Recently, I purchased some new content for Apple TV. I often do this during winters in Germany, because it’s cold, wet, and dark here, and that kind of weather makes me want to hibernate. I ran across the 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale, starring the late Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, and Faye Dunaway, and though I had heard it wasn’t a great movie, I decided to buy it. Until very recently, the film version of Margaret Atwood’s very famous story was not readily available. I read in a 2015 article about the film posted on The Atlantic’s Web site that old copies of it were selling for as much as $100 on Amazon. In 2019, I can download it for ten bucks. Here’s a link to my review of the book.
I watched the movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale yesterday. I didn’t think it was as bad as some people had led me to believe it would be, although I think it really helped that I’d read the book and have been watching the Hulu series. Knowing the premise of the story helped clear up some confusion that was bound to occur if I’d simply watched director Volker Schlondorff’s film. The screenplay was written by the late British playwright, Harold Pinter, whose work I remember reading when I was majoring in English at Longwood College (now University). In those days, Pinter was still alive, and it had only been a few years since he’d worked on The Handmaid’s Tale. In 1986, when the film rights were initially purchased by producer David Wilson, Pinter was tapped to work with director Karel Reisz. The two had successfully worked together on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, an excellent film that starred Meryl Streep and was later nominated for five Academy Awards.
According to the 2015 article I linked, written by Sophie Gilbert, no one at any film studio wanted to make the movie about how America was conquered and turned into a police state called Gilead. Even though every cruelty perpetrated against women in Atwood’s book had been historically perpetrated against women somewhere in the world, in the 80s, people saw her work as far-fetched, fear mongering, paranoid, and overly feminist. Sigourney Weaver had originally been tapped to play Kate/Offred, the protagonist (who, aside from being called Offred, is unnamed in the book and called “June” in the TV show), but she had to drop out because she got pregnant. After that, it seemed that no actress wanted anything to do with the project, because they were afraid of being labeled or attached to such an overtly feminist work. The Handmaid’s Tale was seen as hostile, and it was too much about women. Women were not a popular topic in those days, even though I remember called Eating, another film about women from 1990 that was both intriguing and widely panned. As I recall, Eating also got horrible reviews. I did see it myself, and don’t remember liking it, although I might feel differently if I watched it today.
Because of the difficulty and delay in making the film, Karel Reisz had to drop out of the project. Then, there was trouble finding a new director, until Russian filmmaker Volker Schlondorff took on the task. Schlondorff was the man responsible for the Oscar winning film adaptation of The Tin Drum, a novel written by Gunter Grass. Evidently, Pinter and Schlondorff did not work as well together as Pinter and Reisz did.
Natasha Richardson, who was eventually cast as Kate/Offred, had complaints about the way the screenplay was written. She claimed Harold Pinter had something against narration and voice overs. In the book, the character, Offred, does a lot of narration, which explains a lot of what’s happening. Without the narration, viewers are forced to figure things out for themselves. If I hadn’t been familiar with the story, that would have been difficult. I might have had to watch the movie more than once to get everything. Harold Pinter supposedly didn’t want to claim his work on The Handmaid’s Tale and refused to allow it to be published, saying that it had been so altered and edited by other people that it was no longer really his work.
And then there’s the casting. Natasha Richardson, daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, was cast as Offred. She was joined by Blanche Baker (who famously played Ginny Baker in Sixteen Candles) playing Ofwarren, Elizabeth McGovern (of Ordinary People) playing Moira, Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest) as Serena Joy, and Victoria Tennant (All of Me) as Aunt Lydia. Frankly, I was surprised Dunaway played Serena Joy. I thought she’d make a better Aunt Lydia. Certainly, she would have been more convincing and cruel than Victoria Tennant was. When I watched Ms. Dunaway playing Serena Joy, I kept thinking of Mommie Dearest. In fact, I ended up watching that movie next. Robert Duvall, who played Bull Meacham in The Great Santini, was convincing as Commander Fred. I noticed that the movie cast was overwhelmingly white. Unlike the television series, which has people of different races represented, the Gilead in the film version appears to be full of white people, which also makes it less believable.
