'The Handmaid's Tale' : If Puritans Ruled . . . Atwood's Story on Screen

Canadian Margaret Atwood got the idea for her acclaimed 1985 novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," during a conversation in Toronto, announcing, "I think I'm going to write about how religious fanatics would run the world if they got their druthers." She began her futurist, anti-utopian tale during a journey to West Berlin, which, she remembers, "had a sinister feeling, surrounded by the Wall and with East German planes flying low overhead. And visits to Czechoslovakia and Poland fed the atmosphere."

But where would Atwood situate her gruesome Puritan society, in which abortion is a capital crime and fertile women are enslaved, baby-producing vessels?

Perhaps in her native land?

"How can I say it not to sound rude about Canadians?" Atwood wondered aloud, during a Berlin Film Festival press conference last month for the world premiere of the movie of "The Handmaid's Tale." "Canadians always wait to see what happens. If we like it, we'll do it too."

Instead, "The Handmaid's Tale," which opens at selected theaters Wednesday was set by Atwood in the time-to-come United States. More specifically, the bulk of the tale happens in Massachusetts, in the environs of Boston and Cambridge, near a future-shock version of Harvard University. That's where Atwood's heroine, Kate, abided with her gentle husband and bright-eyed child before the revolution brought on the religious Republic of Gilead.

In a hotel lobby interview in Berlin, Atwood gladly filled in the Cambridge, Mass., references in "The Handmaid's Tale," starting with the grim, monastic clothes store, Lilies of the Field, placed in what had been, in pre-revolutionary times, Cambridge's beloved repertoire movie house, the Brattle Theatre.

Atwood said, "The grounds in front of Harvard's Widener Library is where they have public hangings."

"The Handmaid's Tale" got its macabre geography from Atwood's 1962 graduate school stint at Radcliffe College. "Harvard gave my book a sniffy review in Harvard magazine," she said. "But one of the persons it's dedicated to is Perry Miller, through whom at Harvard I studied the American Puritans in great detail. The roots of totalitarianism in America are found, I discovered, in the theocracy of the 17th Century. 'The Scarlet Letter' is not that far behind 'The Handmaid's Tale,' my take on American Puritanism."

Atwood is quick to explain that some of her forebears were these very Puritans, who emigrated from England to New Hampshire and Massachusetts and, at the American Revolution, went into political exile after supporting the Loyalists. They settled in Nova Scotia, allowing Atwood to be born, generations later, a Canadian. (She constructed her complicated American family tree--including also Scots and French Huguenots--in the Massachusetts hometown of the witch trials, at the Salem Public Library.)

Atwood's favorite ancient ancestor, hands down, is Mary Webster, a Connecticut woman who was accused of witchery and hanged. "She must have had a tough neck and been very light because, the next day, she was still alive," Atwood said, proudly. "Under laws of double jeopardy, she couldn't be hanged again. She was cut down, and died years later of natural causes."

Atwood also placed a dedication to Mary Webster at the front of "The Handmaid's Tale."

An earlier Atwood novel, "Surfacing," had come to the screen badly botched in 1981, with a wrongheaded script by Bernard Gordon. Still, Atwood declined adapting "The Handmaid's Tale" herself because she was occupied writing her most recently published novel, "Cat's Eye." Instead, with her hearty approval, British playwright Harold Pinter signed for "The Handmaid's Tale" screenplay. ("Nobody in Canada asked, 'Let me write the script. Let me direct.' If you don't ask, you can't be considered. That seems to be very elemental.") Eventually, West Germany's Volker Schlondorff agreed to direct, and Britain's Natasha Richardson signed on to play Kate.

"I talked to Harold a great deal before he wrote the screenplay," Atwood said. "I also talked a lot to Natasha and Volker. I saw the script at different drafts." But Atwood was emphatic that the screenplay is not hers in any way: "I made helpful suggestions like, 'Americans would not say "hand cream." They'd say, "hand lotion." ' My contributions were at that level!"

