A look back at ‘Downton Abbey’ star’s 1990 version of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The recent TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has been a smash hit with critics and audiences alike.

But did you know that Hulu’s series isn’t the first interpretation of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel to be brought to the screen?

With the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale set to begin next month, let’s take a look back at the original film adaptation, which starred a very familiar face for Downton Abbey fans.

Released in cinemas in 1990, the movie featured Elizabeth McGovern, who played Downton‘s Cora, as Moira – the character portrayed by Orange Is the New Black star Samira Wiley in the TV series.

The movie’s cast also included Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, Robert Duvall as Fred and Aidan Quinn as Nick.

Although the finished film was entered into the 40th Berlin International Film Festival, it had far from an easy journey getting there.

Having bought the movie rights in 1986, producer Daniel Wilson then had immense difficulty in finding a studio who would commit to a female-led story, reportedly encountering “a wall of ignorance, hostility, and indifference” from “every studio in Hollywood” over the following two and a half years.

Alien actress Sigourney Weaver signed up to play Offred in 1988, but by the time a studio had been found she had to pull out when she became pregnant and original director Karel Reis was replaced by German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff.

Screenwriter Harold Pinter “abandoned writing the screenplay from exhaustion” and when Schlondorff contacted Pinter and asked for changes to be made to the script, the exhausted Nobel Prize-winning English playwright recommend that the director just get author Margaret Atwood to oversee the rewrites.

He later recalled that his thinking at the time was that he “didn’t think an author would want to f*** up her own work.”

Pinter ultimately asked for his name to be removed from the movie’s credits because he was so unhappy with the movie.

Star Natasha Richardson had issues with Pinter’s script and the difficulties she would have presenting a story on screen which was “so much a one-woman interior monologue.”

Richardson and Pinter disagreed over the use of voiceovers in the movie to represent Offred’s inner tumroil, with the actress commenting in 1990: “Harold Pinter has something specific against voice-overs. 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.”

Critics agreed with Richardson’s feelings, with the NY Times review saying: “Its carefully designed look is hugely effective; less so is Kate’s own story, since this heroine is essentially so passive and, at times, so dull. Ms. Richardson, alert and receptive as she is, often has little more to do than stand by and watch blankly as others impose their will on her.”

Empire magazine was equally unimpressed: “Duvall and Dunaway do the business as well as ever, but in the end they’re all defeated by a lumpy plot that avoids confronting the serious issues in favour of some bangs and crashes and yet more funny hats. [The film] comes across as a TV movie and overall, a disappointment – a high calibre cast and concept completely squandered.”

Roger Ebert wrote that “the movie seems equally angry that women have to have children at all, and that it is hard for them to have children now that men have mucked up the planet with their greedy schemes.”

Owen Glieberman wrote in Entertainment Weekly that the movie “is so poisonous and mechanical that you have to wonder: Is this really what our society is threatening to turn into, or is Atwood just exorcising her own fear and loathing?”

Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers felt that “Hollywood has again turned a challenging book into negligible cinema.” He added: “Forget the $13 million budget and the reputations involved. This Handmaid’s Tale is merely a piss-poor rehash of The Stepford Wives with delusions of grandeur.”

Travers did have praise for a certain Downton star, however: “Only Elizabeth McGovern, as a handmaid with a problem — she’s a lesbian — provides any fun.”

Unsurprisingly, the reviews not written by men were slightly more favourable, with Janet Maslin in The New York Times writing: “With its devilish attention to polite little touches, its abundant bitchiness … The Handmaid’s Tale is a shrewd if preposterous cautionary tale that strikes a wide range of resonant chords.”

The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley noted that “[director] Schlondorff seems as uncomfortable in this feminist nightmare as a man in a lingerie department.”

Despite some well executed and chilling scenes, coupled with a number of strong performances from McGovern, Duvall and Dunaway, the film ended up grossing less than $5 million – not a great return from a $13 million budget.

The Handmaid’s Tale movie is available on DVD on Amazon.