The Handmaid's Tale (1990)
September 4, 2017 4:35 AM - Subscribe

In a dystopicly polluted rightwing religious tyranny, a young woman is put in sexual slavery on account of her now rare fertility.

This movie was the first adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopia, released more than 25 years before the acclaimed TV series. The story of the movie is interesting by itself: producer Daniel Wilson, who had bought the rights in 1986 (and who is also credited as a producer for the current series) found that movie executives were not very eager to back a movie that was, in their own terms, "for and about women", even though the book was successful. The film was eventually made with a stellar cast (Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, Robert Duvall as the Commander, the late Natasha Richardson as Offred/Kate), a script by Harold Pinter and directed by prominent German director Volker Schlöndorff. Released in 1990, the movie was critically panned, crashed at the box office and has since been forgotten: the Atlantic article linked above includes a good summary of the movie's failures and successes.

Unlike many adaptations, the movie and the series are largely faithful to the book, with nothing major being changed (except the ending, but the book metafictional epilogue could hardly be replicated on screen). They feature almost identical scenes, so it's pretty amusing to compare Richardson/Dunaway/Duvall act the same dialogues as Moss/Strahovski/Fiennes. Still, there are stark differences in the way the original material was handled. The series relies heavily on visual tropes used in many dystopias: 2017 Gilead is a dark, sinister and threatening world. The visuals are oppressively bleak, forcefully color-graded in greens and grays with dashes of muted reds and blues. This works very well indeed from a world-building perspective, creating a sense of dread so pervasive that watching several episodes in a row is difficult.

The movie chooses a different path. 1990 Gilead is also oppressive and violent, with blood, torture and executions. Like in the book, it's a racist society and we see black people being deported (in the series the racial angle is more or less ignored). However, the patriarchal and misogynistic values of Gilead are a little toned down visually: particularly, the costumes are less radical than in the book/series. The handmaids do not wear white wings, possibly to make sure that their faces are always visible, but it certainly takes away the symbolic aspect of the wings as an instrument of submission. So much for puritanism indeed: Richardson wears make up and her magnificent curls are on display most of the time, including on the film poster. I guess than in 1990 actresses had to be pretty and sexy even in a movie featuring hardcore puritanism. Natasha Richardson plays Offred/Kate as rather subdued and passive character, with no internal monologue to give her a voice (Pinter was against it), so she comes off a little bland, a far cry from Elisabeth Moss' repressed but internally simmering Offred/June. Another difference between the movie and the show - perhaps the most interesting one - is that the movie's colours are vibrant: this tyrannical world is shown in bright reds, blues and greens. Drabness is kept minimal. This was quite surprising after seeing the show: I didn't expect that the Wives' dress colour could be such a vivid blue, and the Handmaids' gowns to be a such vidid red, but it actually works. The sun rises as usual, even in dictatures. The movie is far from perfect, and the series is indeed much better, but this stylistic choice underlines the normality in oppression while the series relies on common (but very efficient) visual tropes.

posted by elgilito (2 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I had seen this movie as a companion to reading the book in college. And I'm glad you noted the color pallet as well. At the time I thought of it as just kinda cheesy early 90's shiny-ness but there is something fucking normalizing about it that is actually very unnerving.

Like if/when a dystopian hellscape befalls us; the sun will still be shining, the colors will still be bright, the green grass of spring will still be vibrant and cheery. There is something more upsetting about that.

Because this stuff does happen all over the world, and the sky isn't always grey and ready to rain in places were women have been stripped of their humanity. In fact rich kids go on spring break trips to some of those places because the weather is so nice.
posted by French Fry at 7:46 AM on September 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

I saw this in the theater, in high school. I remember it as not being great but surprisingly not-terrible, and I'm glad the Atlantic article finds it to be better than the reviews.
posted by fleacircus at 5:21 AM on September 7, 2017

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