The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the 1990 Film Adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff

September 19th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part eight in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

The Handmaid's Tale (Movie - 1990)

If you’ve never read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1990 film adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff might seem an interesting enough movie. Set in a future in which Christian fundamentalists have overthrown the government, the film paints a terrifying picture of an American theocracy. Women, homosexuals, religious minorities, people of color, political dissidents – all suffer under the oppressive thumb of The Republic of Gilead.

Those familiar with the 1985 novel will see that much of the basic story remains the same in Schlöndorff’s on-screen adaptation. The former United States is in the midst of a Civil War; The Republic of Gilead holds much of the East Coast, while dissenting religious and secular groups wage war to the South and West. Within the Republic’s borders, a strict social structure is enforced. Men are ranked according to prestige and merit (Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians, and businessmen and professionals), while women are grouped according to social function, which is primarily determined by their reproductive health and racial makeup (Aunts, Wives and Daughters, Econowives, Handmaids, Marthas, and Unwomen). While no Gileadean citizen is truly free, it is the females who bear the brunt of Gilead’s religious tyranny.

It is in this context that we meet Kate (Offred), a Handmaid who has been assigned to Commander Fred (“Of Fred”) and his Wife, Serena Joy. The Handmaid’s Tale is Kate’s tale, told in her very own voice, through a disjointed series of flashbacks and present-day narrations. Through Kate’s eyes, we reflect upon “the days before”; we learn how the Sons of Jacob were able to destabilize and eventually topple the American government and institute their own patriarchal theocracy; and we get a glimpse of what daily life in the Republic is like.

Overall, the film retains the tone of the Atwood’s story. It’s all there: Kate’s re-education at The Red Center; the Birthing Ceremony, Prayvaganza, and Women’s Salvaging and Particicution; trips to the gynecologist; illicit visits to the Commander’s office; the night out at Jezebel’s; and, of course, the monthly rape Ceremonies. The acting is solid enough: Natasha Richardson (as Kate), Faye Dunaway (Serena Joy), and Elizabeth McGovern (Moira) are the cast’s standouts, though Aidan Quinn (Nick) and Robert Duvall (the Commander) leave something to be desired. The visuals really steal the movie; it’s incredible to see Atwood’s story take form on-screen. (My favorite prop is a livestock trailer used to transport women to and from the Red Center.) Altogether, it makes for a terrifying dystopian sci fi film…that is, if you haven’t yet been “spoiled” by the novel.

While the movie does follow the basic plot of The Handmaid’s Tale, the filmmakers change a number of small, seemingly insignificant details. Upon closer examination, many of these minor points are actually quite important, and their alteration impacts the story in unanticipated ways, both on an individual and collective level.

The most drastic change comes from the costume department. The citizens of Gilead are all required to wear uniforms which reflect their place in the social hierarchy. Men largely don military-type uniforms, while women wear dresses of various colors: brown for Aunts, blue for Wives, black for Widows, and white for Daughters; dresses striped red, blue, and green for Econowives; red habits with white headresses (“Wings”) for Handmaids; green smocks for Marthas; gray dresses for Unwomen; and revealing vintage contraband (think Playboy bunnies and cheerleaders) for Jezebels. These outfits can be seen in the film, but with modifications.

Take the Handmaid’s uniform, for example. As envisioned by Atwood, the Handmaid’s habit (a type of sack-like dress) is almost as concealing as an Islamic burqa: it covers the Handmaid from her wrists to her ankles. She also wears red gloves and stockings, so that the only pieces of flesh that are visible are her neck and face – and even those are somewhat obscured, what with the red veil and white headdress. Underneath her scarlet red habit is a white cotton underdress and bulky, oversized underwear. During the hot summers, she switches to a habit made of lighter material, but it’s no more revealing than her winter wardrobe.

In comparison, the uniform worn by Natasha Richardson is relatively immodest: the hem of the habit ends mid-shin, revealing precious inches of the Handmaid’s legs to hungry, sex-starved men, while the thin material gives an outline of the womanly shape beneath. Scandalous!

