The Handmaid’s Tale TV Show Only Succeeded Thanks to This 1990s Flop of a Movie

The Handmaid’s Tale TV Show Only Succeeded Thanks to This 1990s Flop of a Movie
Image credit: Hulu, Cinecom Pictures

The second time’s a charm.


  • The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, first published in 1985. It is written from the perspective of a woman who has been stripped of her rights and subjected to reproductive abuse.
  • The story was first adapted as a movie in 1995 by Volker Schlöndorff but received very poor critical reviews.
  • The second adaptation as a TV series for Hulu was an instant success, thanks to the ambitious plan to develop the story much further than the book goes and the ability to fix the issues the movie had.

There's nothing harder than adapting the book to any kind of visual format. Whether it is a TV series, an animation, or a movie for the big screen, it takes a lot of talent to make the text of the book look appealing in the form of a script.

Besides, every successful book has a lot of fans, which usually means that they have imagined the events of the book in their minds. While the human imagination knows no bounds, cameras do, so nothing the cast and crew can do will match the perfect ideas in people's heads.

That was exactly the risk the team behind 1990's The Handmaid's Tale took. Unfortunately, it did not work out as well as anyone had planned. On the other hand, the demise of the first adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel paved the way for the 2017 TV series, which was far more successful.

What Was Wrong With The Handmaid’s Tale First Adaptation?

The struggles began at the very beginning of the director's work. Volker Schlöndorff, who was supposed to work with Harold Pinter's script, had made so many changes that it was easier just to accept them. That is exactly what Pinter did, giving the director carte blanche to make changes and even trying to get his name removed from the credits.

That didn't happen. Instead, his name was resurrected by disgruntled actress Natasha Richardson, who played the lead role of Offred. While Pinter's involvement was very limited, it was his roles that the actress felt were the most difficult in terms of showing her character's true emotions.

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She was quoted by Jamie Portman in a CanWest News Service feature dedicated to the actress:

“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.”

It's not surprising that such struggles resulted in a movie that could be described as mediocre at best. Sadly, it did not do justice to Atwood's work and failed to capture the essence of Gilead's dystopia on the big screen.

Today, the film holds a 32% critics' score and a 43% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Although there are some critics who disagree with Margaret Atwood's ideas in general, the majority of critical comments target poor writing and obvious storytelling problems.

Hulu’s Takeover

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The film's harsh failure with audiences was a great learning opportunity for Hulu when the network decided to adapt the story in 2016. The TV show was initially pitched to Showtime by Ilene Chaiken, but the network passed, deciding not to take all the risks that come with such a story.

As a result, Chaiken was hired to work on Empire before The Handmaid's Tale came to life, and the TV series based on Margaret Atwood's book got a new showrunner, Bruce Miller. Daniel Wilson, known for his work on the first adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, also came on board, in the very same role of the executive producer.

It's safe to say that the ambitious idea of taking the story further than Margaret Atwood originally did with her book was the right choice: the show didn't lose its spark after the first season, and went on for another four years without an original source.

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It's clear that the new format and the ability to work on the mistakes of its predecessors have made The Handmaid's Tale the success it deserves. It proudly boasts an 83% critical rating and a 66% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has made several "The Best Series Of XXI Century" lists.

Unfortunately for all of its dedicated viewers, the show is now coming to an end. Although it has been renewed for another season, it has also been announced that it will be the last chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale. So if you are invested in Offred's story and want to see if Gilead will fall or rise again, keep an eye out for more news and behind-the-scenes updates.

Source: CanWest News via The Atlantic