So what did I think of the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale? I’m glad I watched it. It was interesting to see a 1990 era take on Atwood’s story, especially having seen the cable television series. However, I’m afraid that the film is a bit campy and strange, even though the message is very important and, done differently, would have served as a warning to us today. One thing I noticed about the film was the music was odd. The soundtrack reminded me of something I’d have heard in a cheesy 80s horror movie. Yes, the story is horrifying, but The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t supposed to be a horror story, at least not in the sense that most horror stories are. Ryuichi Sakamoto, the man in charge of the music, didn’t set up the grim, oppressive, depressing mood that I would have expected for this film.
Toward the end of the movie, Fred takes Offred/Kate to a brothel, where she runs into her old friend, Moira. Moira has become a “Jezebel” and had had her hands mangled. She says, “We don’t need hands or feet for our work”. Curiously, as the high ranking men are cavorting with the prostitutes and “whores” in the brothels, Sakamoto uses the classic song, “Crazy”, sung by Patsy Cline. It doesn’t seem to fit with the mood… but it does add more camp to the story. In another scene, the wives are attending a birth as Janine (who keeps both eyes in the film) has a baby for her couple. There’s a band playing, and I would swear it’s the same music that was played in an episode of The Brady Bunch. That I was reminded of The Brady Bunch while watching a film that should have been scary and grim says something about the way the story was treated.
I noticed, too, that the use of color in the film was very obvious and kind of silly. Anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale or watched the television show, knows that colors are very important. The handmaids wear red. The “Marthas” (women who are too old or are sterile) wear grey. The “wives” wear blue. But I like the way this is done in the television show better than the way it was done for the film. The costumes in the film are very garish and bright, and they have a dated look to them. Faye Dunaway’s blue dress, the same dress that all the wives wear, looks like something I might have bought at The Limited in 1988. It doesn’t age well, nor does it appear to be modest enough for the story. I am not convinced that Gilead– the new country formed after the coup that decimated America– is run by fundamentalist Christians. In fact, now that I think about it, the movie almost seems like a satirical treatment of Atwood’s book.
But… I do remember 1990. That was the year I graduated from high school. Although I’m sure there were fundies in those days, we didn’t hear about them nearly as much as we do today. I remember that time as more hopeful and progressive. I never felt like I couldn’t or shouldn’t do whatever I wanted with my life. I don’t remember worrying about whether or not Roe v Wade would be overturned. I never heard any politician talking about trying to re-implant ectopic pregnancies. Although I do remember hearing horror stories about women trying to induce abortion by using coat hangers, I also remember being reassured that abortions were safe and available, and birth control was available and encouraged. And so, it makes sense that the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale was treated in such a farcical way. Back then, no one believed that the scenario presented in the film could one day be a realistic look at what life could one day be like. In fact, here are a few comments from film critics quoted in The Atlantic who panned the movie:
Roger Ebert said, “The movie seems equally angry that women have to have children at all, and that it is hard for them to have children now that men have mucked up the planet with their greedy schemes.” (uh huh… that about sums it up, Mr. Ebert.)
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers said, “[the ceremony is] about as erotic as a gynecological exam,” and the movie had “narrowed the focus to [Male Chauvinist Pigs] who like to put women in their place.” (since when is rape supposed to be “erotic”, anyway?)
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Glieberman said, “[the film’s version of the future] is so poisonous and mechanical that you have to wonder: Is this really what our society is threatening to turn into, or is Atwood just exorcising her own fear and loathing?” (um… yes, Mr. Glieberman, “that” is exactly what our society is threatening to turn into…)
As it turns out, Atwood’s 1985 vision of the world may be scarily astute, as conservative politicians and religious wingnuts do their best to take away women’s reproductive rights and our “president” does his best to quash any progress made toward equality and better living for everyone. It seems today like we had a lot more extreme religious nuts out there, coupled with militant atheists. Maybe it’s simply because the Internet is a thing now, and people are exposed to a lot more around information than we were in the blissfully ignorant days prior to the Internet. Back in 1990, I never imagined that a guy like Joel Osteen– a televangelist– or a woman like Paula White (whom I used to watch on TBN and laugh at)– would be esteemed and seen by so many people. And yet, here they are… Osteen is cavorting with rapper/born again Christian Kanye West, and Paula White is Donald Trump’s “spiritual adviser”. And they’re all about as sincere and Christlike as Damien. When I think of these people, I don’t think of real examples of Christians. I think of power and money hungry vermin who feed on the gullible and the stupid.
