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.
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