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Looking back on 1990's The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is unquestionably among the best-known works of dystopian science fiction and has indeed superseded many equally or arguably more important works in the public consciousness by becoming the subject of more than one adaptation. The book has received an unbelievable amount of discussion since its initial release, making it one of those works whose reputation almost invariably precedes it.
Five years after the novel's release, it inspired the oft-forgotten 1990 film adaptation starring Natasha Richardson and Aiden Quinn.
Content warning: The original text is a commentary on sexual violence against women, and the subject is under discussion in this review.
In all adaptations, the story always posits that most people with uteruses have become infertile, and so the ones who are not are subject to torture and slavery in their new role as "handmaids." At the beginning of the 1990 film, a woman named Kate watches as her husband and child are killed at the border as they attempt to flee a government that has become unstable and hostile. She is sent to a brainwashing camp and assigned to live with a home where she is kept safe but is subject to regularly-scheduled, state-sanctioned rape. Offred watches people around her fall to the state in various complex ways, but she herself lives in a very private world, disconnected from much of the violence on the streets. Yet this violence seeps into the private lives of all who live in Gilead.
There is no question that the current TV series has the resources to create a slicker production than the film, and its status as a serial rather than a 90-minute feature has done nothing but help to flesh out parts of the story that desperately needed more context. Yet back in 1990, even fully understanding what kind of movie-going audience would exist for such an inherently feminist concept would have likely been a struggle for an overwhelmingly male-run studio and creative team. In fact, the poster for the film displays a sexually alluring Richardson sensuously holding a sheet up over her naked body, which very much sends a bad message right out the gate for a story that is implicitly about rape. As such, the movie doesn't always have a clear message, nor does it always successfully communicate how genuinely horrific Offred's position is. However, it does hit a lot of the major themes of the novel. Traumatic moments from the original story, such as the protester who is ripped to shreds by a mob of red-clad handmaids, are completely unforgettable.
The budget was a major issue for the film, so it comes across more small-scale than the book or the more recent series. We don't see much expression of what is happening to the world at large as it succumbs to the oppressive regime, which is something that the show specifically attempts to give context for. The movie underwent several changes in its creative direction that cost it in the end. It was also generally panned by (male) critics and even referred to as "paranoid poppycock" in Entertainment Weekly, a comment which wasn't great in its moment and has aged incredibly badly.
In spite of that, Natasha Richardson still gives us an intriguing take on the central character. Her subdued, nonverbal approach to communicating Offred's constant anxiety works very well. Expressions speak volumes as she quietly wanders through the motions of her new life. Though the scope of the narrative does not fully come across in the film, the heartbreaking solitude she feels is tangible.
In the end, what's emphasized most in this take on Atwood's book is a quiet, enclosed sense of desperation. One of the most important warnings of the original novel is that even the most rebellious among us can fall into a sense of comfort with oppression and injustice. In today's world, this warning is more crucial than ever. Things that would have been unimaginable to us even five years ago are now accepted as everyday life. We become complicit in complicated ways that are difficult to fully understand and even more difficult to break free of. Despite an overwhelming influx of media, our perspectives can be as limited as Offred's as misinformation infiltrates the news stream. It is true that great change comes from mass rebellion, but The Handmaid's Tale, at its heart, has always been about the painful feelings of isolation that so often breed inaction.
The television version of The Handmaid's Tale has gone in a lot of different directions that were never imagined in the original novel nor the 1990 adaptation. Exploring how Gilead would impact cis queer people and Black women have made for a more complete story, while commentary on how it might affect trans and nonbinary people remains mostly unacknowledged. In some ways, the original narrative prohibits that commentary in the way that many works of dystopian science fiction have. This is not a narrative that can be changed so much that it fully addresses all the many facets of oppression, and the film does perhaps the very least of any of the interpretations of the tale. The story itself was very specifically intended to focus on the story of one relatively privileged white woman who grew uncomfortably close with her violent oppressors while unwillingly participating in a system that held all women down. Questions of free will are prominent in the narrative, but Offred was always intended to be a character with a limited perspective. As the mythos has expanded, the story has become more interesting, but it remains, ultimately, her story.