the handmaids in the novel and in the new adaptation.

You can find that and more on our Web site,