Still, there was enough proprietary interest for Atwood to indulge in publicity at Berlin for the film of "The Handmaid's Tale," and to defend it against charges that Richardson's protagonist is too passive a captive of the Republic of Gilead. "We all have this little fantasy of ourselves that we'd be brave and daring, but when the witch hunt is on the rampage it takes extraordinary courage to resist. Also, her child has been taken hostage by the regime, like the missing children in Argentina, and therefore that limits the scope of her action."

Atwood's hackles were most definitely raised when some at Berlin complained about the number of negative, violent female characters in "The Handmaid's Tale" movie.

"I didn't write the screenplay," Atwood said, "but it's naive to think that all women are moral and good. It's a Victorian attitude to shove off goodness on women instead of power. Should only men be all kinds of human beings? Equality means equality. Women must have a range of psychological types to choose from, not just Lady Macbeth, an angel, or a scarlet woman.

"Are women more peaceful than men? They have a more vested interested in peace because of raising children, but we have no test case for women completely in control. If there was a special gene that every woman has, how do you explain Margaret Thatcher? Does she have more testosterone?"

With some reservations about compacting past and present time in Pinter's script ("I think there could have been a more meditative film, though a slower film"), Atwood seems to genuinely admire the screen version of her novel. "I recognize it very much, as they stayed fairly close to the book," Atwood said.

Also, she would have liked for "The Handmaid's Tale" to have been shot about Harvard University, which has banished film making from its grounds.

"We never even asked about Harvard," Schlondorff said. "Although the most daring part of Margaret's book is that, instead of a small town in the Bible Belt, she sets it in the most liberal area in the country, an Eastern campus." Instead, "The Handmaid's Tale" was filmed in North Carolina, on and about Duke University, with a nearly abandoned Lucky Strike factory used as Gilead's internment camp. "It's still very much a campus movie," Schlondorff said, "with the pseudo-Tudor architecture and lots of young girls."

Schlondorff talked enthusiastically about the minute American details in the design for "The Handmaid's Tale," including clothes from K mart and the Sears catalogue. Still, many of his West German colleagues--"what's left of the 1960s generation"--challenged his knowledge of the U.S. They demanded to know, Schlondorff said, "Why did you do this? It's so far-fetched. It has nothing to do with American reality!"

Schlondorff sighed. "I found that most disturbing. What they know of America they see on television."

And what many West Germans don't know is that, for the last five years, the director of "The Tin Drum" and "Swann in Love" has lived in New York City. "I went there to make the film of 'Death of a Salesman' and got so involved with America that I found I didn't want to go back to Munich. I found American society so complex, so unfinished, so temporary, that when you looked from there at Europe, it was one big museum in which even the dust didn't move. And I felt everything was ahead of me, that I was a young man. The people who run the studios almost weren't born when I made 'The Tin Drum.' "

What has Schlondorff learned about the United States that he didn't know before moving there?

" 'Death of a Salesman' showed me how important family life is in America, why politicians have to stand with their families. In Germany, nobody even knows what Mrs. Kohl looks like! If family is one structure in America, church is another, which I didn't understand before 'The Handmaid's Tale.'

"Film making is about trying to find reality. When I started the film, I said, 'This could never happen in America.' But I saw how real-life cheerleaders in our cast could be trained to be part of a public hanging instead of a football game. And at nightfall at Duke, vigilantes were patrolling the campus because there was so much rape. Also, the Jesse Helms obscenity thing was happening, and we gave the women in our cast a week off in April for the March to Washington against the revising of abortion laws."

There is only one way in which Schlondorff remains an obstinate European: he still chain-smokes cigarettes. As a result, he was punched in the nose by a California bodybuilder in Malibu. "I was smoking in an open air restaurant, when these bodybuilders complained. I said, 'Just move to another table,' so they stood up and, boff !"

In retrospect, puffing away in Berlin, an amused Schlondorff plotted revenge: "We should have hanged someone for smoking in 'The Handmaid's Tale.' "

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