Retrospective: The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

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Apr 28, 2017, 9:41 AM EDT (Updated)

On April 26, the Elizabeth Moss-starring adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, will debut its first three episodes on Hulu.

This isn't the first time that The Handmaid's Tale has been adapted, though. Author and playwright Harold Pinter was the original scriptwriter for a Handmaid film that was released in 1990 starring Aidan Quinn, Faye Dunaway, Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall.

So before the new Hulu version of The Handmaid's Tale drops, I thought it was worth taking a look back at the 1990 adaptation to see what about it works and what doesn't.

If you want to know whether it's worth watching: Yes, you should watch it. It's pretty good. But if you have watched it already or you want a little more context before you decide, here's a more in-depth retrospective.


There's some relevant context worth knowing about this adaptation before/while/after watching it. First of all, there wasn't a lot of distance between when the book was released and the film was made. Atwood's novel came out in 1985 and production for the adaptation began in 1989. Four years, in the grand scheme of things, is not a long time; so while we have now had over three decades to think about Atwood's message, the 1990 adaptation has no such hindsight. It's very much a film in the moment. That's not a bad thing, but it does impact the way the story is told.

While there were many totalitarian regimes Atwood pulled from for influences on The Handmaid's Tale, obviously one of the biggest things impacting her narrative was the election of Ronald Reagan. The huge pushback towards puritanically religious values Reagan's enormous electoral victory ushered in had many minority groups, including women, fearing for their future body autonomy. Like the 1950s prior, there was a feeling that women would be not-so-gently nudged back toward the kitchens. Abortions? Heck, no, sister. You better get used to being barefoot and pregnant, just like God says in the Bible.

By 1990, those anxieties had not vanished much. Sure, Reagan was out, but he was replaced as president by George H.W. Bush who had been Reagan's VP. And the '80s had indeed pushed America back towards its version of Christian values, demonizing pre-marital sex as well as the use of non-prescription drugs. So The Handmaid's Tale film adaptation is still right in the middle of the same anxiety that caused Atwood to pen the novel in the first place.

Meanwhile, the film's pre-production had problems of its own. Harold Pinter was originally working with director Karel Reisz on the project. That, however, did not last, and when new director Volker Schlondorff came in, troubles arose. Pinter brought this up with his biographer, Michael Billingon, saying:

"The whole thing fell between several shoots. I worked with Karel Reisz on it for about a year. There are big public scenes in the story and Karel wanted to do them with thousands of people. The film company wouldn't sanction that so he withdrew. At which point, Volker Schlondorff came into it as director. He wanted to work with me on the script but I said I was absolutely exhausted. I more or less said, 'Do what you like. There's the script. Why not go back to the original author if you want to fiddle about?' He did go to the original author. And then the actors came into it. I left my name on the film because there was enough there to warrant it -- just about. But it's not mine."

And, in fact, Pinter was not the only one to have issues with the film and indeed the struggle with adapting Atwood's work. After the death of lead actress Natasha Richardson, Jamie Portman released Richardson's feelings on the film:

"Richardson recognized early on the difficulties in making a film out of a book which was 'so much a one-woman interior monologue' and with the challenge of playing a woman unable to convey her feelings to the world about her, but who must make them evident to the audience watching the movie. She thought the passages of voice-over narration in the original screenplay would solve the problem, but then Pinter changed his mind and Richardson felt she had been cast adrift. 'Harold Pinter has something specific against voice-overs,' she said angrily 19 years ago. 'Speaking as a member of an audience, I've seen voice-over and narration work very well in films a number of times, and I think it would have been helpful had it been there for The Handmaid's Tale. After all it's HER story.'"

If that all sounds dire, remember that sometimes despite the frustrations of the talent involve, a work of art can still have merit regardless of its commercial success.


Honestly? Pretty good. With under two hours of screen time, the 1990 The Handmaid's Tale does a solid job of choosing what to scrap, what to hint at (rather than show entirely) and even what to change. Well, that third part is debatable. But hang tight -- we'll get there.

