Twenty-three years ago, I read a book and it brought me to life. I was seventeen when I discovered Margaret Atwood’s1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, about a near-future America run by a totalitarian, far-right regime where women’s rights had been erased.
The Handmaid’s Tale is often called a ‘cult’ book but that suggests a tiny, if slavishly dedicated, readership. But this is a multi-million-selling novel, published in over 40 languages and which has never been out of print. It is currently the eleventh bestselling book on Amazon.
It has been a ballet, an opera, a graphic novel, a 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson, and now a TV series, which begins on Channel 4 tonight. Thus far, the trailer alone has had six million views on YouTube.
The lavish drama boasts ten episodes, a huge budget and a glossy cast led by Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss. I cleared my diary as soon as broadcast was announced – I would have cancelled my own wedding to watch it – and I now have a super fan’s butterflies. I have loved this book for more than half my life.
The Handmaid’s Tale was a once-in-a-generation novel, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. The subject matter bordered on worthy but where you might have expected a sermon, instead there was magic. It drew on history to underline the horrors women were still facing globally. It taught me the realities and responsibilities of womanhood.
This is the GCE English set text that you also buy for your best girlfriends; as accessible as it is powerful. Some of Atwood’s novels are intimidating doorstops but The Handmaid’s Tale is an easy read; short and breathless, performing as well as a thriller as it does polemic.
It is the feminist bible that transcends gender. It was actually a young man who first turned me onto the novel – the tattered copy I still own was a gift from my teenage boyfriend (I forgave him so much because of his love for the book). I didn’t so much read through the night as travel through time and space, and I closed it awestruck and as furious as if it had been a news report. I am impatiently waiting for my daughters – currently aged eight and four – to reach an age where I can share it with them.
The book centres on the republic of Gilead – a nightmarish vision of the future, built on seventeenth Century Puritan values. Environmental pollution and raging sexually transmitted infections have shrunk the population. Fertile women are rounded up and enslaved as ‘handmaids’ – baby incubators for the ruling classes; high-ranking Commanders and their barren wives.
The narrator is Offred (which literally means ‘of Fred’ – handmaids take the name of their Commander, or state-sanctioned rapist). Like all other handmaids, she wears a full-length red cloak. A stiff white bonnet hides her face. As a teenager obsessed with Boots Number 17 make-up, I was scandalised that handmaids weren’t allowed cosmetics and loved Offred’s tiny rebellion of using her daily pat of butter not as sustenance but moisturiser.
Uncooperative handmaids are killed, hanged from the walls of Harvard in a public lynching ritual known as the ‘women’s salvaging’. The lucky ones get off lightly with their eyeballs gouged out without anesthetic.
You can see why such a visually rich book cried out for a screen adaptation.
Already, it has spawned dozens of new Facebook discussion groups, but there are scores of Handmaid’s Tale book clubs and societies. You can even get a ready-made handmaids outfit online if you live too far from Ikea to repurpose a white lampshade and damson velvet curtain. I have an unshowy bluestocking friend who is threatening to theme her upcoming hen night around the novel.
Such costumes can also be used to more powerful effect. Two months ago, women protested proposed legal changes restricting abortion in Texas by dressing as Atwood’s handmaids and sitting peacefully in the Senate Gallery. They were surrounded by court officials and armed police within minutes. It looked like a parody of the book.
Indeed, the parallels between Gilead and our world right now have not gone unnoticed as Atwood says: ‘The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.’
Saudi Arabia being the obvious example. Last month 24-year-oldDina Ali Lasloom, had her mouth taped shut, arms and legs bound, and was forced onto a plane from Manila to Riyadh, after attempting to seek asylum in Australia. She was trying to escape strict Saudi guardianship laws, which demand male approval over whether a woman can study, work, marry, travel and have medical treatment.
This evening, I will be glued to the screen. Like any good fan girl, I will be playing ‘spot the difference’ – even though I know from having my own book adapted for the screen that change is necessary. Some tweaks have already been reported and are welcome, such as the mentions of taxi app Uber – an everyday detail which makes this parallel world all too plausible.
A second series has already been commissioned and I will be watching closely to see where it ends. The novel concludes in the year 2195, when the Republic has long been overthrown. A conference of academics – the catchily-titled Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies – analyses Offred’s story and pours doubt on it.
One can’t help but wonder whether, in a century’s time, Atwood’s novel and its TV adaptation might, too, be studied as primary sources – the dystopian fiction that arguably came uncomfortably close to life.