17 October 2017 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Why Dystopian Stories Like The Handmaid’s Tale Are So Popular

“Nothing went into the book that people hadn’t done at some point in time, in some place.”
– Margaret Atwood

Fans of the critically-acclaimed television show, The Handmaid’s Tale, rejoiced when the program won a whopping eight Emmys, including “Outstanding Drama Series,” at the recent 2017 award show. A stunning, brutal, suspenseful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a totalitarian world of the near future where women are stripped of their freedom and autonomy.

The Los Angeles Times reported that in response to a question about what she hopes people will take away from the book and the TV series, author Margaret Atwood said, “Well, one take-away would be 'never believe it can never happen here.’ Which was one of the premises I used for the book. Nothing went into the book that people hadn't done at some point in time, in some place."

With this in mind, we take a look at the increasing popularity of dystopian stories such as The Handmaid’s Tale, in film, television and literature. Why are we so drawn to such bleak, harrowing depictions of our future? 

Dystopian fiction – the zeitgeist of our times 

“From 1970 to the present, English-language films set in the future have been overwhelmingly pessimistic, when not downright apocalyptic.” – H. Bruce Franklin

A tidal wave of dystopian literature and films has hit the market in recent decades. Following the success of young adult franchises like the Hunger Games and Divergent, many other series have blown-up in popularity and there is an almost constant stream of dystopian futures being shown in cinemas. Through television and film we are fed a steady diet of destruction, mayhem and the erosion of civil liberties. 

Considering the current global climate, it’s surprising that so many people are interested in this pessimistic view of our future. With so much fear and tension and disaster in the news, doesn’t it seem we’d be seeking cheerful media that provides us a temporary respite from such doom and gloom?

However, this current global climate may be the reason why we are so drawn to the genre. 

In October 2011, Moira Young wrote for The Observer:

A new wave of dystopian fiction at this particular time shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It's the zeitgeist. Adults write books for teenagers. So anxious adults – worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we're leaving for the young – write dystopian books.

Anxious adults are also reading dystopian books, and seeing in them what was once imagined by authors as a vision of what could happen now becoming discernible in actual policies implemented by governments around the globe. Such dystopian themes also frequently extend into science-fiction visions of the future. Many novels and films explore the consequences in developing artificial intelligence which can go rogue and overtake humanity. 

Orwell predicted the rise of CCTV and if you consider the number of cameras on our streets you can assume Big Brother is indeed watching you. Let’s not forget his little sister in the form of increasingly empowered agencies who are now able watch your every move on the internet. I do hope they enjoy the cat pictures and this blog post!

Stories as a tool to critique problematic social and political policies

Our colleagues at Bowker, a ProQuest affiliate, report that the number of US ISBN registrations for dystopian fiction have nearly tripled since 2012. What’s driving this popularity? Perhaps the appeal of fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale is how it depicts the seamless transition of a world just like ours into a version of our deepest fears. A review by Richard Tuerk of “The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism" by M. Keith Booker, explains it this way:

Booker sees ‘defamiliarization’ as central to dystopian works, explaining that "by focusing their critiques of society on spatially or temporally distant settings, dystopian fictions provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable."

In an era of false news, fierce debate around women’s reproductive rights and increasingly invasive surveillance the themes explored on The Handmaid’s Tale and in other dystopian stories appear to resonate with a wide audience, and inspire writers’ imaginations.

For further research from Ebook Central:

Atwood, Margaret. (1986). The Handmaid's Tale.

Cooke, N. (2004). Margaret atwood: a critical companion.

Cojocaru, D. (2015). Violence and dystopia: mimesis and sacrifice in contemporary western dystopian narratives.

Foster, M. (1999). Handmaid's tale, the (maxnotes literature guides).

 Kaplan, E. A. (2015). Climate trauma: foreseeing the future in dystopian film and fiction.

Latimer, H. (2013). Reproductive acts: sexual politics in north american fiction and film.

Wisker, G. (2010). Atwood's the handmaid's tale: a reader's guide

Additionally, explore supplementary articles and dissertations for deeper insight into the connections between dystopian literature and social, political and economic issues of the times.


Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Franklin, H. B. (1983). "FUTURE IMPERFECT." American Film (Archive: 1975-1992), Mar 01 1983, pp. 46-49, 75-76, Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive.

Battaglio, S. (2017, Sep 18). THE EMMYS; BIG BREAKOUTS; streaming and female-led series upend status quo. Los Angeles Times. Global Newsstream.

Tuerk, R. (1996). The dystopian impulse in modern literature: Fiction as social criticism. Journal of American Culture, 19(2), 136-137. ProQuest Central.

Young, Moira, (2011). Reading with kids: The rise of dystopian fictionThe Observer; London (UK) 23 Oct 2011, pp. 19. Global Newsstream.

By Rebecca Seward, Metadata Editor