The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the BBC Radio Dramatization (2000)

October 4th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part nine 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 Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

The Handmaid's Tale (BBC Radio 4, 2000, 2)

The dramatization of The Handmaid’s Tale produced and aired by BBC Radio 4 in 2000 is more than a direct reading of the novel. Rather, it’s a full-cast performance, complete with sound effects, that puts the film version to shame.

In direct contrast to Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film effort, the producers of the 2000 BBC 4 radio dramatization of The Handmaid’s Tale succeed in creating a moving reenactment of the novel – without sacrificing any of Margaret Atwood’s vision. Granted, the BBC audio recording is a bit lengthier than the film; it spans three CDs, totaling no more than 4.5 hours (the film clocks in at 109 minutes), allowing extra time for Kate’s narration to unfold. Still, even the producers of the BBC dramatization had to cut several prominent sequences in order to condense the story. Unlike Schlöndorff and company, they chose wisely, and also reworked other aspects of the dramatization to compensate for the lost pieces of the novel.

The most obvious scene missing from the BBC recording is the Birthing Ceremony, in which Ofwarren (Janine) gives birth to her Commander’s baby. In the dramatization, we do learn that Ofwarren is pregnant; however, this information is presented through an invented scene wherein Ofwarren and her Wife visit with Serena Joy and Kate, presumably to rub their noses in the “good news”. While it’s a particularly horrific and heartbreaking scene, the missing Birthing Ceremony doesn’t fundamentally alter the story or tone of the dramatization.

And this is typical of the BBC dramatization – the producers were so adept at paring down the novel into a theatrical script that I never really felt as though anything was lost in the transition. Some scenes are missing, truncated or even invented, but overall it works. Would I have love, love, loved to have heard the entire novel reenacted? Of course! But. This is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Aside from those scenes which found their way to the chopping block, very little else is changed in the BBC dramatization. In fact, most (if not all) of the narration and dialog is taken directly from the book. Best of all, the ending stays intact (though the scientific notes are sadly truncated).

As for the cast, the acting is excellent all the way around. The actor who gives voice to Kate is wonderful; she has a sweet, almost childlike voice, perfect for a submissive Handmaid. She reminds me of Glenne Headly, who played Dr. Abby Keaton opposite a younger Noah Wyle on ER. The BBC dramatization was my first exposure to The Handmaid’s Tale; I listened to the recording before actually reading the novel, and I will forever picture Glenne Headly as Kate when watching, reading, listening to or otherwise reflecting upon The Handmaid’s Tale. The actor (whose real name escapes me) is both that talented and sounds that similar to Ms. Headly. Also worthy of special mention is Serena Joy’s vocalist. Although it’s hard for any woman to outshine Faye Dunaway, Law & Order’s Leslie Hendrix makes for a chilling Serena Joy.

In sum, if you’re yearning for a dramatic version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but are weary of the butchered Hollywood adaptation, the dramatization from BBC 4 Radio is the next best thing (after reading the novel, of course!). Five stars!


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)

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