Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.


Harold Pinter 1985


  • Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson) - "Handmaid" to Commander Fred (hence "of Fred"), i.e. fertile female who will "carry" Fred's offspring
  • Moira (Elizabeth McGovern) - Kate's friend. Ends up a prostitute at the nightclub "Jezebel's"
  • Commander/Commissioner Fred (Robert Duvall) - Kate's master and one of the new leaders of Gilead, suspected of sexual but not political impotence
  • Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) - Wife of the Commander
  • Nick (Aidan Quinn): Chauffeur to the Commander, father of Kate's child
  • Screenplay - Harold Pinter


  • What is the role of the state in Gilead?
    • Coup d'etat by the military and the creation of a theocracy (Iran)
    • WASP ruling elite
    • sorting the population into 2 groups (ethnic cleansing) - fertile women for breeding program with political elite; blacks, rebels and unfertile "removed"
    • civil war in USA
    • rationing and censorship
  • How did the state of Gilead arise, how did it acquire its political powers, what is the connection between war and domestic tyranny? the connection between political and economic freedoms?
    • Atwood claims (in the "Historical Notes") that Gilead was created (like all tyrannies) by building upon pre-existing laws and practices - "no new system can impose itself upon a previous one without incorporating many of the elements to be found in the latter... (p. 386)
  • "How did capitalist America become theocratic Gilead?"
    • how did democratic Weimar Germany become Nazi Germany
    • note George Orwell's remark (directed against the British who willingly gave up their freedoms during WW2) about "catastrophic gradualism" (or the frog being slowly boiled in water - it doesn 't realise what is happening until too late)
  • what kind of war is being fought in Gilead (civil war, revolutionary war, war of independence, defensive or aggressive war) and what is its purpose?
  • who is the enemy? who is the aggressor? who is being protected? who benefits (profits) from the war?
  • Atwood seems to base the state of Gilead and its war on a number of historical examples (referred to in the "Historical Notes"). There are refences to
    • the Quakers (anti-war tradition from 17thC) in the Underground Femaleroad who assist her to escape - the Underground Railroad of pre-civil war America to help black slaves escape to North, 19thC abolitionist movement in UK and USA
    • "sectarian roundups" of dissidents and heretics - used by all oppressive regimes in 20thC, mention is made of the theocracy of Iran, constant implied reference to Nazi Germany, (17thC Puritanism?)
    • the "Great Purge" - the Great Purge of the USSR in the 1930s of "old Bolsheviks" from October Revolution
    • concentration camps, "National Homelands" for Sons of Ham, "Colonies" for undesirables and dissidents - British creation of concentration camps in Boer War, South African policy of apartheid and National Homelands, British and French colonial practice of Convict colonies.
    • Nazi Nuremberg Laws of 1935 - closure of Jewish businesses, newspapers, political parties, Jewish bank accounts seized, expelled from business and professions, wore special mark of identification (Star of David, "J" in passport)
    • "sumptuary laws" - universal state practice of banning or taxing luxury or "vice" (alcohol, tobacco, etc)
    • CIA booklet on how to destabilize foreign governments - used by Gileadean revolutionaries (Sons of Jacob) to overthrow state and create Gilead
    • Mao's Chinese Cultural Revolution 1967-1976; mass denunciation and execution; compare "salvaging" by Handmaids.
  • Auberon Herbert wrote, "[I]f the individual has no rights, then the larger or more powerful part of a nation may force upon the smaller or weaker part of a nation what they will.... [T]hey may dictate their religion or their philosophical creed; they may regulate their occupations, their labor, their amusements, their possessions; they may permit or refuse to permit them to marryx" (Right and Wrong, Tab 3, page129)
  • This IS Gilead. But do Atwood (and Pinter) share Herbert's (radical) political philosophy? What, exactly, is Atwood/Pinter "attacking"? Government power per se? Government power over women? Religion? Feminism? Capitalism? The West?
  • Randy E. Barnett writes, "For social order to exist in such a way as to facilitate theuniversal pursuit of individual happiness, the law must allow and protect the freedom of each individual to make choices among alternative paths of conduct, to act on those choices, and to appropriate and use resources from the world. This conclusion can be abbreviated as follows: 'Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).'" ("Pursuing Justice," Tab 5, page 5).
    • Where does Gilead diverge from this: Discuss the three elements of Barnett's conditions. How is each restricted in Gilead? Why is each needed?
  • Quoting George Roche, Hal Colebatch writes, "The very words we need to think about when we discuss heroes-valor, magnanimity, fortitude, gallantry-rust from disuse." (Return of the Heroes, Tab 16, page 52)
    • What sort of a heroine is Kate? (Reluctant, resilient, survivor) Offred from Atwood's novel? How is the movie's Nick heroic? The novel's Nick?
  • Atwood's ending as rendered by one Professor Pieixoto in 2195, "As for the ultimate fate of our narrator, it remains obscure." (Atwood's Handmaid, 393)
    • Contrast the ending of the novel with the ending of the film. How does each ending represent the ideas of liberty presented in the novel and the film?


