The Handmaid’s Tale
Genre: Science Fiction, Drama
Director: Volker Schlondorff
Stars: Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn.
While watching more of these Dystopian movies over the past weekend, I had tweeted that: “I’m realizing just how many dystopian films are centered around a woman’s ability (or inability) to bear children.” Take for instance Children of Men which is in a world where mankind has lost its ability to create children, Fortress where Christopher Lambert and his wife are jailed for breaking the government law on restricting how many children a couple can have, Zardoz where sex is a “savage evil” that’s been done away with, or the novel Brave New World where children a manufactured in a laboratory. The Dystopian tale that I feel deals with the subject of childbearing in the most appropriate and conceivable way however is the 1990 film The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel of the same name.
The story takes place in the “near future” in the Republic of Gilead, a nation that formed in the borders of what was once the United States of America. Though comparing the film to the novel is for a different time, I will use the novel’s explanation of Gilead to describe the place:
It was founded by a racist, male chauvinist, nativist, theocratic-organized military coup as an ideologically driven response to the pervasive ecological, physical and social degradation of the country.
Pretty accurate description of the male-centric theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale. The film itself does an admirable job of not using those words and instead showing us this world. Fueling this fundamentalist dystopia is a rash of infertility that is crippling the nation. Only a handful of women are able to bear children. The government rounds up these women and places them into service as Handmaids – their only social function is to bear children for the party officials and their barren wives. The rationale for this is the biblical stories of Jacob taking his wives’ handmaidens to bed with him to bear children (Gen 30:1-3) as well as Abraham doing the same with his wife’s handmaid (Gen 16:1-10).
The film follows the story of Kate (Natasha Richardson) who is captured by the military as she tries to sneak across the border into Canada. She is put into service as a handmaid and indoctrinated into the rationale of this society. In the times before the revolution women were sinners and whores who thought they could outwit the natural creation of God by using such blasphemous things like birth control and abortion. Sex is for procreation – NOT for pleasure. Bearing a child is not a woman’s decision – it is her responsibility. She is made to be of service to a man named Fred who is simply referred to as “The Commander’ (Robert Duvall) and his wife, a former televangelist, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). Kate is given the patronymic slave name of Offred which describes her social function – she is the property of Fred. She is not a concubine – she is merely a tool (actually a “two legged womb” as the book describes her). The sex between her and Fred is absolutely joyless and ritualistic. There is a scripture reading, then Offred lies on Serena’s lap with a veil over her face as The Commander silently and coldly dumps his seed in her.
The other facets of this theocratic society are all seen as Kate’s experience. It’s a caste system so we’re only completely made familiar of the Handmaiden caste with just glimpses into what life may be like for others. The “ruling elite” of Commanders of the Faith and their Wives control all the women who work in service to them as house cleaners and handmaids. Women who are not able to bear children (referred to in the novel as “unwomen”) are sent, with other criminals, to the colonies to die a slow death. We never see the colonies, only hear about it with an explanation similar to that of a death camp. Homosexuality is considered a crime against their gender and these people are sent to the colonies as well. Some of these “crimes” are so terrible that a public execution is put in order – this is called a particicution (a portmanteau of the words “participation” and “execution”). This scene is actually filmed on location in front of the Duke Chapel on the grounds of Duke University in North Carolina. A woman is executed for the crime of ‘having sex with a member of the medical staff” while a man is executed (actually torn to shreds by handmaids) for raping a pregnant woman which resulted in the death of her unborn child. The first execution serves as a means to establish the laws of this dystopia, what this theocracy considers right and wrong. This second execution, however, is something I think is common sense in any type of society – fictional or otherwise. The guy raped a pregnant woman and killed her unborn baby – I see no problem with this as assholes like that DO deserve death. We’re briefly told by another character that he was an innocent man so possibly he was a hapless victim of blind fundamentalism but we never get any details. As visually stunning as this second execution is, it rather distracts from the story and almost contradicts itself.
Handmaids that have not born a child after a specified period of time are sent to the colonies as well. Offred is nearing the end of her alloted time to provide a child for The Commander and needs to come up with some sort of solution. It’s assumed that she’s not pregnant yet because The Commander is sterile and this patriarchal society assumes that men are God’s infallible creations so only women are tested for sterility. It’s mentioned in the movie that men can be just as sterile as woman, the novel does give a rationalization that the military is made sterile by the biological weapons they’ve been using though nobody cares to acknowledge it (Sterility is a punishment from God – not the creation of man!). This is why that executed handmaiden had sex with a member of the medical staff – she was desperate to get pregnant somehow if only to save herself. Eventually Offred does nearly the same thing by entering into a secret sexual relationship with a guard (Aidan Quinn). Later, as she learns about the resistance and possible liberation from this oppressive lifestyle she’s forced to determine her own future – safe but in this terrible society or to risk her life for freedom.
Like any cinematic adaptation of a novel a lot of different elements from the source material were left out for the usual reasons of time constraints or the feasibility of shooting said sequence and simply the different medias – telling a story visually vs telling a story with prose. However it is the specific elements that were omitted that make this film show a VERY different world and carry with it a very different theme. Like a good bulk of dystopian fiction, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative work about what could be a possible future for the United States. It’s part commentary on why religion has no place in politics as well as a warning about what could happen if too much power is given to overly religious ultra-conservatives (*cough* Rick Santorum *cough*).
The film, however, does not focus as heavily on the religious aspects on society. Oh it’s there and certainly mentioned and a clear motivation for a lot of the character’s actions – but the purpose of the handmaids clearly stems from society’s needs. Instead of being solely religious in nature, the sudden pandemic of infertility as made them a need for society – something necessary for the continuation of the human race. This is actually something I can understand, and it rather bugs me that these Handmaids don’t readily accept it – that their precious “comfort zone” is more important than the very possible extinction of humanity. The sex as pictured in the film is as unsexual as possible and added to this are several scenes with The Commander getting to know Offred. He invites her into his office and it seems as if he has some ulterior motive No, he’s simply invited her in to play a game of Scrabble and enjoy some conversation – commenting on her pre-revolutionary life as a librarian. He seems to understand that desperate times have called for desperate measures; her position may seem demeaning but The Commander sympathizes with her plight and acknowledges that she still has value as a human being. Since a lot of the religious aspects of this world are pushed aside it certainly seems that this is a logical act in order to maintain the normal function of society and continuation of the human race. I see very little wrong with this. To follow the wisdom of Spock: The needs of the many (in this case the whole human race) outweighs the needs of the few (in this case Offred). The fate of humanity is on the line and how dare this selfish woman decide to be so greedy about her functioning uterus to let the rest of the human race die off just so she can feel comfortable. Granted, this is a broad generalization of the matter – but the film gives such a broad view of this world that its easier to look at any positive qualities it might have. The novel, on the other hand, is much more specific and detailed – showing that this nation of Gilead is, without a doubt, a horrible place for people to live in. While Offred’s motivation for joining the resistance seems rather selfish and petty in the film – it makes absolute sense in the novel.
There are plenty of other things I could say and in fact intended to say about The Handmaid’s Tale but I believe I have gone on long enough. I would definitely recommend to anyone to check this film out as it is one of the most intriguing bits of speculative fiction I’ve come across – bot the novel and the movie. Similar to stories like 1984 and V for Vendetta it does give one the motivation to question the practices of their own government and serves as a warning to get people to pay attention to what’s going on around them. It says “You don’t want your future to be like this, do you? Then look around – pay attention because this COULD happen to you.” I had actually never heard of either the novel or the book The Handmaid’s Tale until I started setting up this Dystopia Month and I am so glad I did.