The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.

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The Beguiled (2017)

An open question lies at the heart of The Beguiled and it’s a simple one… who, precisely, *is* the beguiled in Sofia Coppola’s story? Come the conclusion, you may not have reached a simple answer. Beguiled, in its essential form, means ‘charmed’ or ‘to charm’. The answer, considering the plot, may appear obvious but it’s anything but.

The Beguiled started life as a 1966 novel called ‘A Painted Devil’ by late author Thomas P. Cullinan, and was first adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, with Clint Eastwood in the role of wounded Corporal John McBurney in 1864, during the middle of the American Civil War, a Union soldier who is found injured in the woods of Mississippi by the youngest girl in a Christian seminary & finishing school and upon being brought into the household out of Christian charity, begins to inveigle himself into the lives of a group of girls and women starved of testosterone, with disturbing results.

Having not seen the original it’s hard to compare, but Coppola in reimagining the story was aware that Siegel’s previous take—as one can imagine from a director known for his long-standing working relationship with Eastwood—very much pitched the focus from the point of view of McBurney. A male viewpoint of an extremely female world which Coppola wanted to flip and invert, re-tasking McBurney as the enigmatic outside force who begins to psychologically distract and expose the taut, bridled sexuality of these women against the spirit of their God-fearing values.

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