As one of the most celebrated novels of the last 30 years, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has naturally inspired many adaptations. Here’s a look at some of the efforts to translate Margaret Atwood’s novel -- written in the first person from the point of view of a young handmaid named Offred -- to film, dance, opera and even radio.
Film: Even though “The Handmaid’s Tale” was an acclaimed bestseller, studios in the late ’80s weren’t lining up to finance a provocative feminist tale. Director Volker Schlondorff and producer Daniel Wilson also struggled to find an actress brave enough to play Offred after original star Sigourney Weaver dropped out — reportedly because she was pregnant (oh, the irony). The movie, written by legendary dramatist Harold Pinter and starring Natasha Richardson, was a commercial and critical dud upon its release in 1990. “Cold to the touch,” was The Times’ verdict. “The filmmakers don’t have enough feeling for the present to make a convincing cautionary tale about the future.”
Opera: From composer Poul Ruders with a libretto by Paul Bentley, this work added a framing device inspired by Atwood’s novel: In the year 2195, a professor lecturing about the former Republic of Gilead shares an audio diary from a handmaid named Offred. The opera, which told her story in flashback, premiered in Copenhagen in 2000 and later played in London and Minneapolis. The result was “dramatically convoluted,” according to the New York Times, but “so musically inventive that you get pulled in anyway.”
Ballet: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented its take on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” choreographed by Lila York and with music by James MacMillan, in 2013. The mostly faithful adaptation, which made use of video projection, was visually striking but “short of conflict, drama, passion and tension,” observed the Globe and Mail.
Theater: In 2015, a stage adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” opened in Cincinnati. Written by Joe Stollenwerk, it starred Corinne Mohlenhoff as Offred and hewed closely to Atwood’s original text — a little too closely for a critic at the Cincinnati Enquirer, who wrote, “This isn’t a book. It’s a live performance.”
Radio: John Dryden dramatized “The Handmaid’s Tale” for BBC Radio 4 in 2000. His version featured documentary-style sound recorded on location in New York. “This roots the plot in the ordinary and everyday, lending it plausibility,” ruled the Guardian.
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