Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has turned into one of the great hate-watches of the Trump era. We don’t mean “hate-watch” to say it’s bad — if anything it’s too good, too scary, too spot-on about what may actually be happening in 2017 America. When she wrote the novel in 1985, Margaret Atwood was speaking to how women have always been viewed as second-class citizens, even in the presumably chilling-out Reagan era. She might not have imagined that one day people like Donald J. Trump and (especially) Mike Pence would rise to power, making her dystopia that much closer to a potential reality.
But did you know there’s a “Handmaid’s Tale” movie? And that if you’re a New Yorker, you can go see it this weekend at the newly renovated Quad theater? It was made in 1990, and it didn’t cause quite the stir the new, timely adaptation is presently making. It quietly slipped into theaters and was largely ignored. It wasn’t even much liked. In his two-star review from the time, Roger Ebert complained that the premise made no sense, dwelling not on its gender commentary but on the idea of what would happen in a future in which fertility rates dropped.
Then again, it was the Bush I era — a moment of relative calm before the slowly brewing s—storm raining down on us now. Women continued to join the work force in droves, as they’d been doing since the 1970s. Rush Limbaugh was still a few years away from seizing upon the Clinton era and turning the phrase “feminazi” into something your dad would casually drop while driving you to school. The idea that men might clamp down on women’s rights completely didn’t seem like a pressing matter in jolly old 1990.
There’s also the little matter of this “Handmaid’s Tale” not being all that good — or at least not as lacerating as the new Hulu version. Despite the attached pedigree — New German Cinema figure Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) directing, a script adapted by the godly Harold Pinter — it’s too calm and detached, almost a Cliffs Notes version of the book. Atwood’s time-jumping structure is straightened-out, unfolding in a linear fashion. Pinter didn’t even include voiceover, stranding its resident Offred, Natasha Richardson, in a film that gives us no access to her psychology beyond a general sense of pain and horror.
(The story behind this is complicated, though: Reportedly Pinter almost included voiceover, but when it came time to revise the script he said he was too tired and ill to do another draft. The shooting script wound up changed by Schlondorff as they shot it, and it so dramatically altered what Pinter had written that he disowned it, even though his name remains on the credits.)
The 1990 “Handmaid’s Tale” is not without its power, though. The opening, in which women — and also both black women and black men, who are presumably sent to the dreaded “Colonies” to make American white again — are rounded up and packed into trains like Jews in the early days of the Holocaust, is as harrowing as it sounds. Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway make a fine Commander and Serena Joy, the latter all smiles and perkiness barley concealing terror. But they also occasionally betray real humanity — as though they, too, were desperate for connection, maybe even longing for the before-time, when they didn’t have to be so cruel.
Elizabeth McGovern also makes a delightful Moira, the friend who gets away — only to wind up trapped in a different, unexpected part of Gilead. We won’t say where, to those who haven’t read the novel and are still plowing through the show, now five episodes in. Still, even if you’re wary of spoilers, you ought to watch the original anyway, especially since it looks like the show is playing around with the novel’s structure and might not be a strictly faithful adaptation anyway. Even an inferior “Handmaid’s Tale” will still make you want to claw your eyes out.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” screens at the Quad as part of their series on composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on Sun., May 14 at 9:30 p.m. and again on Mon., May 15 at 7 p.m. Visit the site for tickets.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge