In the Age of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ it’s Time to Revisit ‘Children of Men’
Both, Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Children of Men, are examples of dystopian fiction and are products of their author’s response to history that they have experienced from a remove. The presented imaginary universes in these two stories are meant to embody a perfect society. However, such societies often result in an exaggerated worst-case scenario that are meant to act as a commentary on current societal forms and political systems that can result in chaos if left unchecked by the individual citizens of the nation in question. Both works present apocalyptic worlds and stories of characters within those worlds that are meant to act as cautionary tales that take place in a futuristic universe, which is removed from the environment that is perceived as “normal” and acceptable by today’s society in order to communicate to audiences just how chaotic, dehumanizing and oppressive their current state has the potential of becoming.
For example, Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, was based on notes that she kept in a box labeled handmaid’s tale background. These notes detail events she encountered during the mid-1980s that called her attention. In the box, there were stories about abortion and contraception being outlawed in Romania. There were reports about Canada’s falling birth rate. There were also articles from the U.S. about Republican attempts to withhold federal funding from clinics that provided abortion services, and there were reports about the threat to privacy posed by debit cards. There were two counts of U.S. congressional hearings that centered around the regulation of toxic industrial emissions due to the deadly gas leak that was taking place during that time in Bhopal, India. Lastly, there were Associated Press reports about a Catholic congregation in New Jersey being taken over by a fundamentalist sect in which women were called handmaidens (Dray, “The real-life events that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale”).
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These notes serve as proof that the relationship between a given society and the sorts of apocalypses it can envision has much to do with the societal events that are going on at the time. A society’s depiction of an apocalypse is influenced by what they already know or are experiencing. The events that occur in The Handmaid’s Tale are based on the reports mentioned earlier but filtered through an authorial lens that imagined a nightmare of inequality and oppression. For example, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of the new world that is Gilead. Gilead is the remains of what once was the United States of America. Gilead was formed as a result of a military coup suspending the constitution after assassinating the president and all of the members of Congress. In place of the constitution, a Christian Theocracy was established, which resulted in a society designed to abide by the judgments of men, which were often justified by skewed interpretations of the Old Testament. Furthermore, pollution and chemical poisoning has resulted in a decline of birth rates. As a result, the government of Gilead created Handmaids. Handmaids were women with functioning ovaries that were assigned to military commanders and their wives who could not bear children. The handmaids were expected to bear the children of the commanders and give them up to their wives after birthing them (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale).
The film, Children of Men, is a British-American dystopian film directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. The screenplay is based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel The Children of Men. There are a few key differences between the two are in plot and characterization. The movie takes place in the year 2027, at a time that no one is able to reproduce, which has led to a worldwide panic of humanity going extinct. As a result, all of society has disintegrated into chaos resulting in millions of illegal immigrants from around the world seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, because it has the only standing functioning government. Under the oppressive nature of the new strict immigration laws, Theo Faron, the ex-partner, Jillian, of the leader of the rebellion, is convinced to help a girl named Kee to reach the coast in an attempt to get her on the human project boat that will save her and her baby, which Theo is fighting to conceal throughout their entire journey because she is the first pregnant woman in twenty years. However, in the book, Jillian is pregnant instead (“What’s the Difference between The Children of Men the Book and Children of Men the Movie?”).
Although the novel takes place in 2021, the research that the novel is based on comes from the year 1992. Societal problems that both the book and the film are based on that were observable during 1992 when the book was written, include immigration and democracy. These were the issues that James based her book off of that eventually became Cuaron’s dystopian film, Children of Men. During the 1990s, “People became tired of invading hordes,” who expect to “exploit the benefits which had been won over centuries by intelligence, industry, and courage” (James, “Children of Men – P. D. James – Books – Movie”). Moreover, the book and the film both act as cautionary works about the role and illusion of democracy. “This poisonous rule is presented to the public and accepted as a strong, desirable response to threats to the country. The government justifies abuses in the name of a smoothly run society: it condones the forced, slavelike labor of immigrants and encourages the mass suicides of the old,” (James, “Children of Men – P. D. James – Books – Movie”).
The plot of Children of Men is a morally ambiguous story without clearly defined heroes and villains or an easy unrighteous resolution. This ambiguity is tempered with a hopefulness that hints at the possibility of redemption. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the film’s theme correlates to biblical texts and stories. For example, in Children of Men Theo must renounce his indifference and commit to an act of faith shepherding the child who is the last hope of a hopeless future. This kernel of truth is where spirituality and activism intersect. The miracle child is meant to represent Jesus who is born in a humble manger much like the scene when Kee reveals to them that she is pregnant. In this scene, Kee reveals her baby bump amongst cows in a humble farmhouse. Salvation doesn’t come from the strongest or the smartest, but from those who amidst these small incidental moments, have the courage to commit to something bigger than themselves.
Much like the protagonist of Children of Men, the protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale is viewed as a symbol of salvation, because of her reproduction ability. The protagonist is called Offred, which signifies who she belongs to. She is of Fred. All handmaids in the book wear red as another way of further doing away with any form of individualism. Wives who are married to commanders wear blue. Marthas, which are servants in the commander’s houses, wear green. There are also aunts, which are instructors of handmaids, and overseers of execution. For the most part, these women are denied an education, the right to vote, and the chance to work for pay. Most are also forbidden from reading. Something important to note is that, like The Handmaid’s Tale, and the film, Children of Men, the deeper meaning to these dystopias, which were inspired by real-life events that were witnessed by their authors, is meant to get at what it means to be a small part of a civilization and what it is to be human.
