The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

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The Book

Written by Margaret Atwood in 1986, this was the first of her books to be nominated for the Booker Prize1. Although 'The Handmaid's Tale' failed to scoop that particular prize, it is probably safe to say that this is the book that finally brought Atwood the recognition her earlier work deserved.

'The Handmaid's Tale' is the story of Offred, a woman in the Republic of Gilead. At the time the novel was published certain details in the novel suggested Gilead's time to be in the immediate, in other words, about now. The State of Gilead is apparently the new form of a north-eastern American State, after an army coup has set up a totalitarian government. Like '1984' before it, 'The Handmaid's Tale' is a biting satire on the state of today's society, and a warning of what could happen if certain extremist groups gained power. In Gilead there is little crime, and punishment is severe, public and deterring. There is no pornography, no abortion, and apparently little environment. In Gilead women are dominated. They are divided into four ranks: Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, and Unwomen. The Handmaids are treasured by the state, and central to the survival of Gilead. Young, fertile women placed in the families of Commanders of the government, their job is to undergo sexual intercourse with their Commander once a month: the sole aim, to continue to the race of Gilead.

The central theme of the novel is freedom and the debate as to whether the freedom from harm is more valuable than the freedom of personal will. This idea is explored as the story follows Offred's struggle to come to terms with living in Gilead, and her desire to escape. It is no accident that the happiest people in the story appear to be the Marthas (the busy domestic staff) and the fantasy women at the commanders' night-club. By comparing brief flashbacks of Offred's former world with a detailed description of her life as a Handmaid, Atwood displays certain basic needs that belong to all of us: a need for communication, affection and occupation. These needs are highlighted most clearly in Offred's relationships with the two male characters of the novel: her Commander, and Nick his chauffeur with whom she embarks on an illicit affair. These relationships bring the final crisis of the novel, and of Offred's life, yet even at the end of the book it is not clear whether she escapes.

In detailing a conference of experts on Gilead in the year 2195 Atwood does make clear the fact that Gilead doesn't survive. At this conference the validity of 'The Handmaid's Tale' which survived recorded on tape is discussed, whilst the content is avoided. Through these Historical Notes at the end of the novel, as with Orwell's appendix on Newspeak, Atwood shows that such extreme totalitarian governments, such as Gilead, cannot survive for long.

The Movie

Where to begin? At first glimpse the extent to which the movie of 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990) wastes its source text is almost unbelievable. On reflection, it is perhaps not so hard to understand. Due to the lack of communication in Gilead, the themes Atwood raises in the novel are mostly played out in Offred's head and on occasion in the actions Offred witnesses. In order to translate the book faithfully to the screen, then, would require a large amount of voice-over, and a huge burden on the shoulders of the actors to play their parts with the minimum of dialogue. In reality, the number of movies to have used voice-over successfully are in the minority, and most will prefer to tell the audience what is going on inside the characters than to merely show such things.

It might be thought, despite these facts, that, with Harold Pinter writing the screenplay, the ideas in Offred's head might be translated onto the screen in some way. However something gets lost in the process and the film of 'The Handmaid's Tale' focuses less on the ideas of the novel, and becomes the story of Offred's life in Gilead. As such Offred's few personal relationship within the story receive greater attention than her desire to escape. Therefore Offred becomes more openly friendly with Ofwarren2 than in the book, and the relationship with Nick becomes central. The order of events is manipulated slightly to accommodate this, and events that are blurred in the novel, such as the beginnings of Offred's liaison with Nick, are made clear. With Offred assuming fully the role of the heroine she is even given the name Atwood denies her, and the movie leaves us in no doubt that she escapes Gilead.

That a story so deeply embedded in North America3 should be filmed by the German Volker Schlondorff, and scripted by a British playwright is somewhat strange, and may have lead to some of the flaws of the movie. Although it is a story to be looked at from the outside, as Offred tries to remain detached from Gilead, there is perhaps not a deep enough understanding of the tale from the moviemakers. The cast execute their parts well, notably the central group: Robert Duvall gives his standard turn as a slightly mysterious, creepy, authority figure, Faye Dunaway plays his hard wife, betrayed both by him and the system. Meanwhile Aiden Quinn and Natasha Richardson give Nick and Offred suitable auras of coolness and desperation, although Richardson's Offred is decidedly less interesting than Atwood's. Overall 'The Handmaid's Tale: the movie' does not stick in the mind with anything like the tenacity of the book and, unfortunately, is nothing out of the ordinary in movie terms.


23.08.01. Front Page

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1In later years Cat's Eye and Alias Grace have made the shortlist, while this year she finally won with The Blind Assassin.2One of Offred's fellow handmaidens.3Atwood is Canadian.

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