“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.”
Margaret Atwood wrote these words more than 30 years ago in her dystopian classic “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Earlier this week, this quote didn’t seem so distant or “out there” when it popped up on social media as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended Parliament.
Atwood reflected on this Tuesday, the night her sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” was released. This book was so highly anticipated, it became an event broadcast to theaters worldwide. Usually reading is a solo experience, but I was curious what a book launch would look like as we sat together, alone, inside a dark theater. So instead of settling down with the book that night, I settled into one of the cushy recliners at Penn Cinema.
Atwood released “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1985. A fan of books like “Brave New World” and “1984,” she wanted to write her own book about a dystopian society. Atwood wanted to write her novel from the point of view of a woman. She wrote about a society obsessed with a drastic drop in the birthrate. In Gilead, fertile women are forced to become handmaids. They’re given to commanders in the hopes of bearing children. It’s an oppressive society, and the main character, Offred, doesn’t know what is real or who to trust.
Since its release, the book has sold more than 8 million copies. The Berlin Wall fell. Communism was defeated. The world changed. Or has it?
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Blessed be the fruit... Are you watching #AtwoodLive in a cinema tonight? Where are you watching from? Drop your favourite quote from The Handmaid's Tale in the comments. Under his eye... . . . . . #margaretatwood #thetestaments #testaments #handmaidstale #thehandmaidstale #booklovers #literature #london #nationaltheatre
“The Handmaid’s Tale” was turned into a show on Hulu in 2017 that took the story of the book. We’ve also followed Offred, Aunt Lydia, the commanders, the Marthas and the Gileadean refugees through two more seasons beyond where the book ends.
It’s scarily striking how relevant the show is to the world we live in. This summer, a handmaid on the show tried to escape with an infant across a river to Canada. This was at the same time our country debates migration over our southern border. Women have dressed as handmaids in bright red throughout the world, a visual reminder of what could happen.
Fans asked Atwood for a sequel for years but she always said no. She couldn’t have re-created the voice of Offred, she said in a question-and-answer session in the live event. Besides, we were moving away from the ways of Gilead, she said.
But things changed with 9/11, the financial crisis and the 2016 presidential election, Atwood said. So she wrote “The Testaments” from middle Gilead, as a look at a regime as it starts to crumble.
I was intrigued by the idea of going to a theater to watch a live event about a book too new to be read.
For a television show, you might throw a viewing party for a group to watch together in the same room. Or you could watch with a group of friends in different places and use an app or text to have a conversation.
But reading’s usually completely solitary. You might join a book club or start a discussion on social media or search for a review online and join the conversation in the comments.
This live event turned a book release into a social gathering, even before most had read the book. The event was filmed at the National Theatre in London and screened at 1,400 movie theaters around the world, including Penn Cinema outside of Lititz. It added context without spoilers and several dramatic readings brought new characters to life.
In “The Testaments,” the story is told by three characters. Actresses read a passage from each. The fantastic Ann Dowd, who plays cruel taskmaster Aunt Lydia on the show, started. She shared more about how she was one of the few women in this society to rise the ranks and earn a statue while she was still alive.
🎟 Fascinating conversation with brilliant @MargaretAtwood live from @NationalTheatre in London to #Brussels (& the 🌍) for the launch of #TheTestaments - how inspiring!📗💚 #AtwoodLive pic.twitter.com/nuSDTJksH3— Ana Cronista (@ana_cronista) September 10, 2019
Actresses Sally Hawkins and Lily James joined Dowd on stage as the books’ other two characters. They brought these women alive, amazingly without sharing any spoilers. Their pages were enough of a taste to make me want to read more.
And in an interview, Atwood talked about what she wanted to explore in this book: the fragility of trust, the power of censorship, how climate change creates chaos. What motivates those who aren’t on top but fill the ranks in a totalitarian regime?
These aren’t easy topics.
That’s part of why they’re worth reading.