Image Credit: Mark Blinch
With the release of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Testaments, on Tuesday 10 September, cinemas screened the shortlisted Booker prize novelist live in conversation with Samira Ahmed. Set fifteen years on from The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood discussed some of the key historical and literary influences of her new sequel novel and overall career; Lily James, Ann Dowd and Sally Hawkins gave readings from The Testaments and Atwood finished with a poem called ‘Spelling’ that she had written which relates to the novel as a whole.
Unfortunately, early on in the screening there was a technical glitch when Ann Dowd gave a reading, where her lips were out of sync with the audio; this was distracting, especially as it was the opening. The interview between Samira Ahmed and Margaret Atwood also felt awkward at points, it was unclear whether Atwood thought her novel to be host to any optimism or not, as she changed her mind on this subject. Perhaps a lecture by Atwood instead of an interview would have served the purpose better of understanding exactly what it was that she wanted to explain about The Testaments.
While initially Atwood gave off the impression that The Testaments is an exclusively negative novel, there was hope towards the end of the interview. Atwood later recognised and appreciated that we have young activists in our society, groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Groups like these help spread awareness and protest about the ongoing climate crisis that has only recently been acknowledged, as of July, in its true severity.
The climate crisis was the most important issue spoken about in the interview, because, as Atwood believes, the first to feel the effects of global catastrophes are women and
children, and this social exploitation is clearly the central topic examined in Atwood’s book series. The conversations around the social issues that appear from climate crisis were the most engaging, as were when Atwood mentioned historical, geographical and literary influences; these included the Biblical story of the Levite’s concubine, Atwood writing parts of The Handmaid’s Tale in Berlin around five years before the Berlin wall came down, and Atwood reading Orwell’s 1984 at the time of publication.
The readings from Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale, were performed in the style of her character: chilling and purposeful. Lily James’s reading highlighted the importance of the use of fairy tales in The Testaments. Fairy tales are told and retold over time in the same way that history repeats itself in the modern day. Atwood in this sense seems both forward-thinking through the ideas presented in her dystopian series, while also being acutely aware of the past and how this is relevant to and necessarily influences the future.
The screening was enjoyable to watch overall, both creative and informative. Atwood’s literary and political influence on current societal beliefs and protests are very encouraging to see, and the screening was a good introduction to her dystopian novel and the key background influences behind its creation, with the same themes still painfully relevant thirty-four years on from the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.