ICFIFC: The Handmaid’s Tail (1990)

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Monday, August 26, 2013

ICFIFC: The Handmaid’s Tail (1990)

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel, a work of science fiction or speculative fiction, written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.  Set in the near future, in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency.  The novel's title was inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which is a series of connected stories ("The Merchant's Tale", "The Parson's Tale", etc.).

Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices.  It is normally contrasted to natural forces, which are causes involving only unthinking deterministic processes.  In this respect, agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined.  Human agency entails the claim that humans do in fact make decisions and enact them on the world.  How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.

The Handmaid's Tale won 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.  It has been adapted for the cinema, radio, opera, and stage.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.  It was founded by a racist, homophobic, Christian nativist-derived, theocratic-organized cult's military coup as an ideologically driven response to the country's ecological, physical and social degradation.

Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremist terrorists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order.  They are quickly able to take away all of women's rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labeled by gender.  This allows the new rulers to freeze women's bank accounts (the story also takes place in a future of a cashless society utilizing electronic money which leaves them with no funds after this), then outlaw employing them.  The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily cult-Christian regime of selectively skewed Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes.  In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.

The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred).  The character is one of a class of individuals kept as concubines ("handmaids") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases.  The book is told in the first person by Offred, who describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as "The Commander").  Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid.  Through her eyes, the structure of Gilead's society is described, including the several different categories of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.


The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

  • Directed: Volker Schlöndorff
  • Produced: Daniel Wilson
  • Written:
    • Margaret Atwood (Novel)
    • Harold Pinter (Screenplay)
  • Starring:
    • Natasha Richardson (Kate/Offred)
    • Faye Dunaway (Serena Joy)
    • Robert Duvall (The Commander, Fred)
    • Aidan Quinn (Nick)
    • Elizabeth McGovern (Moira)
  • Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
  • Editing: David Ray
  • Cinematography: Igor Luther
  • Studio:
    • Bioskop Film 
    • Cinecom Entertainment Group 
    • Cinétudes Films 
    • Daniel Wilson Productions Inc. 
    • Master Partners 
    • Odyssey
  • Distributed: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: February 15, 1990
  • Running Time: 109 minutes
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English

In the near future war rages across the fictional Republic of Gilead and pollution has rendered 99% of the population sterile.  Kate is captured after seeing her husband killed and daughter kidnapped while the family tried to escape into Canada.  Kate is trained to become a Handmaid, a concubine for one of the privileged but barren couples who rule the country's religious fundamentalist regime.  Although she resists being indoctrinated into the bizarre cult of the Handmaids, mixing Old Testament orthodoxy and misogyny with 12-step gospel and ritualized violence, Kate is soon assigned to the home of the Commander and his cold, inflexible wife, Serena Joy.  There she is renamed "Offred" - "of Fred".

She is forced to lie between Serena Joy's legs and have sex with the Commander, in hopes that she will bear them a child.  Kate continually longs for her earlier life.  She soon learns that many of the nation's male leaders are as sterile as their wives.  She decides to risk the punishment for fornication — death by hanging — in order to be fertilized by another man who will make her pregnant, and subsequently, spare her life.  The other man turns out to be Nick, the Commander's sympathetic driver.  Kate grows attached to him and eventually becomes pregnant with his child.

Kate ultimately kills the Commander, then hides from the men who come looking for her.  She thinks that the men are the Eyes, the governments secret police.  However, it turns out that they are soldiers from the resistance movement, which Nick, too, is a part of.  Kate then flees with them, leaving Nick behind in an emotional scene.

In the closing scene, Kate is shown pregnant and alone in a stationary caravan.  She reminisces about Nick and the current situation, hoping that once the resistance has won, she and Nick will be together and she will be reunited with her daughter.

In the book, the story takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, predominantly in Harvard Square, on the Harvard campus, and in the general area.  Harvard Square is a terribly busy place, however, and it would have been almost impossible to clear the Square for the scenes in question.  In addition, Harvard University has a "no filming" policy that prohibits any filming from taking place on their campus.  Duke University in North Carolina substituted.

The repressive theocratic regime that has taken over the US in this movie (and its source novel) is called "The Republic of Gilead."  Gilead is a place (or maybe several places) mentioned repeatedly in the Bible (first in Genesis 31:23), both as a geographic location and the source of a figurative or literal "balm" (curative or healing substance). Based on those constant Bible references, there is a well-known spiritual, "There is a Balm in Gilead," that is in the hymnals of many Christian denominations, and in the book The Handmaid's Tale, Offred remembers the hymn and makes a joke about it.


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