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The Handmaid’s Other Tale – revisiting the forgotten film

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In 1986, writer Margaret Atwood sold the rights of her dystopian feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale, published just a year earlier, to the Hollywood producer Daniel Wilson. With a screenplay by esteemed playwright Harold Pinter, a score by pioneering composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Oscar-winning director Volker Schlöndorff at the helm, the film was a certain hit.

Except it wasn’t. While Atwood’s modern classic has never gone out of print, the 1990 film has been largely forgotten, the few circulating DVDs sentenced to exile in your local charity shop (presumably wedged between copies of One Direction: This Is Us and Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie). Now, with the second season of the acclaimed Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale currently showing on Channel 4, it’s as good a time as any to ask: is the film owed a reassessment?

The short answer is sadly a big ‘no’. The 1990 Handmaid’s Tale is emphatically not one of those forgotten masterpieces in desperate need of rediscovery. Figuring out exactly why it flopped, however, requires delving deeper into the film’s intriguing production and critical history.

First, a quick plot synopsis that covers book, film and series alike: in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian America run by religious fundamentalists, women have no independence from men. Environmental disasters have led to mass infertility, and the few women able to conceive are enslaved as ‘handmaids’ and sent to serve powerful men by bearing their children. One such handmaiden, Offred, is determined to escape and find the daughter who was taken from her.

Despite the talent attached to the project, the novel’s obviously feminist message made it a dangerous property in 1980s Hollywood. Movie executives allegedly stated that “a film for and about women … would be lucky if it made it to video”. For years Wilson toured Pinter’s script unable to find a studio or a star for his film. In 1998 Sigourney Weaver signed on to the project, but – in a cruelly ironic twist of fate – had to drop out when she became pregnant.

Eventually, British actress Natasha Richardson (of The Parent Trap fame) accepted the part and shooting began. It soon became apparent that Pinter and Schlöndorff had very different visions of the film. Then, when the film was finally released, it slumped at the box office, grossing less than $5 million against a $13 million budget.

To be honest, the film probably deserved its fate. Richardson is wildly miscast as Offred, playing the role with a frustrating passivity (she also spends a bizarre amount of her time in Gilead smiling). The score features some uninspired work from the usually excellent Sakamoto, and Schlöndorff can’t seem to hold down the film’s tone, seemingly misreading Atwood’s cautionary horror tale as an erotic thriller with little sense of danger. 

Pinter’s screenplay is also presumably responsible for some dodgy adaptation work. The film’s two-hour runtime demanded narrative simplification, but in the finished film this comes at the cost of most of Atwood’s nuance and, somewhat predictably, the novel’s feminist message is diluted. 'Harold Pinter has something specific against voice-overs,' Natasha Richardson would bitterly recall, and she had a point. Without Offred’s internal monologue, the foundation for much of the book’s feminist critique, the film presents her character only as she outwardly exists in the totalitarian dystopia – that is, almost entirely without narrative agency.

The film also flattens Atwood’s non-linear narrative by removing any flashbacks of consequence, which, in the book, were crucial to drawing the link between contemporary Reagan-era America to the theonomic military dictatorship Gilead. Resultantly, the film’s portrayal of patriarchal oppression seems more like a sci-fi quirk than a nightmarish evolution of our own society, as it is in Atwood’s original. Pinter’s introductive text states that some time in America’s future ‘something had gone horribly wrong’; Atwood’s novel implies that it already has.

Even with the novel’s feminist message significantly watered-down, however, a glance over the film’s critical response shows that (predominantly male) critics rejected the plausibility of Atwood’s premise entirely. ‘Pretentious, self-righteous melodrama about the evils of patriarchy’ said Daniel Eagan of Film Journal International. Owen Gleibermann of Entertainment Weekly called it ‘paranoid poppycock — just like the book’; a sentiment echoed by Eric Lurio for the Greenwich Village Gazette, who called it ‘overblown paranoid crap based on same’. There’s a hint of sexist reductionism to renowned Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert’s review when he states that ‘the movie seems equally angry that women have to have children at all’.

Rita Kempley, writing a mixed review for The Washington Post, shrewdly notes that ‘Schlondorff seems as uncomfortable in this feminist nightmare as a man in a lingerie department … one can't help but wonder why a woman didn't direct this movie about women being dominated by men’. But even then she notes that the premise is ‘a touch dated’ in its feminism, and implies that in the five years between the book and film much had positively changed for women.

All of which is in stark difference to the reception to the current Hulu series. When the first season was released last year, countless headlines appeared in the vein of ‘this is the show we need right now’. It’s a tired tagline that’s seemingly applied to any piece of media with vague political overtones, but with 2017’s The Handmaid’s Tale coinciding with the inauguration of the unapologetically sexist President Trump, there’s something particularly chilling about the resonance of Atwood’s tale in our modern world.

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale season 2 continues on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm.

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