The Handmaid’s Tale

Studio: Shout! Factory

Apr 18, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Dystopian art offers visions of the future of a world that is like our own, yet one that is not our own. Some of literature and cinema’s greatest works utilize the dystopian concept because it allows the creator to stretch the human condition into places we dare not go or we fear becoming.  As a concept, it is vast, varied, and open to interpretation, with dystopian worlds ranging the narrowly focused settings of a city (Batman, Escape From New York, 1984) to the vast, uncharted galaxies of deep space (Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001). These fantastic films all utilize dystopian themes in various ways, and are considered classics of the genre.

The 1990 film The Handmaid’s Tale, however, isn’t one of them.

The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, was published in 1985, offering a seemingly horrible, dreadful post-democratic America—now known as The Republic of Gilead—that has become a theocracy. It’s one of the better novels of the decade, it’s a fascinating read, and its stature and importance have yet to be diminished by time.  Even though it is a heavily political novel, all things fall into place, and it is never heavy-handed or didactic. It is a novel one cannot put down; it so thoroughly engages its reader in its horrible, oppressive, tragic world.

Unfortunately, Volker Sclondorff’s cinematic adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is overwrought and joyless. Because there’s no room for backstory, the viewer is unceremoniously thrust into this mysterious, oppressive world, where most women are sterile and the ones who aren’t are enslaved and assigned to elite yet infertile families. The tale is that of Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson), who has been assigned to Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) and her husband, The Commander (Richard Dreyfus) to conceive their child. However, the Commander is himself sterile, and so in order to protect her life must find a way to get pregnant, and she does so with the assistance of Nick (Aidan Quinn), with whom she quickly falls in love.  As one can imagine, things go to hell shortly after.  For all of the film’s flaws, Dunaway is at her most cunning and most maniacally evil here; if you thought her turn in Mommie Dearest was brutal and harsh, Serena Joy is downright sadistic. Richardson, on the other hand, plays the role in a very stiff and detached manner, but not in a good way; instead of seeming to be an abused woman who is in fear for her life, she just comes across as if she has no acting ability.

Furthermore, The Handmaid’s Tale relies quite heavily on anti-Christian sentiment. Joyless, ugly, brutal, it plays up so thoroughly on the unfounded fear of the Christian Other that it’s not surprising to see in online reviews that some honestly believe that this scenario is not only a realistic representation of a fundamentalist Christian opinion about women, but also is a desired subjugation that Christians want. It’s a ludicrous thing to believe, one that relies on the willful ignorance of those who seemingly, honestly believe that this is actually taking place.  So over-the-top this notion is that an otherwise harrowing slut-shaming scene involving a young girl getting raped at the age of 14 is so absurdly staged, it’s almost hard to fight the urge to break out into laughter at the utter absurdity and seriousness of it all.

Even more distressing is how the film relies so much on an anti-woman stereotype that it almost plays out like a feminist Birth Of A Nation, as if the only thing preventing this upheaval from society was the Equal Rights Amendment. The only thing missing from the film is Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett riding up on big white horses, waving copies of the ERA, and proclaiming themselves the liberators of these poor, victimized, enslaved, oppressed women.  The comparison’s not entirely incorrect; the ERA was brought to an end shortly before Atwood’s book, and Dunaway’s character was modeled on ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly. (It’s interesting to note, though, that throughout the film, men play almost no role; the oppressors and the tormentors are almost entirely fellow women.)  

Part of the blame for The Handmaid’s Tale’s awkwardness comes from its creation. Begun by famed screenwriter Harold Pinter, dissatisfaction between Pinter, Atwood, and the production crew ultimately resulted in a script that is patchy, scattershot, and often times bears only the vaguest relationship to the novel. Because of this, the story line flitters around, leaving the viewer with the sensation not unlike watching a movie, falling asleep for less than a minute or so, yet upon awaking feeling behind on the plot and having missed something relevant. Furthermore, it’s never a good sign of a movie when halfway through watching it, the viewer is still asking themselves just what the hell happened to make the world suddenly this way. (A lack of backstory isn’t necessarily a bad technique—witness The Road—but The Handmaid’s Tale is simply too complex to warrant absolutely no mention whatsoever.)

And yet, as absurd as The Handmaid’s Tale was in 1990—and as laughably paranoid as it seems in 2017—one undeniable fact remains: Atwood’s book is a fantastic, gripping, and thought-provoking read. Because the novel is so intricate and complex in its backstory, there was no way a two hour film could possibly lay that groundwork—in fact, pundits at the time declared The Handmaid’s Tale to be one of a rare series of books that would be impossible to translate into film, i.e: Infinite Jest, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Catcher In The Rye.

This rather soft release (no commentary, no bonus features) comes on the heels of Hulu/Bravo’s television series adaptation that launches on April 26th, featuring Elizabeth Moss as Offred. Considering television’s ability to cultivate long, complex narratives such as Atwood’s original story, this new adaptation may well serve proper justice to Atwood’s vision, rendering obsolete this bizarre, difficult, and frankly terrible cinematic adaptation. Here’s hoping that’s the case, as The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be told.


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