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Criminally Underrated: The Handmaid’s Tale

Criminally Underrated: The Handmaid’s Tale

We are all well and truly fucked, particularly if we have lady parts or non-white skin.

When Volker Schlöndorff began turning Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale into a film, the German-born filmmaker lived in a divided country under the constant threats of totalitarian despotism and nuclear apocalypse. By the time the film was released in March 1990, the Berlin Wall had come down, the Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse and the “end of History” was being celebrated. This was unfortunate for the fate of the film, as The Handmaid’s Tale was aesthetically, socially and politically molded by the quotidian paranoia of the ‘80s rather than the myopic phantasmagorias of 1990. The shift in mood doomed the film as an anachronism from the moment of its release.

Revisiting the film in light of the popularity of the new television adaptation, it is apparent that Schlöndorff’s effort has been unfairly maligned and forgotten. It is definitely a relic from the past, an artifact that tells audiences a substantial amount about the time and place in which it was created, but so is the novel and the new show. In fact, this ethnographic/archaeological element is one of the best parts of the film. By seeing how two different cinematic storytellers bring the same story to life, the changes in U.S. society from 1990 to 2017 are readily apparent.

Without conducting a close comparison, the 1990 film can be characterized as much more concerned with systemic issues, the fate of humanity as a whole and how a single person’s life is subservient to the common good, while the 2017 show emphasizes individual characters, their identities and how those are performed and the many trials and tribulations they are forced to suffer. In many ways, each, then, is a reflection of the state of the “resistance” in its own period: the doctrinaire pseudo-Marxist systems theorist of the late Cold War versus the nonchalant, self-obsessed multicultural identity crusader of today. The fate of the city is another major difference between the two, as the dingy, high-crime urban spaces of 1990 (and the film) have been literally bulldozed for the glitzy, indulgent and gentrified neighborhoods of today (and the show). But the film can stand on its own, without the need for comparison.

It is within the mise-en-scéne that Schlöndorff’s film shines. Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson), the protagonist, inhabits the dystopian Gilead, with means she already understands the backstory of the descent of the U.S. into authoritarian fundamentalism. Her interests are in finding her daughter, escaping her concubinage and perhaps trying to help her friends. The viewer, on the other hand, wants to know about Gilead, its origins and the current state of U.S. and world society in this devastated future. The mise-en-scéne and the clever way the cinematography captures the costumes, set design, background visuals and architecture of the film are the mechanism for servicing this curiosity. The camera often stays behind the action or starts photographing a room just before the action starts, to give the viewer a taste of what is going on. This rich means of world-building was later perfected by the singular Emmanuel Lubezki when he worked as the Director of Photography for the dystopian thriller Children of Men. In these prophetic futuristic films, the camera is the viewer’s avatar more so than the actors.

While Kate is plotting how to survive the next horror, the camera may linger on a news broadcast, cut to truckloads of urban blacks being rounded up to work as slaves in the undesirable colonies (a chilling prefiguration of gentrification) or show the military checkpoints that guard suburbia and its domesticized femininity. Blacked out cars allude to peak-Troubles Belfast and the checkpoints to Cold War Berlin, while the ethnic cleansing of the U.S. black population evokes the “long hot summers” of the ‘60s. There are shuttered factories, grimy railways and hundred-year old brick warehouses, the sorts of industrial spaces that hosted the social and political battles of the tumultuous ‘80s. Schlöndorff is clearly positing a thesis: the very real and non-fictional triumph of the Right in the ‘80s was setting society on the path to the Gilead hellscape he was portraying. In a way that was perfectly attuned to 1990 but which would be nonsensical today, the very physical materiality of those struggles is the focus; they worsened economic conditions and living standards. Today, a similar effort would emphasize identity constructions and how harming those would subsequently destroy individuals no longer free to be who they are (this is not to champion either focus of struggle over the other; both are necessary). Furthermore, the visual grammar he used for this claim has lost its rhetorical clarity; the average 2017 viewer does not place into these signifiers—the cars, factories and checkpoints—the full weight of their meaning, just as the average 1990 viewer rejected their somber pessimism.

Even more unfortunately, the continued interest in Atwood’s novel, degradation of the U.S. economy and society, impending environmental catastrophe(s) and persistence of white supremacy and misogyny suggest that Schlöndorff’s despondent thesis may in fact be correct—we are all well and truly fucked, particularly if we have lady parts or non-white skin.

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