30 years ago, the Canadian author Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian feminist novel set in a futuristic America run by religious fundamentalists. Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have rendered the large majority of people infertile; the few women who can still reproduce are trained as “handmaids” and forcibly sent to serve wealthy and powerful men by bearing them and their wives' children. The novel, Atwood’s best-known work, has since become a modern classic, and a staple on English literature reading lists. It’s sold millions of copies and “appeared in a bewildering number of translations and editions,” as Atwood wrote in The Guardian earlier this year. The book has been adapted into plays, and even an opera. In March 1990, five years after its release, The Handmaid’s Tale was released as a movie, with a script by Harold Pinter, and stars including Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall. But while the novel hasn’t been out of print in the three decades since its debut, the film has been almost entirely forgotten, to the point where copies of it are so rare they sell for upwards of $100 on Amazon.
In many ways, the movie adaptation was ill-fated from the start, even with the wide acclaim the book had received. In 1986, Atwood sold the rights to the producer Daniel Wilson, partly because Wilson had tapped Pinter and the director Karel Reisz to lead the project. The playwright had previously worked with Reisz on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which starred Meryl Streep as a strong-willed woman condemned as promiscuous by a repressive society, and was nominated for five Academy Awards. But despite the talent attached and the success of Pinter and Reisz’s previous collaboration, no studio wanted to touch it. “During the next two and a half years, Wilson would take the Pinter script to every studio in Hollywood, encountering a wall of ignorance, hostility, and indifference,” writes the Canadian journalist Sheldon Teitelbaum. Movie executives declined to back the project, stating “that a film for and about women … would be lucky if it made it to video.”