WEST BERLIN — 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."