The Handmaid's Tale

Not So Sci-fi

by Jennifer Makowsky

23 September 2009

The terrifying, 'it could happen today' message of this story is best told in the Atwood's book, rather than the film version.

Last month, Ursula K Le Guin of The Guardian reported that Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her work labeled as science fiction.

Le Guin pointed to Atwood’s recent collection of essays, Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, in which the Canadian novelist argues her books can’t be labeled science fiction due to the fact that the things that take place in her stories are probable in the present day, that science fiction is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. (“The Year of the Flood”, by Ursula K Le Guin, 29 August 2009) I’m sure many would argue that science fiction isn’t all time travel and space ships, but based on genuine fears and mistrust prevalent in the present day.

It’s understandable that Atwood would want to keep her writing from being labeled science fiction, considering it is grouped under “genre fiction”, which includes horror, young adult, and fantasy—writing genres ignored by much of the elitist literary world. Despite the label that tends to scare some authors, one only has to point to respected genre writers like Louisa May Alcott (young adult), Edgar Allen Poe (horror), Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov (science fiction) who prove that literary writing and genre writing do not need to be separated.

cover art

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

(Everyman’s Library)

Atwood, of course, is most famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel much like George Orwell’s 1984, but told from a woman’s point of view. Published in 1985, the novel won two major science fiction awards: The Arthur C. Clarke Award and The Nebula Award. 

But according to Atwood’s definition, it can be argued that the book isn’t science fiction because the things that happen in the novel are possible today even though they are probably not going to happen tomorrow. In any case, Atwood needn’t worry about being labeled a science fiction writer as her reputation as a literary author is solid. The Handmaid’s Tale was also nominated for the very highbrow Booker Prize in 1986.

The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the point of view of an unnamed woman who is caught in an emerging totalitarian society called Gilead, where women are quickly becoming infertile due to an increasingly poisonous environment (global warming, anyone?).

The women who are still fertile are being captured and trained as “handmaids”, then assigned to childless, rich couples in order to serve as their surrogates. Once the handmaid conceives and delivers a baby to the couple, she is sent off to another childless couple to repeat the whole thing over again. When the handmaid is no longer able to conceive, she is labeled an “Unwoman” and sent to work in “the colonies”, cleaning toxic waste where she will surely die.

Other women aren’t as highly regarded. Those that aren’t as healthy or attractive are forced to become “Econwives” for the less affluent, and others that are no longer able to bear children are made “Marthas” and work as maids.

cover art

The Handmaid’s Tale

US DVD: 12 Nov 2001
UK DVD: 31 Dec 1969

Because she’s still of childbearing age (she had a husband and daughter before they were taken from her), the narrator is captured and trained at a place called the Red Center, where she and the other recent captives have their rights stripped away. Together they are suppressed under the watchful eye of Aunt Lydia, a woman whose job is to brainwash the women into believing they are nothing more than baby-making machines and whores at the same time. 

When the narrator is assigned to an elite couple consisting of the “Commander” and his wife “Serena Joy”, she is christened “Offred”. (The Commander’s name is Fred, hence her new name.)  Serena Joy’s name is contradictory since she is a very unhappy woman. And what woman wouldn’t be bitter if she had to live with the woman her husband was trying to impregnate and forced to partake in the union?

Called the “ceremony”, the ritual that takes place one night each month when the Commander tries to make his wife a baby, all three people involved must participate. After praying aloud while the women are on their knees, the Commander, Offred, and Serena Joy all get in bed together and do the deed. Offred lies back against Serena Joy while the Commander goes to work on Offred. It’s the strangest and most unsexy threesome probably ever dreamed up.

One day Serena Joy tells Offred that the Commander is sterile and suggests she use Nick, their driver, as her semen donor. Serena would like nothing more than to get rid of Offred and get a baby out of the deal. When Offred says that she knows women are hanged for being caught doing such things, Serena produces a photo of Offred’s daughter, still alive and living with an adoptive family. 

The sight of her little girl, grown and smiling makes Offred feel sick. She realizes she’s been all but forgotten.

Despite the shock of seeing the photo of her daughter, time is running out for Offred and she must get pregnant soon or she will be shipped off to the colonies. This is when the book picks up speed and her relationship with Nick takes center stage.

In 1990, a film adaptation of the book was made by director, Volker Schlöndorff and featured an all-star cast. The original screenplay was written by Harold Pinter, but later abandoned and given to Schlöndorff and Atwood to tweak.

The film follows the book closely, at least for the first two thirds, but even with Atwood working on her own screenplay adaptation, the movie seems wooden compared to the book. While the lifeless nature of the film may be intentional in order to illustrate how sterile the world of Gilead is in contrast to the former world the characters lived in, the book isn’t lifeless at all.

This divergence could be because the context of the book happens in Offred’s head where thoughts of her former life and her current one are constantly intermingling. She experiences intense pain at the thought of her family taken away from her and even entertains the thought of taking her own life. None of this is addressed in the film because the story told is an external affair rather than an internal one. In fact, in the film the story strays outside Offred’s point of view and shows things that don’t even involve her. 

The late Natasha Richardson plays Offred. She’s unfortunately not convincing as a woman whose family has just been taken from her, most likely due to the reasons listed above.There’s no inner turmoil on her face, even when alone. 

Faye Dunaway seeming takes easily to the role of the older, sour glamour puss, Serena Joy. She gives looks that kill, but at the same time is more affectionate toward Offred than the Serena in the book is.

Robert Duvall is the Commander and is probably the best of the bunch acting-wise. He comes across exactly as the Commander in the book does, secretly treating Offred as his pet and dismissing her when it isn’t convenient for him.

Other decent acting comes from Elizabeth McGovern as Offred’s rebellious friend, Moira; Aidan Quinn as Nick; and a stoic Victoria Tennant as Aunt Lydia.

Despite some respectable acting and faithful adherence to the book, the movie comes up short. The end of the film is probably where the biggest disappointment lies.In Atwood’s book, the end is open to interpretation, left up to the reader to decide what Offred’s fate is.

In the movie, her destiny is given the happily-ever-after treatment Hollywood is so fond of. God forbid there should be any ambiguousness in the final scenes.

This neatly-wrapped up ending takes away from what Atwood was trying to say about our current society and what could happen if we aren’t careful. Global warming, conservative religious politics, abortion rights (or lack of them), a male-dominated world are all things Atwood wanted us to think about when reading The Handmaid’s Tale.

The film, distributed by MGM is no longer available to buy new on DVD in the US and must be purchased used. Not that anyone is missing out. Sci-fi or literary statement, it doesn’t matter; If you want to experience what Atwood was aiming for, read her imaginative and frightening book.


The Handmaid’s Tale


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