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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Handmaid's Tale (1990) is a cautionary thought experiment warning that government interference with women's reproductive rights is the first step toward restriction of everyone's rights. Taken from the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, it also suggests that failure to protect air and water from pollutants could lead to dire consequences that would render a populace ripe for militarized dictatorship. Only ten percent of women remain fertile in this fictional, war-torn country, and those few are imprisoned and forced to have ritualized, clothed sex with powerful men while their wives are watching, in order to produce the next generation and, allegedly, fulfill God's wishes. A woman's breasts are seen briefly. Adults smoke and use such language as "f--k" and "s--t." A public hanging is staged for a woman accused of having unauthorized sex. A man is beaten to death by a crowd of women for supposedly raping one of the child-bearing slaves. A woman is beaten off-screen after she's been discovered masturbating. Streets are war torn, filled with soldiers, shootings, and bombs exploding.
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What's the story?
THE HANDMAID'S TALE envisions Gilead, a dystopia ruled by a religious military dictatorship run by white males who violently oppose the rights of women, blacks, gays, and minorities. The press is controlled by the government and describes efforts to "weed out traitors and the godless." Homosexuality, abortion, and masturbation are against the law. "Fornication" is punishable by hanging. There are no blacks or Hispanics to be seen anywhere. The dictatorship presides over a land that has been blighted by water and air pollution, leaving many infertile. Kate (Natasha Richardson) is captured by soldiers while trying to cross the border out of Gilead. Her husband is killed and her daughter is left wandering the countryside. Because of rampant infertility, healthy women of child-bearing age are enslaved and forced to become "handmaids," to bear children for barren, powerful couples. Under threat of death, handmaid Kate is forced to have ritualized sex with the politically powerful Commander (Robert Duvall) in the presence of his wife (Faye Dunaway). An underground resistance, like the forces that secretly fought the Nazis during World War II, try to rebel but many are caught and killed. Few opportunities for rebellion present themselves but when Kate is called upon she, too, resorts to violence. The movie doesn't end optimistically but Kate still dreams of seeing her daughter again one day.
Is it any good?
Volker Schlondorff has taken Atwood's provocative novel and made an equally powerful and affecting movie. The script by playwright Harold Pinter subtly paints the backdrop of the social upheaval that led to the creation of the current religious dictatorship. The Commander describes the country before the dictatorship took over as "a mess," degraded and failing because too much freedom had been given to blacks, "homos" and women. An overheard pro-government TV anchorman explains that Baptist rebels are fighting in the mountains. Since Gilead leaders invoke the Bible as the country's only constitution, it's clear that this Christianity-based government also discriminates against Christians. Baptists are targeted as enemies. Both the movie and the book pose women as villains, mimicking the way the Nazis forced Jews to send other Jews to their deaths.
But men are unmistakably the architects of The Handmaid's Tale's dehumanized society. The white male supremacy practiced here is supposedly an enactment of "the will of God," with language designed to repress and recast the natural desire to throw off one's chains as punishable anti-social behavior. As in the Soviet Union, friends are encouraged to report on friends. Powerful white men, however, are exempt from scrutiny. They party with enslaved prostitutes while the government looks the other way. And Commanders are not required to be tested for infertility, yet handmaids who don't get pregnant by them face punishment. Young impressionable viewers may be prompted to wonder, "Would I have the courage to rebel if this happened today?" Since the movie begins with the words, "Once upon a time in the recent future," it's a good bet Atwood meant her story to be a warning.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why The Handmaid's Tale is filled with soldiers bearing guns everywhere. Does this tell us that the people in the fictional country of Gilead will only obey if they are threatened with violence? What historical events may have inspired this story?
Gilead is ruled by white men who have suppressed women, gays, blacks, and other minorities. The leaders have killed and imprisoned those who want freedom for everyone. Why do you think some people view dissenting opinions as ideas that need to be outlawed?
Do you believe that everyone who is different from you is dangerous? Do you think acceptance of different points of view is more likely to lead to war or to peace?
- In theaters: March 9, 1990
- On DVD or streaming: December 11, 2001
- Cast: Natasha Richardson, Aidan Quinn, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth McGovern
- Director: Volker Schlondorff
- Studio: MGM
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Courage, Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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