• Natasha Richardson in the film version of 'The Handmaid's Tale'. (MGM)Source: MGM
Why the 1990 film adaptation of the Margaret Atwood classic was lost on critics and audiences alike, and the television adaptation is one of the biggest shows of the year.
20 Jul 2017 - 2:30 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2020 - 3:40 PM

When the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1990, it was greeted by scathing reviews and less than soaring box-office takings. When it first aired, the television version of Atwood’s novel, on the other hand, was hailed as the best television show of the year. That's no mean feat when the year in question has also seen the return of Twin Peaks, the comedy genius of Atlanta and the bloody adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel on which the film and TV show is based found itself winning awards galore, including the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C Clarke Award in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award. The story of a young girl who is forced into sex slavery by an uncaring society where female subjugation became a government policy struck a chord.

Looking at the talent behind the 1990 film – it was helmed by Volker Schlöndorff, the Russian director behind the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum, scripted by poet and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, and scored by Ryûichi Sakamoto, and starred Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern and Robert Duvall – it’s difficult to see what went wrong. But it did go very wrong.

Roger Ebert declared, “Fo­­­­r all of its anger, The Handmaid's Tale is curiously muted.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was not kind in his scathing review,This Handmaid's Tale is merely a piss-poor rehash of The Stepford Wives with delusions of grandeur.” Empire magazine was also not kind, concluding, “Comes across as a TV movie and overall, a disappointment – a high calibre cast and concept completely squandered.”

When Pinter shoehorned the pages of Atwood’s tome into two-hour form, subplots and characters were lost along the way, whereas TV show creator Bruce Miller and his team of writers had 10 episodes in which to tell the story of surrogate slave Offred who lives in a male-controlled police state now dedicated to the oppression of the female of the species. Film director Schlöndorff, who also had his hand in the screenplay, said balancing the three voices in the script was difficult. 

“I had to adapt from Margaret Atwood’s novel, but also from Harold Pinter’s screenplay, both of them very distinctive, finished pieces," he explained to Bomb magazine. "I never felt the Pinter screenplay could just be shot page by page. It was very much like walking on a tightrope with two weights on either side, Atwood and Pinter. The Handmaid’s Tale is a book about ambiguity and everything on screen becomes factual. It’s very hard to maintain ambiguity on screen.”

One criticism that many, including lead actress Richardson, had was the lack of voice-over. By removing Offred’s inner monologue, the focus of Offred’s story is lost. The proceedings are no longer personal to her and the huge emotional impact of what happens to her is diminished. The film also has a more salacious view of proceedings – the nudity and sexual activity added a queasiness to proceedings that only built on the viewers' discomfort. But not in a good way.

Maybe treatment of women in media has changed since 1990. There are stronger female characters today and modern storytelling can be respectful of all genders. The TV adaptation also has a brilliant leading actress in the form of Elisabeth Moss, who already boasts The West Wing, Mad Men and Top of the Lake in her impressive repertoire. Add brilliant turns by Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella and Joseph Fiennes, all delivering on the thought-provoking, emotionally devastating script. With performances of this calibre, the new The Handmaid's Tale exudes a class the '90s version strived for but failed to deliver, despite the Oscar-winning cast Schlöndorff had at his disposal.

When Atwood’s book was released in 1985, Ronald Reagan was in power and parallels were drawn between the book and the state of the US nation. By the time the film was released in 1990, the baton had been passed to George Bush Sr. For many, the religious zealots of the book – a fundamental Christian group that overthrows the United States Constitution, renaming the country Gilead – were all too real.

That's something Schlöndorff tried to focus on. “I shot this film as if it were a contemporary set, and shooting it in a sort of mainstream area like North Carolina you get the feeling, 'This is Gilead,'" he said. "I just took it for granted that this is about today and not about the future.”

Maybe that is why the film failed with audiences. With a storyline all too prescient, America in the 1990s didn’t need reminding what state it was in. Then again, do we need reminding now?


Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on SBS On Demand.

Watch The Handmaid's Tale movie, Thursday 19 November at 12:40am on SBS VICELAND.

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