April 17, 2017 / 2:18 PM / 4 months ago

Once preposterous, now immediate; Margaret Atwood on 'Handmaid's Tale'

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood speaks during an interview at a hotel in Havana, Cuba, February 8, 2017. Picture taken on February 8, 2017.Alexandre Meneghini - RTSY5HP

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Margaret Atwood did not have any creative control over the latest adaptation of her dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale," but she was very clear what she didn't want.

"That they not make a sort of soft porn film called 'Maidens in Leather' or something, which has always been a temptation to certain kinds of filmmakers," the Canadian author told Reuters.

"The whole thing about such a puritanical society is that sex isn't supposed to be fun. I've seen some people taking a crack at ('Handmaid's Tale') and going in that direction and it was always wrong," she said.

First published in 1985, "The Handmaid's Tale" imagines a totalitarian near future when fertile women are forced into sexual servitude in a bid to repopulate a world facing environmental disaster. Women are forbidden to read, cannot control money and are forced to wear modesty clothing. Everyone spies on everyone.

Thirty years on, the new TV miniseries for Hulu, premiering April 26 and starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, seems relevant.

Atwood, 77, calls it one of her "speculative fiction" novels but said every scenario was drawn from real events - from Puritan society to environmental pollution, infertility, the fight for women's rights, the Cold War, book burnings and slavery.

Even so, the premise of "The Handmaid's Tale" seemed far-fetched in 1985. "It seemed preposterous even to me. But I don't mean to say it was preposterous. I didn't think it was going to happen in that moment," she said.

"When politically inclined people say they want to do such and such, I always believe them, so why be surprised? Then the 2016 U.S. election happened and all this became much more immediate," she said

In an hour-long conversation, Atwood never mentioned Hillary Clinton, U.S. President Donald Trump, nor any political party. Her passions are more fundamental and widespread, ranging from innovations in biotechnology to North Korean literature and the protection of birds.

While she is widely regarded as one of the foremost living feminist writers, it is not a label she would choose. Women's rights and civil rights are inextricably linked, she says, but women have become complacent in the last 20 years.

"It's always a terrible idea for women when civil rights themselves get smashed, unless you take the view that women aren't human beings.

"People have forgotten that civil rights themselves had to be hard fought for and have to be fought to maintain because someone is going to take them away from you if they get the chance... I think whole generations came along who didn't have to fight for those things, and weren't too worried," she said.

Atwood, who has a background in amateur theater, has a small cameo in the 10-part TV series but even she was taken aback by how chilling the new version of "The Handmaid's Tale" turned out.

"It was, did I do that?!" she said on seeing the finished series.

With her talent for speculative fiction that is all too credible, Atwood is used to people asking for her take on what might be ailing society in 20 years time.

She has a direct answer.

"That's going to be your problem, because I'm going to be dead."

Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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