In Atwood’s book, the character Serena Joy is a former televangelist who rose to power and prestige, preaching for the world that women endure in The Handmaid’s Tale. In both the film and the television show, we see her character watching the way things were kind of wistfully. Things didn’t turn out the way she’d planned, and it wasn’t so good for her as a second class citizen with no real choices. But in the movie, that point isn’t made meaningful or poignant. Instead, it just seems bizarre and satirical. Mommie Dearest with blonde hair singing “Amazing Grace” in an appallingly spine tingling soprano that set my teeth on edge.
A couple of female reviewers had nicer things to say about the movie and Atwood’s tale of warning– again taken from Sophie Gilbert’s article about this film for The Atlantic:
The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote “As visions of a hellish, dehumanizing future go, this one could never be mistaken for a man’s. With its devilish attention to polite little touches, its abundant bitchiness … The Handmaid’s Tale is a shrewd if preposterous cautionary tale that strikes a wide range of resonant chords.” (yes, it sure is a cautionary tale, and the updated version would strike a lot more resonant chords…)
The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote “surrogate motherhood run amok in a society dominated by iron-fisted pulpit thumpers turned fascist militarists,” even while acknowledging that “Schlondorff seems as uncomfortable in this feminist nightmare as a man in a lingerie department.” (perhaps this movie would have been better in a woman’s hands…)
I’m not inclined to be as generous about this movie as Maslin or Kempley are, although I do kind of understand why it came off as “uncomfortable” and “preposterous”. That’s because in the late 80s and early 90s, these ideas did seem “preposterous” to most of us. Most of us didn’t see 2019 coming– that so many women would be fighting to maintain their right to terminate a pregnancy without fearing a prison sentence, health complications, or having to plead their cases to politicians and men in charge of the medical system.
In 1990, I could not have conceived of Texan Marlise Munoz’s horrifying last weeks of “life”, spent brain dead, but on life support, because she happened to be pregnant when she collapsed in her home. Medical personnel, citing a Texas law requiring that lifesaving measures be maintained if a female patient was pregnant, kept that poor woman artificially alive weeks after she was declared brain dead. In Texas, brain death is considered “legal death”, and yet Marlise was kept in intensive care for many weeks while her family watched her rot. In the end, the baby she was carrying didn’t survive and was horribly deformed. I’ll bet the medical bills were a sight to behold, too. Isn’t it interesting that conservative politicians want to declare life when a heartbeat is detected in a developing embryo, but legally, death occurs when the brain stops functioning?
Anyway… I give the people who brought us the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale props for tackling that subject in 1990. They obviously tried. I just think that for most people back in 1990, the story was too weird and far-fetched to get a realistic treatment on film. Today, Atwood’s cautionary tale seems more like it could happen, so the television series seems more real and much scarier, although I will admit that season 3 gave me the impression that the show is about to “jump the shark”. I mean, seriously, it’s unrealistic that June/Offred on the show would still be living after all she’s done. But if they get rid of June, the show will probably tank. I expect she’s headed for underground in season 4, at least if the writers know what’s good for them.
I did take note of The Atlantic’s staff writer, Sophie Gilbert’s, closing statements in her 2015 look back at the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote:
Since , a number of Atwood’s imaginings (themselves ripped from American history) have manifested in reality, prompting the question of what insight might be gained from a new, more faithful Handmaid’s Tale. Still, it’s equally possible that, even 25 years later, neither audiences nor the film industry is ready yet.
I guess back in 2015, we didn’t know that in 2017, we’d get a new, more faithful Handmaid’s Tale, and it would alternately thrill and scare the shit out of today’s audiences. I, for one, hope that this particular “fiction” tale stops being so true.
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