Film & Television

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ — Cautionary Tale or Future Imperfect?

On January 21st of this year, nearly half a million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington. Another quarter of a million marched in New York City (my hometown). I was unable to attend either due to a previously scheduled visit to New Orleans. But, I was able to watch the local march in that city — and it was colorful to say the least. No one appreciates a parade more than New Orleanians.

There were more than 500 sister marches throughout the United States and in 80 other countries on that day. News images were simultaneously disturbing, hopeful, and terribly clever. In fact, many of the smarter signs women carried have been collected and archived by schools and museums. Two of my favorites, held by older protesters, read, “My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s,” and “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.”

Another humorous, if chilling, sign read, “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.”

Canadian author Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984 (it was published in 1985) as a response to trends she was observing in the United States. She believed we were experiencing a backlash in the progressive policies that had been fought for in the 1960s and 70s, particularly what she described as “casually held attitudes about women.” She was disturbed by the growth of the “Moral Majority,” and it’s no accident that the dystopian society depicted in her novel is ruled by radicalized fundamental Christians.

Atwood describes The Handmaid’s Tale as ‘speculative fiction.’ “I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction,” she has told interviewers. “For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already in hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.” In the novel, radiation, pollution, and veneral disease have left many of the inhabitants of “Gilead,” (formerly the United States) sterile. The government is now a theocracy; those who challenge the new order (professors, scientists) or who don’t adhere to the rules (homosexuals, people of other religions) are eliminated; and women with healthy ovaries are conscripted as “handmaids” to service the “Commanders” and their barren wives, according to Genesis 30:2-30:5:

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, [Am] I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.

And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.

The Handmaid’s Tale was widely acclaimed and is considered a contemporary cornerstone of feminist literature. At the same time, it has the dubious honor of being one of the most consistently banned books for the past three decades. In addition to its innately sexual content, detractors claim that it denounces religion. Still, it has never been out of print.

The novel is the first-person account of Offred (in Gilead, handmaids have no names except monikers of possession; the narrator is literally “Of Fred” because she serves the reproductive needs of Fred). Turning what is essentially memory and inner monologue into a compelling movie proved difficult for director Volker Schlöndorff and playwright Harold Pinter in 1990. That film, which starred the late Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, and Elizabeth McGovern was a great disappointment to the book’s fans, not to mention critics who called it “pretentious and self-righteous,” when they weren’t being  a bit more blunt: “Overblown paranoid crap.” The film recouped a mere $5 million of its $13 million budget.

Start the conversation