I just finished reading The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s explosive sequel to her smash 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read and reviewed Atwood’s most popular novel a couple of years ago. I recently reposted my review of The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can find here. To be honest, I wasn’t all that hot on The Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it. I found it very depressing and had trouble finishing it. But then I started watching the series on Hulu and got hooked on that. When Atwood published The Testaments, I decided I might as well see how the story ends. Or does it end? It’s hard to tell.
I’ll admit, I put off reading The Testaments. I don’t read a lot of novels anymore. I prefer non-fiction books, even though I spent so many years reading fiction as an English major and adolescent bookworm. I finally decided to get busy with The Testaments when I watched the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale. You can find my commentary on the film here.
So… with all of that out of the way, what did I think of the sequel? I’m happy to report that I mostly found it enjoyable. It was a lot more readable and less depressing than The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps thanks to the TV series, I was able to form pictures in my mind of what the characters would be like. I also noticed that Margaret Atwood has a knack for being unexpectedly witty, and that made reading her book a delight.
For this book, Atwood focuses on several characters, rather than just the handmaid. The story is set more than fifteen years after the first story, and we’re introduced to characters who were just children when the first book ended. There’s Agnes, a teen who was raised by a high ranking commander and his wife, Tabitha, who is dying. Agnes’s father remarries, and her new stepmother, Paula, is intent on marrying her off to another high ranking commander, who’s been married a few times and seems to have a bad track record with keeping his wives alive.
There’s Daisy/Jade/Nicole… raised in Canada by people who ran a used clothing store. She thought they were her real parents until she turned sixteen, and the people she thought were her parents were suddenly killed when their car blew up. It’s at that point that she finds out who she really is, and why she must journey to Gilead. Nicole is young and snarky; she uses the Lord’s name in vain, which upsets Agnes.
Agnes has a friend named Becka, whose father is the best dentist in Boston who happens to have a penchant for child molestation. She decides she’d rather be an aunt than get married. Becka trades in her bright green dress– the dress for brides to be– for the dull brown dress the aunts wear. She learns how to read, and shows Agnes the way to avoiding marriage and a sure death sentence. Agnes gets a new name and eventually meets a long lost family member.
There’s Aunt Lydia, who seems like a terribly malevolent character at first blush, but then you get her backstory and find out she’s not as bad as she seems. She’s also super smart and witty, and I especially enjoyed some of her funnier quips. You find out that Aunt Lydia has come up with a “missionary program” in which pairs of women, known as “Pearl Girls”, try to recruit people to move to Gilead. Pearl Girls are destined to be aunts, like Lydia. Reading about the aunts is interesting. They reminded me of nuns. I would have liked for Atwood to develop Lydia even more, giving readers more of a look at how and why she turned from who she was into who she now is.
I think I might have found The Testaments even more compelling if it had been a bit more detailed. Because there are three characters to follow, there’s less detail about each protagonist. There’s also less shock value, because there’s less time and opportunity for it. In some ways, I’m glad for less shock value– again, I found this book less depressing than The Handmaid’s Tale. But it seemed to me, I don’t know, kind of rushed and incomplete in some ways. Atwood kind of glosses over what life is really like in Gilead. She could have added more detail about this world she’s created, with more about what the society is really like. That might have made her characters more multi-dimensional. I did enjoy the last bit, which is a look at the future– 2197– long after we’re all gone. Atwood makes mention of the need for sunscreen and insect repellant, a nod to the climate changes that will affect everyone if the world isn’t already destroyed by then. Who knows?
The three characters interacting together are interesting, especially when the reader learns who they really are and, more importantly, witness them learning who they really are. Atwood’s sequel is appealing, and will probably be satisfying to most readers. However, as a work in itself, I don’t think it’s quite as earth shattering as The Handmaid’s Tale is. I couldn’t help but realize that Atwood probably wrote this book for people who don’t necessarily read literature for fun. This book is very commercial and, as such, is a bit watered down. Consequently, it reads more like something the average person would enjoy, rather than something artistic, literary, and groundbreaking. In other words, it seems a little like Atwood “cashed in”, even though I’ll admit that I mostly enjoyed the book.
So, The Testaments definitely has commercial appeal and Atwood’s additions, no doubt, will be used in the series. But overall, the book is kind of lightweight and pedestrian, and it really seems like Atwood wrote The Testaments strictly for the masses. The Handmaid’s Tale, by contrast, is a better quality book because it’s obvious that Atwood really considered the plot for a long time and did her research. She took the time to craft the story using ordeals that real women have endured somewhere in the world at some point in time, giving The Handmaid’s Tale a more realistic feel, which made it a whole lot scarier and more compelling. The Handmaid’s Tale makes a solid, important, bold, political statement that may have felt far-fetched in 1985, but is definitely relevant in 2019. I’m not sure The Testament makes the same caliber of a statement, even if it’s more enjoyable to read.