Caught up in a world of constant surveillance, forced regulations, and harsh punishment, Offred makes it a point to hold on to her individualism and the hope of escaping and making a difference. Offred attempts to retain her individualism and humanity in many ways – for example, by spreading a packet of butter onto her hands and face as described by Offred in the following quote “As long as we do this butter, our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will someday get out that we will be touched again in love or desire,” (96-97, Atwood). In the following quote, she also shows how she attempts to retain some form of power in her life via acknowledging that she is desired by men: “Remember the desires of her past and to stay sane. Sanity is a valuable possession. I hoard it the way people once hoarded money,” (109, Atwood). Furthermore, once Offred has sex with Nick, she begins to visit him regularly at night as a way of holding on to her humanity by attempting to continue a relationship with another person. Even though Nick never said much, she found comfort in him letting her in and allowing her to carry on with conversations about Moira and Ofglen. She even went as far as revealing to him her real name. These were just a few ways that Offred retained her sanity and hoarded it as much as she could in case she would ever come across a time in which she would need large amounts of it.
Gilead was dehumanizing in many ways to its people. It was most oppressive, however, to their females, which is an issue that persists in even today’s society. In Gilead, women take on the names of the commanders they belong to, and in today’s society women take on the last names of their spouses. In both societies, women do not get treated equally. Men are continually viewed as superior to women in today’s society, which can be acknowledged in something as vital as a difference in pay between men and women for doing the same job. In Gilead, women are altogether denied the right to education and liberty, but protected for their reproductive abilities. This is justified in the name of avoiding rape from taking place, yet the government is enabling it in the commander’s homes (Wheat, “The Handmaid’s Tale – Quotes and Analysis”).
Rebellion against such injustices still takes place, nonetheless. Heroism is subtle, but enduring in Gilead. For example, Offred’s mother is another heroin. She was part of the second wave of feminists who fought for women’s rights, and before the revolution, she was a marcher and a pornography burner, but she paid a high toll for her rebellion. She was exiled to the toxic colonies. Furthermore, Offred’s college friend, Moira, is similarly crude in her resistance. After staging a daring escape from the reeducation center, Moira is captured, sterilized, and forced to become a sex worker. However, in her own attempt to keep the fire of rebellion and dignity alive within her, Offered decides to believe that Moira will also escape this prison as shown in the following quote:
“I’d like to tell the story about how Moira escaped for good this time, or if I couldn’t tell that I’d like to say she blew up Jezza battles with 50 commanders inside it. I’d like to end with something daring in spectacular, some outrage, something that would fit her, but as far as I know, that didn’t happen. I don’t know how she ended or even if she did because I never saw her again,” (Atwood, 250).
The root cause for both the film and the book’s societal declines and troubles is the plague of infertility, which is strongly implied in both of these stories to be God’s judgment for a sinful and fallen Great Britain and Gilead. Something important to note is that James was a conservative and religious individual, yet her vision of Children of Men is a secular take of an apocalypse where religion has become absent from public life. James cited that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale served as an inspiration for her novel, which points to this truth that although Children of Men was written by an Anglican conservative Christian in the U.K., it nevertheless, serves as an allegory for the decline of Christian values in the West. Conversely, The Handmaid’s Tale, which serves as a socio-political commentary that imagines a dark fusion between Christianity and patriarchy going array was written by Margaret Atwood, a liberal American feminist.
These novels were written by Westerners with very different outlooks and backgrounds, but their books offer similar visions of a future with no future because the societal issues that both works were based on are universal. The two authors start at very different ends of the theological spectrum, yet arrive at the same conclusion. Both James and Atwoods conclude that humanity is rushing towards a dark and hopeless future that is marked by the absence of children. Both, Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Children of Men, conclude with an uncertain ending leaving the audience to speculate about what will happen to the main characters of the plot. This uncertainty mirrors the uncertainty of all envisioned societal apocalyptic endings because the truth is that one cannot deny nor confirm what the future will bring. But, even though the ways of society are always changing, the real-life struggles that inspired the authors to write these stories are not unique to only certain parts of the world. Everyone can relate and see these dystopian scenarios happening in their own lives because they were based on real-life issues. Nevertheless, such dystopian fictions are meant to warn readers about the potential of such exaggerated endings so as to prompt preemptive action against such dangers and in turn, highlight the power and value of individual action.
Atwood, M. (1998). The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books.
Cuaron, A. (Director). (2006). Children of men[Video file]. Retrieved December 02, 2018, from http://streamingdata.library.umass.edu/view/7465a476-c64b-11e8-9567-5254000a8a9b
Dray, K. (2018, June 26). The real-life events that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale. Retrieved December 02, 2018, from https://www.stylist.co.uk/books/handmaids-tale-channel-4-tv-show-spoilers-books-real-life-true-events-margaret-atwood-elisabeth-moss/130001
James, C. (2006, December 28). Children of Men – P. D. James – Books – Movies. Retrieved December 02, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/28/movies/28men.html
What’s the Difference between The Children of Men the Book and Children of Men the Movie? (n.d.). Retrieved December 02, 2018, from http://thatwasnotinthebook.com/diff/children_of_men_book_1992_vs_children_of_men_movie_2006/1#diffPage