Worse still, there are no Wings atop Richardson’s head! The Handmaid’s headdress conceals her face from the prying eyes of the world – and the world from her prying eyes (much like a horse’s blinders). The Wings keep Handmaids ignorant, innocent, submissive. They’re an essential part of the uniform, and yet they are completely absent in the movie. I understand why; blinders must make filming an actor’s facial expressions quite a difficult task, natch. Still, that’s the point of the Wings – they’re a tool of subjugation, keeping the wearer unaware of her very surroundings.

Even the visual difference between a Handmaid-with-Wings and a Handmaid-without-Wings is striking:



The Handmaid’s isn’t the only outfit that’s been fiddled with. Serena Joy, too, can be seen wearing a dress that’s much more revealing than Gilead’s strict, Puritanical, anti-sex dress code would ever allow. While the Wives don’t seem to have a singular uniform – any modest blue dress will do – it’s a given that the dress shouldn’t show too much skin. Yet, at one point, you can actually catch a glimpse of Faye Dunaway’s cleavage – as if!

Casual filmgoers might not place much importance on these changes – but they are significant. The Republic of Gilead is an oppressive, misogynistic, uber-conservative society. Every aspect of the culture feeds into this Biblically-based repression, right down the the mandated uniforms. Given the many functions of clothing – separating citizens into rank and social function, concealing the female form, further subjugating the Handmaids in particular – you might even say that the clothing is an uncredited star of The Handmaid’s Tale. Or rather, it should be; in altering the clothing, the filmmakers have undermined its importance. Consequently, they have removed an especially oppressive aspect of Gilead’s regime. (See Misogyny & the Oppression of Women for a discussion of how the Handmaid’s habit alienates Kate from her physical body.)

These “minor” changes only begin with the costumes. Like the clothing, many of these details implicitly or explicitly speak to the treatment of women, and in so changing these minutiae, the filmmakers detract from the feeling of stifling oppression faced by Gilead’s female population.

* Women move about (relatively) freely, belying the government’s actual constraints on women described so starkly in the novel.

* Commander Fred’s Bible isn’t secured under lock and key, but is kept out on a podium, where any uppity woman might find it.

* In the film, Commander Fred is Kate’s first placement, not her third, thereby reducing the pressure on her to succeed in bearing a child.

* When Kate visits the doctor (gynecologist), the sheet separating Kate’s face from her torso is gone, thereby allowing the doctor to (gasp!) look her in the eyes (and otherwise interact with her on a personal level) as he pokes and prods her naked body.

* During the initial Ceremony/rape scene, it is Offred who is crying, while Serena remains stone-faced and silent. In Atwood’s version, the roles are reversed; consequently, the fundamentalist Serena is shown regretting at least one aspect of the society she fought for, while Kate once again appears detached from her body.

* The Birthing Ceremony is short one Birth Chair and, even more glaringly, Ofwarren is allowed to handle the baby afterwards. This is in contrast to the novel, where the Wife is the center of attention, to the point where her fellow party-goers act as though it is she, and not her Handmaid, who gave birth to the baby. (This sequence is quite the spectacle.)

The initial sitting room scene between Kate and Nick also undergoes a seemingly small change that in actuality alters the entire dynamic of the sequence – and their relationship throughout the film. In this scene, Kate sneaks out of her room late one night and steals away to Serena Joy’s sitting room. She wants to explore her surroundings, taste a scrap of freedom, maybe even steal a small keepsake, something that won’t be missed. Nick, meanwhile, has been sent by the Commander to find Kate and arrange for her to meet the Commander the following night in his office. The two interlopers, having stumbled upon one another in the moonlight, share a brief but hungry kiss.

Where the novel and film differ is in the following exchange. While Nick explains the Commander’s wishes to Kate, they remain in a furtive embrace. In Atwood’s imagination, Nick strokes Kate’s arm as he talks; Schlöndorff has Nick groping Kate’s breast. Schlöndorff’s version throws off the power balance, making Nick seem more like a creepy pervert, taking advantage of his Commander’s Handmaid. Correspondingly, Kate as played by Richardson seems less like a willing participant in the exchange and more like a victim of sexual assault, so submissive and subjugated that she’s been conditioned to accept the manhandling of strangers. (Which may very well be the case, but it’s not indicative of the kiss, nor of their subsequent relationship.)

