In this issue, The Interim’s Dr. David Dooley reviews the much-hailed film “The Handmaid’s Tale” It is closely based on a book by Margeret Atwood – grande dame of the ‘Can Lit’ (Canadian literature) establishment. Like the late Marion Engel and Margaret Laurence and others who make up the elite of Canadian writers, Atwood’s anti-life ideology is self0evident.
The Handmaid’s Tale, in both novel and film versions, has been described as a “futuristic morality play” which is “about questions of humanity, political opportunism and ideology…” True but inadequate. What kind of ideology is it based on? Margaret Atwood said before she started it, “I think I’m going to write about how religious fanatics would run the world if they got their druthers.” In the promotional material for the movie, she explains that she began with the question, “What if, while we were busy staring down the wolf at the front door, another one was creeping over the back fence? What if you wanted to take over the United States today? What flag could you wave successfully?”
The work, as she describes it, is an answer to these questions: “It’s set in the near future, in a United States that is in the hands of a power-hungry elite who have used their own brand of ‘Bible-based’ religion as an excuse for the suppression of the majority of the population.”
So it is about the rise of right-wing religious fundamentalism as a political force. It is about the Moral Majority taking over. The United States is now the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy which arose after “they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.”
Religious fundamentalists a threat
As a Chatelaine article on her noted, Atwood speculates that religious fundamentalists have exploited public fears about diseases like AIDS to roll back the achievements of both the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. Moral permissiveness has been replaced by extreme repression; freedom to do what you want has been replaced by freedom from most kinds of sin and temptation. Adultery is punished by death; so is “gender betrayal,” in other words, homosexuality; likewise abortion. Libraries and universities have been closed, books burned, and reading made punishable (on third offence) by the amputation of a hand.
Since the narrator belongs to that small group of women who are fertile – nuclear and other disasters have made sterility the norm – she is a breeder, a member of the class of handmaidens.
The novel contains an epigraph from Genesis: “And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” When Jacob replied, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” she said, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”
Once a month, the Commander to whose family our handmaid has been attached does his best to impregnate her in a loveless ritual called “the Ceremony,” with the Commander’s wife behind her. Her sole function is to produce a child, and if she fails she will be sent to penal servitude in the colonies or obliterated from the face of the earth.
The novel contains a good deal of brilliant writing. Margaret Atwood enters the mind of her heroine and convincingly renders what she thinks and feels about her terrifying situation.
The film is less successful than the novel, partly because it is too busy: there are too many scenes of frantic activity, with women pushing and shoving each other, and of the kinds of violence, involving gunfire and explosives, which seem so derigeur in contemporary films.
The novel gains its strength, as I have said, from its exploration of the heroine’s mind, as she sits and waits and thinks over her past life – always with the fear that a black van will come to take her away.
The film also suffers from the crudity of its language. But both novel and film suffer from the crudity of the thought behind the story. It is a “Moral” parable based on an immoral – because unjust – set of assumptions.
Liberal ideology dominates
“The thing about religious zealots,” said Daniel Wilson, producer of the movie, “is that they can tear things down far quicker than any other political movement or ideology. That’s because if you don’t agree, you are a heretic and then they burn you.”
He has accepted Margaret Atwood’s premises, and they are false. Has the Moral Majority burned anyone in the United States? Has any band of religious zealots ever come close to the Hitlers and the Stalins of this century?
The film is squarely based on a refusal to attribute any religious charity, or tolerance, or zeal for truth to those who consider that moral permissiveness has gone too far; they are all lumped together as cruel, callous hypocrites.
Most novels set in the future are really projections of existing trends. Margaret Atwood has said of this one, “I didn’t put anything into the book that has not happened, is not already happening somewhere or that we don’t have the technology to do.”
Globe and mail film reviewer Jay Scott commended Atwood for what he considered her astute grasp of U.S. guilt complexes. The U.S. is supposedly a Janus-faced culture that has always careened unpredictably from hedonism to re-pression.
Abortion mixed with trendy causes
In a Globe and Mail column of March 10, Jill Lawrence pointed out that the film’s stark vision of a puritanical, repressive society had been seized on eagerly by a variety of trendy causes. Before it opened in theatres, there had been special showings in a number of cities – -in New York, to benefit writers in prison; in Boston, to benefit the library; in Hollywood, to benefit Amnesty International.
A showing in Washington was co-sponsored by the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus, which perceived the Tale as a way to publicize perceived threats to abortion “rights” in the United States. Caucus director Marger Tabankin said that the most important thing the film could do “is have people raise questions about what personal freedom means.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, director Volker Schlondorff gave the women in his cast a week off in April 1989, so that they could join the march in Washington to protest against possible reversal of abortion “rights.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale”, then, does have a system of ideas behind it. It amounts to a defense of fornication, adultery, homosexuality and abortion, and a counter-claim that criticism of moral permissiveness is the work of fascists on a power-trip. It involves the assertion that those pleasant evangelical ministers offering prayers for jailed Operation Rescuers are really Ku Klux Klanners in disguise. They are only playing at make believe when they quote Scripture passages about God not willing the death of a sinner but that he be converted and live; if they had the power, when they get the power, their innate sadism will become apparent. Nothing can be expected from them but the cruelest oppression.
It is astonishing that a writer of Margaret Atwood’s genius can believe such nonsense – and that her reviewers can be misguided enough to accept it. For all its merits, “A Handmaid’s Tale” – -novel and film – is a story based on a lie.
At the same time, it is a triumph for Margaret Atwood – and fro the side of the abortion argument which she represents.
“Atwood was guest of honor today,” reported the Toronto Sun’s Washington correspondent on March 5, “at a capitol Hill reception sponsored by members of Congress who support abortion rights.”
“Late, several of the stars in the movie will attend an exclusive premiere of the film at the West End Theatre. Tickets are $500 a pop, with proceeds going to a pro-abortion organization.”