"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“Just do your duty in silence.”
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Despite being published over three decades ago, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale was the most read book of 2017. No doubt, this resurgence in popularity is owed in part to the resounding success of Hulu’s 2017 original series starring Elisabeth Moss. More importantly, the response in general indicates that this story's themes are still strikingly relevant today. The plot of Atwood’s novel takes place in the not so distant future where a theocratic totalitarian society has stripped women of their rights and forces them to bear children for the powerful elite. Considering our current political and social climate - where men in various positions of power are attempting, not only to silence the voices of women, but to limit their human and reproductive rights - Atwood’s “Republic of Gilead” doesn’t seem that far-fetched when we look to our own not so distant future. Thankfully, women and their allies are adamant that these men will never have the power to silence that of their combined voices. In fact, since He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named took office, it's become a trend to see groups of women dressed in red robes and white bonnets (garb now famously known as a handmaid's uniform) in protest of gender discrimination, anti-abortion laws, and at marches for women's rights around the globe. Such acts of defiance and uprising would have dire consequences in the world of Atwood's book. Yet, the powerful symbolism of her handmaids forced into silent submission speaks louder than words in today's society.
The Hulu series focuses a great deal more than the 1990 film adaptation on the subtle and not so subtle acts of defiance among the handmaids. In the film, Atwood's restrictive patriarchal rules and the women’s fear of breaking them are much more prevalent. In all honesty, the movie is fine, but only if you don’t consider its source. Unfortunately, the deeper context regarding the lives of these women seems to have been lost on the filmmakers. Released only five years after the book, screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Volker Schlöndorff made an embarrassing attempt to eroticize the tale - which, lest ye forget, is about the rape and repression of women. One look at the poster, for instance, doesn’t really suggest that Offred (Natasha Richardson) - a name labeling her quite literally as the property of her commander Fred (Robert Duvall), making her “of Fred” - has been sold into sexual slavery to serve as a vessel for childbearing. In fact, any handmaid daring to show that much skin in Atwood’s Gilead would be severely punished on the spot.
The movie does manage to remain faithful to the novel in many ways, especially with great casting like Elizabeth McGovern who plays the "gender traitor" Moira with unforgettable fortitude. I’d even argue that Faye Dunaway’s fierce presence as Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, enhances the character. She brings an edge of contempt to her position as “a defeated woman” forced to condone her husband’s extramarital deeds for the greater good. A glimpse into her past reveals her nostalgia for the “time before” and the success she once enjoyed as a televangelist. As a result, her position doesn’t seem much better than that of the handmaids, except for the fact that being a wife allows her just enough power to lord over them. Such is the hierarchy of Gilead in the book, where unmarried and infertile women called "Marthas" are granted domestic roles. Then there are the postmenopausal “Aunts” whose more militant position consists of conditioning the handmaids to believe they are “the lucky ones” meant to serve God and country. Part of their job being to brutally punish and mutilate those refusing to live by the rules. Aside from these roles, the only other choice is to be sent to the colonies to die as an "unwoman", meaning you have failed in service of your country or your commander. This is what survival entails for the women of Gilead.
The film’s biggest failure is not giving Offred her most valued characterization – her voice. Natasha Richardson later shared that screenwriter Harold Pinter was opposed to using voice-over, which explains the eradication of Offred’s entire identity. Stripped of her internal dialogue she is quite literally just the surface of the character, merely going through the motions to survive. But Richardson (bless her and may she rest in peace) does her best with the material, portraying as much emotion as possible with a look or in the carefully controlled tone of her voice. One pivotal detail missing from the film that could have brought more depth to the character, is the Latin phrase "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum." Roughly translated as "Don't let the bastards grind you down," it becomes Offred's mantra in the book, ultimately saving her life. Unfortunately, these glaring omissions, along with a plot lacking much context about the war, the rebellion, or the secret police known as “the Eye”, builds to a sensationalized conclusion. Ditching the ambiguity of what becomes of Offred in the book, the movie dreams up an ending for her of a more hopeful future.
The series, a much more faithful adaptation overall, is also sensationalized in its portrayal of the defiance and rebellion of the handmaids. However, considering the current state of the world, this is a choice that works, quite simply because it's one that inspires. A pivotal moment of Offred’s voice-over - intact and invaluable in this version - asserts, “If they didn’t want us to be an army they shouldn’t have given us uniforms.” This is a statement never uttered by Atwood's Offred. Nevertheless, such changes invigorate the rebellion beneath the bonnets, which is exactly what we want, no, need to see right now. In a time when women around the world are shouting #MeToo and Time's Up, they're applauding every hopeful moment this series allows its handmaids to band together to bring about change. Grandstanding moments like these make for excellent television and, while I’m on board for their dramatic effect, I realize that in Atwood's Gilead these women would be diminished to red dust at the slightest sign of defiance. Like the end of the book, the first season of the series is ambiguous about what becomes of Offred. However, with the announcement of a second season it seems they too plan to invent a future for her.
My recent binge-watch of the series is what encouraged me to pick up the book and revisit the film, so I’m grateful for the resurgence this new adaptation has inspired. To say Atwood’s story still strikes a specific chord with womankind would be an understatement. In an article for The Guardian, she shared that while writing the book she had a rule to "not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” I think including these discarded horrors of history suggests her hope that a place like Gilead would never be allowed to exist for long. While there have been positive and negative changes to women's rights throughout history, the current political climate seems to be marching backward. This is why it’s so important that women and their allies keep marching forward, even donned in red robes and white bonnets if that’s what it takes to drive home the point that they will not be silenced. It saddens me to think that in 2018 it’s still possible to draw parallels to the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale. We too must invent a better future.