Zachary Smith writes, "Almost 30 years before Hulu's take on Margaret Atwood's feminist classic, a less-successful adaptation was filmed in Durham, NC. Here's a well-researched look at the making of that film, and its strange parallels to the community."
Filmed in the spring of 1989, the indie adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale was the American feature debut of German director Volker Schlöndorff, best known for his 1979 film, The Tin Drum. Legendary playwright Harold Pinter wrote the script, though he later told his biographer that he was dissatisfied with changes made by Atwood and others during shooting. While the book and the series both weave in flashbacks, Pinter and Schlöndorff stick to a more linear narrative, resulting in a movie that moves at a fast clip and in broad strokes, with less embellishment and detail than a ten-part series can afford.
A young Natasha Richardson starred as Offred, the story's protagonist. She's sent to live with—and have a child for—the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, both of whom are much better cast than their 2017 counterparts are. Faye Dunaway's Serena Joy is frosty and frightening, a woman past her prime, motivated by desperation for control in a world where she has relatively little of it. Robert Duvall's Commander is a calculating cretin. Any woman who watches his performance will intimately recognize the ways he uses his power to butter up, manipulate, and oppress Offred all at once.
This was before a Republican legislature eliminated tax incentives for North Carolina media productions in 2014, decimating a thriving film industry that had put highly recognizable Durham locales onscreen in movies such as Bull Durham and Brainstorm. It was also before the urban landscape of Durham began its drastic reinvention in the aughts. But The Handmaid's Tale film reminds us of how much has stayed the same as well as how much has changed.