Second Glance: The Potent Political Commentary of (the First Film Version of) ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

A look at the 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood's powerful novel.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, we look at the original 1990 film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

You don’t need an MBA from Harvard to guess why Shout Factory not only selected Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the latest title in their Shout Selects line, but chose to put it out this week. We are, after all, just days from the debut of new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book, and there is a new audiobook (with expanded material — potentially even teasing a sequel); The Handmaid’s Tale is, for lack of a better word, hot right now. But it’s also remained an unfortunately relevant piece of work – and though the earlier film version has to (understandably) skim some of that subtext, it’s still a reasonably successful adaptation.

And it comes with a good pedigree: director Schlöndorff helmed The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and the 1979 Palme d’or winner The Tin Drum, so he knows a thing or two about political cinema, and the adaptation is credited to the great Harold Pinter. His original script was reportedly reworked greatly (much to his vocal displeasure), but enough of his blunt intelligence, coupled with Atwood’s forceful commentary and allegory, shines through.

Set at unspecified point in the future, in which the United States has become “The Republic of Gilead,” the film begins with Kate (Natasha Richardson) attempting a border crossing to Canada with her husband and daughter. But their immigration is blocked by the brutal border patrol, and they’re tossed into a camp, where health tests identify Kate as fertile; one of only 1% of the population that can conceive a child, a side effect of overwhelming pollution. “You’re the lucky ones!” she and her fellow “handmaids” are told by “Aunt Lydia” (Victoria Tennant), who will prepare them for their new roles. “You’re going to serve God and your country.”

After a period of shaming and indoctrination (they’re forced to pray to God to “make us all fruitful”), our heroine gets her assignment. She is sent to the home of Serena (Faye Dunaway) and her husband, referred to only as “The Commander” (Robert Duvall –“And Robert Duvall as The Commander,” by the way, is an all-time great opening credit, for reasons I can’t even articulate). As their household handmaid, she is to part of a rather unfortunate three-person sex situation (called “The Ceremony”), in which the husband attempts to impregnate the handmaid, while the wife participates as best she can. It seems pretty miserable for all parties.

But there’s an uprising in the offing, and Kate is game – especially since The Commander keeps insisting on unofficial encounters, without his wife there, filled with clumsy passes and forced pleasantries. She becomes involved with his driver, a smoldering, buzz-cut Aidan Quinn (their sex scenes feel very much like the movie trying to have it both ways), and she finds herself with a way out, albeit a risky one.

This Handmaid’s Tale never found an audience, perhaps due to the growing pains of upstart (and short-lived) producers Cinecom Entertainment Group, or the ongoing struggles of can’t-catch-a-break distributors MGM (or perhaps it was the hilariously ill-conceived print campaign that tried to make it look like, not making this up, an erotic thriller); its widest release was on 177 screens, and its domestic gross topped out just shy of $5 million. Then again, the early ‘90s were also not exactly a robust period in political cinema, and the influence of the Moral Majority – so clearly felt in Atwood’s text – wasn’t as pronounced in the Bush I White House as it had been in Reagan’s.

But, sadly, it sure is now. With Trump (who in January prohibited funding of international organizations that provide family planning, and just this week proudly signed a bill allowing states to cut funding to Planned Parenthood) in the White House, these are dangerous times for reproductive autonomy. And with an Evangelical nutjob who only sees women as baby ovens in the VP’s office, a line like “We pledge allegiance to the Bible, the Old Testament shall be our sole and only Constitution” doesn’t sound like dystopian science fiction; it sounds like a Heritage Foundation position paper. (Meanwhile, the propagandistic TV news, in which an anchor insists “We are winning God’s fight,” looks like a clip from Thursday night’s Hannity.) “We will not rest until we’ve purified this country in the name of God,” the Commander insists. It probably sounded like hyperbole back in 1990.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is out on Blu-ray tomorrow from Shout Select. It’s also available for download via Amazon.