In a not too distant future, in the Republic of Gilead (a part of the former USA), people have largely become sterile by nuclear catastrophes and diseases. New life must be “bred” by all means, and so women are pressed into rigid roles in a totalitarian, fundamentalist system and divided into classes. Fertile women are transformed into “maids” of the leaders of society. They are supposed to provide the “commanders” with their bodies, and give birth to their children instead of their wives. Kate (Natasha Richardson), who was enslaved after a failed escape attempt, comes into the house of commander Fred (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway ). While she has to live up to her role as a maid, she desperately tries to get back to her life – at all risks …
The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, is the sixth book of Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Critics put the dystopian tale in a line with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. But Atwood explicitly refers to historical and contemporary events: “I based the book very, very strictly on history and on present-day happenings.” The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a bestseller after its appearance. However, not all reactions to the book are positive as
Claire Fellon of Huffington Post compiles. Volker Schlöndorff recalls the encounters with Atwood, in which she told him that she had the idea for this novel for a long time. A guest professorship at an American university in particular gave her inspiration, because “(…) there, the rule of Patriarchy is worst. (…) And it’s the most misogynist place – also strongly underpinned by religion.” Atwood admits, it took her “three years to write the book, because I found it too paranoid.” She finally started writing while being in Berlin, a city divided by a giant wall.
Producer Daniel Wilson is drawn to the novel by his wife Zoey, and is immediately inspired by it. In 1986, he contacts Atwood and acquires the filmmaking rights with the idea of committing the famous English playwright Harold Pinter for the screenplay – which Atwood very much liked. “I didn’t want to do the script, and one of the reasons we sold the rights to Danny was because it was his idea to get Harold Pinter for the screenplay.” (s. “Production Notes”, p. 1). As director, a veteran of British Free Cinema, Karl Reisz, is casted. Reisz and Pinter worked successfully on the film adaptation of THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WIFE (GB 1980) after John Fowles’ novel of the same name. Nevertheless, Hollywood Studios reject the project because “a film for and about women … would be lucky if it made it to video.” In 1988, Sigourney Weaver joined the project and brings in Volker Schlöndorff as a director, after Karel Reisz was no longer available. Schlöndorff and the production companies were not satisfied with Pinter’s “(…)extreme shortening of the story, which left (…) scarcely enough material for a feature film.” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 398). Pinter is not interested in any further work on the screenplay, which is why Schlöndorff continues to to the writing.
When Sigourney Weaver becomes pregnant, she drops out of the project. Schlöndorff hopes to replace her with Greta Scacchi to play the role of Kate/Offred. “But the distribution and the production companies, that are all-powerful in America, (…) insisted on Natasha Richardson, the daughter of Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, who is also a brilliant actress.” Schlöndorff brings Robert Duvall as the “commander” into the project. His wife Serena Joy is played by Faye Dunaway, who knows Duvall from Lee Strasbergs’s Actors Studio.
Shot over 11 weeks in and around Durham, North Carolina, with a (for a Hollywood movie) relatively small budget: “It is a low-budget movie. (…) Faye Dunaway, all-star she is, was dressed out of Sears catalogue, $49.50. Locations used are i.a. the colonial house of Lars und Mary Hunsvald (the Commander’s house), the American Tobacco Company warehouse, St. Mary’s College in Raleigh, two high schools and the campus of Duke university. On the latter, the “hanging scenes” are being shot over several days – which creates some controversy on the part of the university.
Schlöndorff emphasizes the importance of the American artist Jennifer Bartlett for this film, who, for trade union reasons, does not receive a credit, whose artistic collaboration is no less important: “She was my most important collaborator besides Igor Luther, the cinematographer, in the creating of this world of Gilead.” With both Bartlett and Luther has Schlöndorff worked before: with Bartlett at theater and opera productions, with Luther on THE TIN DRUM and DIE FÄLSCHUNG (Circle of Deceit). The costumes are designed by Colleen Atwood (unrelated to Margaret), who has been awarded several Academy awards since then. Schlöndorff advises her to regard the costumes as “uniforms ordered from a catalogue issued by the government”.
At the 40th Berlinale in 1990, Schlöndorff’s film gets negative reactions by the audience: “At the premiere in Zoo Palast, we got totally booed. There were inner animosities, maybe I was too successful too fast, and had to be put down. But then, we went beyond Checkpoint Charlie with the film and showed it in the International [= movie theatre in East Berlin]. That was the first time when that was possible, the borders still existed. Margaret Atwood came up with the story in Berlin, under the impression of the Wall. People got it there… And suddenly, we were celebrated.” (Schlöndorff in an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost). Overall, the film receives mixed reactions. Literary critic Hellmuth Karasek praises the film and calls it a “biting satire of the present”. The Münchner Merkur, on the other hand, titles: “male brainchild”, the Neue Presse (Hannover) calls the film “A stupid men’s fantasy”, the Süddeutsche Zeitung draws the conclusion: “A perplexed work”. Schlöndorff himself surmises: “THE HANDMAID’S TALE came too early. When a ‘reborn Christ’ moved into the White House, the film would have fitted better.” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 406).
Over the years there were various adaptations of Atwood’s novel in the most diverse arts, for example as a ballet, a theatre play and an opera. In 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale seems to hit the zeitgeist: From April on, the streaming service hulu broadcasts its own adaptation as a TV show. It becomes an instant hit with US audiences and critics. At the Primetime Emmy Awards in September the show wins major categories: “Outstanding Drama Series”, “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series” (Elisabeth Moss as “Offred”), “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series” (Ann Dowd as “Aunt Lydia”).
In the middle of the year, The Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade chooses Margaret Atwood to be the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize, traditionally awarded at the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt am Main on the last day of the Frankfurt Book Fair. “In her wide range of novels, essays and volumes of poetry, Canadian author Margaret Atwood has demonstrated a keen political intuition and a deeply perceptive ability to detect dangerous and underlying developments and tendencies. As one of the most important storytellers of our era, Atwood fearlessly probes shifting patterns of thought and behavior in both her utopian and dystopian works. By precisely observing the contradictions of human nature, she shows how easily our alleged norms can deviate towards the inhumane. Humanity, justice and tolerance are the unvarying characteristics of Atwood’s work. With an alert eye and a profound knowledge of humankind, she observes the world around her and articulates her verdicts and concerns for our fate in an equally eloquent and vivid literary manner. Through her, we experience who we are, where we stand and what responsibilities we carry with regard to ourselves and our peaceful coexistence with others.” (Official Statement of The Board of Trustees)
Also in 2017, Atwood gets awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critics Circle.
Why is it that the novel, the film adaptation and the TV show receive so very mixed reactions? Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic wonders in 2015: “Is the book still too radical for film?”. Natalie Zutter writes for the online-portal Tor.com about The Handmaid’s Tale on a regular basis. She sharply critizises Schlöndorff’s film in her essay: How the 1990 Handmaid’s Tale Film Became an Erotic Thriller