1. the "will" to freedom and its loss as a precondition for the emegence of Fascism in America. Preference for security of oppression over he uncertainties of freedom:

Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. (p. 172)

2. the problematic formulation of the distinction between freedom from and freedom to (p. 33).

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it." (p. 33)

In Atwood's formulation "freedom from" means the freedom from making one's own decisions, the absence of risk, uncertainty, ill health (i.e. the security mentioned above) which are all taken care of by the state, and "freedom to" which means the freedom of the individual to engage in risky and uncertain behaviour, to rise or fall by their own actions without the state providing support:

3. the contrast between the idea of freedom claimed as a right of one's human "nature" and the idea of a woman's "natural" place in a hierarchy determined by God, the Church, the State, or "society". John Stuart Mill in The Subjection of Women (1869) put the question of whether there was a separate women's nature and whether this should be used to define women's place in society in the following way:

... the question rests with women themselves - to be decided by their own experience, and by the use of their own faculties. There are no means of finding what either one person or many can do, but by trying - and no means by which any one else can discover for them what it is for their happiness to do or leave undone.

... nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women; it is only asked that the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men be recalled. (Virago edition, pp. 48-9).

4. the contrast between idea of "self ownership" (which establishes a right to a protected sphere and the exercise of individual liberty) and the naked exercise of political power which turns autonomous individuals into mere "objects" or slaves (their bodies are owned by somebody else). "Who owns whom" determines the nature of power. If the state owns your body you are enslaved. If you own your body you are free. The following quotes from Atwook are interesting:

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. (p. 95).

Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I've resisted, comes flooding in. I don't want pain. I don't want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don't want to be a doll hung up on the wall, I don't want to be wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the use of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.

I feel for the first time, their true power. (p. 368)

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing. (p. 174)

5. The importance of reading and writing as political and moral acts. Key aspect of the Reformation was translation of Bible into vernacular languages and mass production through printing, thus excaping tyranny of priests. Ban on slave owners in American South teaching slaves how to read:

Tell rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. (p. 52.)

The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn't steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read. (p. 112.)

6. The ways in which power can be undermined and opposed by individuals. Atwood suggests we can undermine state power by "wispering" against it, Twain by laughing at or mocking it (e.g. Twain's "War Prayer").

There's something powerful in the wispering of obscenities, about those in power. (p. 287)

7. The process by which democratic America became a fascist state (pp. 224-5): the confiscation of "portable" paper money; declaration of a state of emergency following political assassinations (national security), suspension of the constitution, closing down and censoring of newspapers, roadblocks, ID cards, closing down pornography and prostitution, freezing of women's bank accounts, ending of female employment

8. The strong links she establishes between economic and political freedom:

If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult. (p. 224)

Women can't own property any more. (p. 231)

9. Other interesting references:

  • On the irrepressible nature of the market: "There's always a black market, there's always something that can be exchanged." (p. 19)
  • Atwood's amusing rewording of a key principle of Marxism (as expressed in The Communist Manifesto of 1848): "From each, says the slogan, according to her ability: to each according to his needs." (p. 151)
  • Whether or not religion or feminism are liberating or repressive ideologies: "You wanted a women's culture." (p. 164)
  • Balm/Bomb in Gilead, p. 283
  • the "intoxification of power," (p. 307)
  • Reference to 19thC Underground Railroad to ferry escaped slaves to North: "Underground Femaleroad," p. 320