Bringing Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel to television for the first time, The Handmaid’s Tale tells of a world of power, oppression, control and scrutiny. In the totalitarian society of Gilead, formerly a part of America, fertile women are treated as the property of the state in an attempt to reverse a declining birth rate. It’s a situation that should feel familiar, even for those who haven’t read the book. Indeed, though Atwood crafts a specific vision of the future, audiences are well accustomed to lapping up similar dystopian scenarios.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:
From 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to The Hunger Games and Allegiant on the page, and traversing Metropolis, Mad Max, Battlestar Galactica and The Leftovers on the big and small screens, dystopian fiction remains alluring to both readers and viewers alike — but why are we drawn to stories of the world at its bleakest? Are we trying to discover a way to cope with our troubles, learn about them, or escape from them? With global politics currently endeavouring to demonstrate life imitating art, it’s a topic that’s proving more and more relevant of late.
Finding answers in fiction
When life takes a turn into darker territory, dystopian texts often surge in popularity. After news of the extent of US intelligence surveillance leaked in 2013, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed — only to do so again early in 2017 when the term “alternative facts” came into use by the present US administration. Screenings of the film adaptation have also come back into favour this year, and while its star John Hurt passed away in January, protesting Donald Trump has actually proven the primary driving force.
“We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises,” Harvard University ethicist Chris Robichaud told Wired. “You look to fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems,” he continued, drawing upon his teachings on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy. Accordingly, as we read of doublespeak and of Big Brother’s constant observation — or of state-enforced homogeneity in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or watch Katniss attempt to subvert government propaganda in The Hunger Games — we probe the parallels with our contemporary society, exploring how fictional heroes have tackled the same issues.
The same remains true of Australia’s biggest addition to the dystopian fold, Mad Max, as its director George Miller recognises. Speaking to Vulture at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, he explained that his films resonate with audience because they speak "about what's pretty constant in our behaviour, even in the modern world. There’s a power structure where, one way or another, all of the resources are controlled by the few at the expense of the many.”
It’s all just a little bit of history repeating
As Miller acknowledges, great dystopian stories strike a chord because they reflect reality, holding a mirror up to struggles that have and still do plague our society. In fact, many enduring texts have taken their lead from actual events and issues to speculate about developments that could possibly eventuate. Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451’s depiction of a world where books are outlawed came at a time when content and artists accused of supporting Communism were the targets of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, for example.
Audiences at the time confronted their present lives; as 1984 director Michael Radford explained in an interview with Little White Lies upon John Hurt’s death, “nothing I recreated in the film wasn’t going on in the real world in 1984, I took a lot of it from documentary footage of executions and repression from all around the place.” For those revisiting, adapting or coming to the material anew at a later date, dystopian efforts provide the chance to experience something that the pages of Fahrenheit 451 make plain in prose: that history repeats itself.
Dystopian texts, be it on the page or screen, offer a perpetual window into this phenomenon. Fahrenheit 451’s view of censorship still proves relevant today, as does Metropolis’ take on class chasms, Battlestar Galactica’s fears of technology, and RoboCop’s vision of authoritarian law enforcement — and, of course, the list goes on.
Still, when we read or view dystopian tales crafted in years gone by, we interrogate their interpretations of the future based on their specific period, and then find correlations between the past and the present in our own minds. The same will remain true of recent dystopian offerings. Imagine what the likes of Snowpiercer’s climate change-induced socio-economic warfare, The Lobster’s dissection of romantic customs and The Leftovers ‘culling of the population will tell generations to come about humanity and our mindset in the early twenty-first century.
In fact, in adapting The Handmaid’s Tale for the small screen, it’s a process that the television series’ guiding forces have also been forced to undergo. Atwood’s novel emerged during an era of austerity led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, while the show reaches screens as Trump trumpets legislation that often benefits the powerful at the expense of the less fortunate, and is particularly unforgiving towards women. With the ten-episode first season filmed before the 2016 US election, director Reed Morano told Collider, “it was really surreal because we didn’t know.”
She continued, “the day after the election, I was in the editing room, basically looked at the assembly of episodes two and three. So, we had already come that far, and everything was way more — While we were doing that scene, the protest scene, I was like, “I wonder what they would chant. I wonder what the signs would say.” You know? And a month later, I would know that. It was very surreal. And then also with just watching the assembly that morning after was, kind of, like everything was — stuff that had weight before was just way crazier.”
Giving fears a safe platform — and perhaps a fantasy ending
Filled as it is with fear-inducing concepts, dystopian material also performs a cathartic function, and one more commonly ascribed to horror. By watching terrifying realities play out on screen, audiences can work through their anxieties and phobias within a safe space. Talking to The Daily Beast about frightening films, the late Stuart Fischoff, then Professor Emeritus at California State University in Los Angeles and senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology, explained that “one of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared.” He expanded further, recognising the psychological release that they can provide — even if we’re quaking with terror while we watch, “we know that, in an hour or two, we’re going to walk out whole.”
Consequently, as we view Black Mirror’s procession of disturbing dystopian scenarios, The Walking Dead’s exploration of human behaviour after a zombie apocalypse, or Colony’s hypothesising about the aftermath of an alien invasion, we think about the ideas at their centre, but we know that our real lives will remain the same at the end of each episode. As a result, we can enjoy traversing troubling terrain from the comfort of our couches, secure in the knowledge that we’re just watching a TV show — even if it does reflect the past, provide parallels to the present or leap into a future that doesn’t seem that far away.
Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist and novelist Steven Schlozman sees the cathartic value of dystopian tales in a different manner, and one that’s more hopeful. Based on his experience, bleak tales don’t just give readers and viewers an opportunity to ponder what they would do in the same situation, but provide a chance to relish the possibility of starting over afterwards. "All of this uncertainty and all of this fear comes together and people think maybe life would be better,” he told Scientific American.
Further, the notion of finding motivation has also been floated in the scientific domain, where fictional speculation can also act as inspiration. According to Carnegie Mellon University science policy researcher Denise Caruso in Smithsonian magazine, “Science fiction helps [scientists] think about how the work they’re doing might eventually turn out.”
Ultimately, while audiences keep flocking to dystopian narratives for a variety of reasons, we all get the same thing from them, albeit in a range of ways. Whether we’re seeking solutions to actual horrors, diving into the past to understand the present, or vicariously exploring our fears and fantasies, examining life at its worst helps humanity strive towards its best — and potentially know what to do if the world ever really burns.
The Handmaid’s Tale 2 airs on SBS and SBS On Demand 8.30pm, from Thursday April 26. #HandmaidsTale
Catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale and binge season one on SBS On Demand now!