As Pinter pointed out, there is a real lack of scope to the film adaptation. Without the budget to merit seeing the larger scale of a former United States turned theocracy, it's sometimes difficult to feel the full weight of the oppression in the Republic of Gilead.

I wish I could say that, instead, Schlondorff made this adaptation into a disturbingly claustrophobic affair. He does that sometimes, but mostly the film just does what it can with its limited budget to suggest the larger world.

One of the ways I think the film tries to accomplish this is by starting with Offred (who is called 'Kate' at the beginning of the film) trying to escape to Canada with her daughter and husband. In the novel, there is some mention of Offred's husband and his fate of being sent back to his first wife while their daughter is given to a loyalist family. In the film, we begin with Offred's family and witness her husband being brutally murdered at the border.

This change is, I think, in effort to show the hopelessness and cruelty endemic to Gilead. And, likewise, when Offred is being separated from most of the other women to become a Handmaid, we also get brief glimpses of women of color being carted away in trucks labeled "livestock." A few mentions of the nuclear wasteland of the "colonies" is what the audience is provided to understand the scope of the situation.

Obviously, the other major change is that we spend a great deal of time with Offred while she is still Kate. In the novel, we begin with her on her third post as a Handmaid. In the 1990 film, we are meant to assume this is her first foray into being a Handmaid.

This more linear style of storytelling, I think, ultimately works for film given the limited time available to get the major story beats across. And visually we get some harrowing sequences of just how little it takes to turn an oppressed group against itself. Women shaming each other for not obeying strict Biblical law is far more damning than the men, who take a back seat for most of the film.

Certainly, however, attention must be paid to Robert Duvall's performance as the Commander. Each smile he gives to Offred is followed by implied or outright sexual violence. Hypocrisy with a grin is what Duvall gives us, and it is truly one of his most villainous portrayals ever.

The definitive emotional core in the 1990 adaptation, though, absolutely belongs to the scenes between Richardson's Offred and Elizabeth McGovern's fellow handmaid-in-training Moira. In a dehumanizing new world order, their performances remind us how horrible Gilead is by constantly humanizing each other through empathy. Every other scene's lack of empathy wounds the audience all the more because we can see how the world ought to be through Offred and Moira.

There are a few things that bug me. Offred's shopping partner, Ofglen, is underutilized, especially since she is supposedly an important member in the Mayday resistance movement. Ofglen plays a key role in one of the film's biggest departures of the book before disappearing.

Which brings us to Offred and the Commander. In the book, we get the hint that the Commander dies at some point through the novel's epilogue. In the film, Offred kills him with a knife given to her by Ofglen. That is a HUGE change, primarily because it gives Offred a lot more agency than she has in the original story. I think, given the time constraints, it's understandable that the movie wanted to remove some subtlety and give us a defined ending for Offred, but I'm not sure it works as well as the original intention.

Not only does Offred kill the Commander, but we also see her successfully escape with the help of the Commander's driver, Nick. In the book, we get a sense she probably survived, but it's not said explicitly. Nick, too, is a very different character in the movie than the book. Offred is immediately sexually taken with Nick (and sure, he's Aidan Quinn and that guy is hot so fine, okay), but in the book she only grows to be fond of Nick with time.

The changes are, I think, all understandable, and ultimately serve the film more or less.

1990 vs. 2017

So where does that leave us with the new Hulu series? Is it unnecessary? Should you just read the book and watch the 1990 movie and be done?

Absolutely not. I think what's great is that the movie and the forthcoming TV series come at the original work from the exact opposite place. While the 1990 film adaptation had to boil the story down to the essentials and make changes that would be more pleasing to a movie-going audience, the TV series can expand on the world of Gilead and give us more scope than even the original novel could.

The 1990 version of The Handmaid's Tale is worth watching for the performances alone. And I think, like the 1990 version, the 2017 version will be worth watching because it's hitting at a time where many women and minorities are feeling that exact same anxieties that brought the original novel to life in 1985.

Have you seen the 1990 The Handmaid's Tale? What did you think of it? And what are you hoping for from the 2017 Hulu series?