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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

The Handmaid's Tale is a very bad film, which looks as though it's been directed by some well-meaning chimpanzees who have blagged their way into film school. Its profoundly cheap vision of the future involves dressing paramilitary police in black and giving them (black) visors, while making the stars look like they're performing in an afternoon soap-opera, which is about as unworldly as you can get. Perhaps the plot - environmental disaster; a plague of infertility; civil discontent; rightwing dictatorship; blacks, homos and pinkos deported; nubile women concubined - is the kind of thing that works in a novel. But the film makes it seem so silly that I can't imagine it turning out much better in the book (which I haven't read).

Miranda Richardson is one of the sex slaves, Robert Duvall one of the men-in-black, Faye Dunaway his infertile wife, Aidan Quinn their trusted chauffeur and man-at-arms. The second tries to impregnate the first so that the third can adopt the resulting baby. The third gets jealous of the first, who gets frisky with the second, and then starts an affair with the fourth. Your classic love quadrangle, all colour-coded so it's easy to follow (Dunaway always wears blue, Richardson red).

Duvall thinks he can win Richardson over with illegal copies of Cosmo and games of scrabble. But she still hates his guts, and she keeps winning! Why? Because before the sex-slave stuff she was a librarian! Does this advance the plot in any way? What plot? Oh yes, the good guys against the bad guys, which how it turns out in the end, with a voice-over lifted from The Terminator, and Richardson pregnant and safe in a caravan in the wild, rebel-held mountains. How did the rebels get a caravan up a mountain? One among many many questions.


  1. The book is MUCH better, haunting and stark. The film, alas, does not live up to the book. But it's still a film that has stuck in my memory, for whatever reason. Probably because I want it to be better than it is.

  2. Thanks Jennifer. Other people have told me that the book is excellent too. I've always avoided Margaret Atwood, but perhaps I should remedy this in 2012, starting with this novel.

    Some of the film's imagery has also stayed with me far longer than poor-quality moviemaking usually does. I get the feeling that there's a good film here really struggling, and failing miserably, to get out (most notably in the actors' performances).

  3. The book confuses Christianity with Islam and that is difficult to overlook. If it were not a "feminist world view" but was written by a normal Sci-author it would have never been published. Awful book worse film

  4. Fai Mao, I suspect that you're letting your own prejudices impose a jaundiced interpretation on the novel. The book has nothing at all to do with Islam. Atwood is interested in looking at how aspects of the Christian tradition can be used as vehicles for subjugation. And contrary to your counter-factual speculations on why it was published, the book has been embraced far more enthusiastically by the sci-fi community than the author would like. Though it won the Arthur C. Clarke award, Atwood is keen to deny that it's a work of science-fiction, preferring the term 'speculative fiction'.