If I were rating The Testaments on a five star scale, I think I’d give it three-and-a-half stars. The Testaments is definitely readable and interesting, but it doesn’t really stand up to the original story. The story definitely does not have the same level of complexity, and lacks the depth and shock and awe of the original. I found The Handmaid’s Tale much more difficult to read, but ultimately it’s a much better book because it’s been crafted from reality. The Testaments, by contrast, isn’t based as much in reality as it is speculation. And… as I’ve noticed on Amazon.com’s reviews, some people are upset that “June” (who was called Kate in the movie and was unnamed in the original book and remains unnamed in the sequel) gets very little mention in this sequel. So anyone who thinks they’d like to read this to find out about “June” is going to be very disappointed. Readers should remember that “June” doesn’t exist in Atwood’s book. That’s a character name that was given to her for the TV series. Atwood’s books aren’t the TV series, so readers shouldn’t go to the books for updates on what will happen in the series– although I do think aspects of The Testaments will be woven into upcoming seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale.
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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 a film called Eating, another movie 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 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 has 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 TheAtlantic 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) havemanifestedinreality, 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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I am reposting my review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, because it’s relevant to today’s fresh content. This post was originally composed on July 7, 2017. Enjoy!
I don’t know how I missed Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, but I swear I had not heard of it until a couple of months ago, when I happened to read an interesting article on Medium.com about a woman who had grown up fundie Christian. She had gone to a Christian college and a literature professor had assigned the book, letting the class know that Atwood’s 1985 novel was pro-feminist and a reaction against the religious right. For that reason, the professor said the class may not enjoy the book. It was a statement against everything fundamentalist Christians stand for.
I was myself an English major from 1990-94. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. Somehow, in the 32 years since this book was published, I had not heard of it. However, perhaps as an explanation, I will admit that I kind of quit reading most novels after I graduated from college. I prefer to read true stories most of the time, except when I stumble across an author who is especially engaging.
Having just finished Atwood’s book, I will say that I found The Handmaid’s Tale frightening and depressing. And while it was written in the 1980s, I have seen some distressing signs that our world may one day regress to a state in which certain women are relegated to being simple brood mares. It seems like more and more people are either turning to militant atheism or extreme religions as a means of navigating life. Although I am sure there were plenty of fundie Christians back in the 80s, it seems like there are so many more of them now. Maybe it’s just because we have the Internet.
Anyway, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a young woman who is “re-educated” by a totalitarian, fundamentalist Christian government. As a handmaid, she wears a bright red dress and is of a lower rank than other women. Her purpose is to make babies with an old, high ranking, married man. She is a surrogate and worth nothing more than her ability to produce children, which will then be raised by the wife.
The woman’s name is Offred (of Fred)– her original name was stripped of her when the government turned fundie. She lives in the Republic of Gilead and is old enough to remember when times were different, but young enough to have feelings of lust and desire. Offred remembers when she had a husband, a child, a job, and money of her own. She remembers when she was allowed to read. Now, she is forced to rely on pictures.
Offred is forced to visit a gynecologist monthly, to check the status of her womb and whether or not she is fertile. At one visit, a sympathetic male doctor tells her he can “help her” if she wants. He says she’s physically ready and he is able to provide what the old fart she’s forced to fuck cannot. Her value is wholly determined by her ability to make babies. Once her ovaries stop working, her worth plummets to nothing.
Margaret Atwood’s book may seem like a fantasy, but she based this book on things that have already happened in history. She wrote her novel in Berlin back in 1984, at a time when Germany was still divided and the Soviet Union still loomed large as a nuclear threat. She based the novel on 17th century Puritan traditions, times that seem archaic and backwards to many readers. But look at what’s going on right now. That old puritanical mindset exists all over the world and it’s spreading.
Given phenomenons like the Duggar family and Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist Mormon compound hitting the airwaves, Atwood’s novel may not be as “out there” as it might seem to the average reader. The truth is, there are already populations out there that are trying to breed themselves into majority status. There is already a “holy war” going on, with people believing wholeheartedly in the black and white thinking that can lead to revolutions. And while the Soviet Union is gone now, there are other populations in the world that would love to see women relegated to mere vessels for new life and a powerful force behind a totalitarian regime.
To be honest, I had some trouble getting through The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s definitely a dark, disturbing, and ultimately depressing read. While I’m sure that the future will never be exactly as Atwood describes it in this work of fiction, I do see why The Handmaid’s Tale is now a show on Hulu. People are relating to it. Every day, there’s something else in the news about how the government is trying to control women’s reproductive abilities and police women’s behaviors. Although women have been fighting for equality for decades, there is still an extreme segment of the population that wants to “make America great again.” They want to regress to a time when life was better for certain segments of the population, forgetting that it really sucked for others.
Although I found The Handmaid’s Tale a difficult read, I am glad I persevered and finished the book. I think it’s an important novel for today and would recommend it, especially to young people who are coming of age at this time of lunacy. We have a man living in the White House who admits to “grabbing women by the pussy”. And a significant faction of our population thinks he’s an awesome guy– perfectly appropriate as the Commander in Chief and world leader. This is a man who is openly sexist and abusive toward women. He’s in a position to influence laws. And, scarier still, is the fact that right behind him are at least two more men whose ideals are even more frightening and oppressive to women.
Young people should read this book and do some heavy thinking about what they want their futures to be. Although The Handmaid’s Tale is over thirty years old, I don’t think the subject matter could possibly be more timely.
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