In reality, this is a mutually desired interaction (and, later, a mutually desired relationship). Kate and Nick both suffer under Gilead (though Kate more so than Nick), and their relationship is a brief respite from the stifling oppression of their daily existence. The affair also offers them a small sense of control in a world in which they have none. They are dissidents, deviants, criminals, brought together by lust and loneliness. Unlike most of Gilead’s arranged and prescribed human relationships, theirs is genuine – a sentiment that Schlöndorff fails to convey.

These are but a few of the many changes foisted upon Atwood’s novel during its metamorphosis to screenplay. Others are equally puzzling but don’t fundamentally alter the tenor of the story. Moira, for instance, is introduced as Kate’s newfound friend from The Red Center rather than her best friend from college. Later, Kate is shown aiding Moira in her escape from The Red Center, even though she was as surprised as everyone else when Moira turned up missing. During Kate’s assignment to Commander Fred’s household, he leaves town, and so Serena sends Kate back to The Red Center during his absence (so poor Serena won’t have to suffer the Handmaid for naught). This struck me as an especially odd invention, since it was also somewhat unnecessary.

Even the casting is a little puzzling. I found it odd, for instance, that a brunette Faye Dunaway was cast as the blond Serena Joy, and a blond Natasha Richardson plays a brunette Kate. The significance of the characters’ hair color isn’t in stereotypes about blonds and brunettes, but it does go to Serena Joy’s character (and hypocrisy therein): in noting Serena’s hair color, Kate comments that, in “the days before”, she naturally assumed that Serena’s blondness came from a bottle. Because, well, that’s the type of Christian Serena Joy was/is: do as I say, not as I do. (“Women who work outside the home are selfish, except for me; I’m making a sacrifice for the greater good. Women should not be vain and overly concerned with their looks, but hey, I’m on teevee!”) Seriously, could they not have dyed the actors’ hair?

The most substantial change comes at the film’s end. The novel is presented as a series of disjointed flashbacks and seemingly present-day narration; we later learn that it’s all a series of recollections. The Handmaid’s tales are just that, a series of tales, with no apparent beginning (just the vague “the days before”) and no real end, since we don’t know what became of Kate (or Gilead, even, just that it eventually fell). In contrast, the film is told as a story, with a discrete beginning and end. And what an end: before her escape, Kate kills the Commander, and then is whisked away to the Western frontier by the May Day group. At film’s end, we see a very pregnant Kate hiding out in a camper in the mountains, riding out the Civil War. As far as Hollywood endings go, it’s not completely wrapped up, but when you compare it to Atwood’s grim conclusion, the movie ending looks downright rosy.

Cumulatively, the “minor” changes represent a significant deviation from Atwood’s story – and the sanitized Hollywood ending is an abomination. Consequently, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dark film, but nowhere near as terrifying, oppressive and believable as the novel. If it had been crafted from an original script, I’d probably quite enjoy it – four stars, maybe? But knowing what it could have been, I’m somewhat disappointed in the on-screen outcome.

Which leaves me hoping that Joss Whedon will soon shoot a remake. (Hey, it’s been nearly two decades!)


Love him.


The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Table of Contents

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Intro & Plot Summary

2. Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

4. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

5. A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

6. Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

7. Dear Dystopian Deniers

8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)


(An edited version of this review was cross-posted on Amazon.)

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4 Responses to “The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the 1990 Film Adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff”

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the BBC Radio Dramatization (2000) » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] 8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990) […]

  2. Book Review: Fever, Lauren DeStefano (2013) » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] to run away together – clinging together in the stormy sea of their oppression, much like Offred and Nick in The Handmaid’s Tale – the relationship never really advances in Fever. On the plus side, […]

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    […] Garbato, Kelly. “On the Film adaptation(s) Volker Schlöndorff.“ […]

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