In the near future, war rages across the Republic of Gilead—formerly the United States of America—and pollution has rendered 99% of the population sterile. Kate is a woman who attempts to emigrate to Canada with her husband and daughter. As they take a dirt road, the Gilead Border Guard order them to turn back or they will open fire. Kate's husband uses an automatic rifle to draw the fire, telling Kate to run, but he gets shot. Kate gets captured, while their daughter wanders off into the backcountry, confused and unaccompanied. The authorities take Kate to a training facility with several other women, where she and her companions receive training to become Handmaids—concubines for one of the privileged but barren couples who run the country's religious fundamentalist regime. Although she resists being indoctrinated into the cult of the Handmaids, which mixes Old Testament orthodoxy with 12-step scripted group chanting and ritualized violence, Kate is soon assigned to the home of "the Commander" (Fred) and of his cold, inflexible wife, Serena Joy. There she is named "Offred"—"of Fred".
Her role as the Commander's latest concubine is emotion-free, as she lies between Serena Joy's legs while being raped by the Commander in the collective hope that she will bear them a child. Kate continually longs for her earlier life, and is haunted by nightmares of her husband's death and of her daughter's disappearance. A doctor tells her that many of Gilead's male leaders are as sterile as their wives. Serena Joy desperately wants a baby, so she convinces Kate to risk the punishment for fornication—death by hanging—in order to be fertilized by another man who may make her pregnant, and consequently, spare her life. In exchange for Kate agreeing to this, Serena Joy provides information to Kate that her daughter is alive, and shows as proof a recent photograph of her living in the household of another Commander. However, Kate is told she can never see her daughter. The Commander also tries to get closer to Kate, in the sense that he feels if she enjoyed herself more she would become a better handmaid. The Commander gets Kate hard-to-obtain items, and, knowing her background as a librarian, allows her access to his private library. However, during a night out, the Commander has sex with Kate in an unauthorized manner. The other man selected by Serena Joy turns out to be Nick, the Commander's sympathetic chauffeur. Kate grows attached to Nick and eventually becomes pregnant with his child.
Kate ultimately kills the Commander, and a police unit then arrives to take her away. She thinks that the policemen are members of the Eyes, the government's secret police. However, it turns out that they are soldiers from the resistance movement (Mayday), of which Nick, too, is a part. Kate then flees with them, parting from Nick in an emotional scene.
Kate, is now free once again and wearing non-uniform clothes, but facing an uncertain future. She is living by herself, pregnant in a trailer while receiving intelligence reports from the rebels. She wonders if she will be reunited with Nick, but expresses hope that will happen, and resolves with the rebels' help she will find her daughter.Natasha Richardson as Kate/Offred
Robert Duvall as Commander
Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy
Elizabeth McGovern as Moira
Aidan Quinn as Nick
Victoria Tennant as Aunt Lydia
Blanche Baker as Ofglen
Traci Lind as Janine/Ofwarren
Reiner Schöne as Luke, Kate's husband
Robert D. Raiford as Dick
Muse Watson as Guardian
Bill Owen as TV Announcer #2
David Dukes as Doctor
Blair Nicole Struble as Jill, Kate's daughter
According to Steven H. Gale, in his book Sharp Cut, "the final cut of The Handmaid's Tale is less a result of Pinter's script than any of his other films. He contributed only part of the screenplay: reportedly he 'abandoned writing the screenplay from exhaustion.' … Although he tried to have his name removed from the credits because he was so displeased with the movie (in 1994 he told me that this was due to the great divergences from his script that occur in the movie), … his name remains as screenwriter".
Gale observes further that "while the film was being shot, director Volker Schlondorff", who had replaced the original director Karel Reisz, "called Pinter and asked for some changes in the script"; however, "Pinter recall[ed] being very tired at the time, and he suggested that Schlondorff contact Atwood about the rewrites. He essentially gave the director and author carte blanche to accept whatever changes that she wanted to institute, for, as he reasoned, 'I didn't think an author would want to fuck up her own work.' … As it turned out, not only did Atwood make changes, but so did many others who were involved in the shoot". Gale points out that Pinter told his biographer Michael Billington that
It became … a hotchpotch. The whole thing fell between several shoots. I worked with Karel Reisz on it for about a year. There are big public scenes in the story and Karel wanted to do them with thousands of people. The film company wouldn't sanction that so he withdrew. At which point Volker Schlondorff came into it as director. He wanted to work with me on the script, but I said I was absolutely exhausted. I more or less said, 'Do what you like. There's the script. Why not go back to the original author if you want to fiddle about?' He did go to the original author. And then the actors came into it. I left my name on the film because there was enough there to warrant it—just about. But it's not mine' ([Pinter, as qtd. in Harold Pinter] 304).
In an essay on Pinter's screenplay for The French Lieutenant's Woman, in The Films of Harold Pinter, Gale discusses Pinter's "dissatisfaction with" the "kind of alteration" that occurs "once the script is tinkered with by others" and "it becomes collaborative to the point that it is not his product any more or that such tinkering for practical purposes removes some of the artistic element"; he adds: "Most notably The Handmaid's Tale, which he considered so much altered that he has refused to allow the script to be published, and The Remains of the Day, which he refused to allow his name to be attached to for the same reason …" (84n3).
Christopher C. Hudgins discusses further details about why "Pinter elected not to publish three of his completed filmscripts, The Handmaid's Tale, The Remains of the Day, and Lolita," all of which Hudgins considers "masterful filmscripts" of "demonstrable superiority to the shooting scripts that were eventually used to make the films"; fortunately ("We can thank our various lucky stars"), he says, "these Pinter filmscripts are now available not only in private collections but also in the Pinter Archive at the British Library"; in this essay, which he first presented as a paper at the 10th Europe Theatre Prize symposium, Pinter: Passion, Poetry, Politics, held in Turin, Italy, in March 2006, Hudgins "examin[es] all three unpublished filmscripts in conjunction with one another" and "provides several interesting insights about Pinter's adaptation process".
In a retrospective account written after Natasha Richardson's death, for CanWest News Service, Jamie Portman cites Richardson's view of the difficulties involved with making Atwood's novel into a film script:
Richardson recognized early on the difficulties in making a film out of a book which was "so much a one-woman interior monologue" and with the challenge of playing a woman unable to convey her feelings to the world about her, but who must make them evident to the audience watching the movie. … She thought the passages of voice-over narration in the original screenplay would solve the problem, but then Pinter changed his mind and Richardson felt she had been cast adrift. … "Harold Pinter has something specific against voice-overs," she said angrily 19 years ago. "Speaking as a member of an audience, I've seen voice-over and narration work very well in films a number of times, and I think it would have been helpful had it been there for The Handmaid's Tale. After all it's HER story."
Portman concludes that "In the end director Volker Schlondorff sided with Richardson"; Portman does not acknowledge Pinter's already-quoted account that he gave both Schlondorff and Atwood "carte blanche" to make whatever changes they wanted to his script because he was too "exhausted" from the experience to work further on it; in 1990, when she reportedly made her comments quoted by Portman, Richardson herself may not have known that.
The scene where the hanging occurred was filmed in front of Duke Chapel on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Several scenes were filmed at Saint Mary's School in Raleigh, N.C.
Rotten Tomatoes reports that 31% of sixteen surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating was 4.8/10. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote that he was "not sure exactly what the movie is saying" and that by "the end of the movie we are conscious of large themes and deep thoughts, and of good intentions drifting out of focus." Owen Gleiberman, writing for Entertainment Weekly, gave the film a "C-" grade and commented that "visually, it’s quite striking", but that it is "paranoid poppycock — just like the book".