Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Volker Schlondorff’s film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood are dystopias. Set in the future, they imagine a world of political abuse of power and severe limitation of personal freedom for the common people. In this imaginary future, everything is controlled by the political group that has the power. Both are powerful allegories expressing the possibility that the human race might form at one point a nightmarish society in which individual freedom does not exist anymore.
The book and the movie actually exploit extremely realistic aspects of human nature and of the human society, despite their disguise as dystopias. They both surmise that human nature is liable to indoctrination and manipulation as well as to extreme constraint. However, there are also significant differences between Orwell’s book and Schlondorff’s movie. Essentially, Orwell’s book assumes that a dystopian state will endure despite its seemingly absurd premises and laws. The Handmaid’s Tale, both in its written and screen version show the possibility for escape or even an end of tyranny.
By choosing an open ending, the movie does not clarify the destiny of the protagonists. However, the implication is that Kate has made an escape eventually and that possibly the Republic of Gilead will soon collapse. Orwell’s book states however the opposite. The final impression is that Oceania and Big Brother are so deeply rooted and so powerful that their dominance cannot be shaken. The world of 1984 is completely submerged in a nightmarish state. This will be made even more obvious by the transformation that the protagonist, Winston Smith undergoes throughout the novel.
In the beginning he is one of the very few who still believe in truth and an unalterable past. He is still an individual who can think for himself and who believes that freedom should give him the ability to have an opinion that differs from the one accepted by the Party. In a world constantly monitored by big screens and where the concept of privacy has long ceased to exist, Smith is able to find respite at Mr. Charrington’s old shop, then with his lover Julia and finally with O’Brien, a colleague from work who seems to be of his own opinions and who apparently helps him become a member of a revolutionary organization.
Smith’s hopes for freedom grow and his independence becomes more and more asserted. In a state in which sexuality is severely repressed and all emotion is numbed by fear and indoctrination, Smith manages to find love and to communicate with another human being. Orwell thus seems to bring his hero towards light, only to plunge him into a greater darkness than before. The novel does not only represent the nightmarish society living in a dystopian state but also shows the way in which an all-controlling fascist government can take over an intelligent individual.
Winston Smith is initially an intelligent and rational individual who wants to fight against the oppressive, suffocating regime. By the end of the novel, not only is he defeated however but he has also become indoctrinated: “What were his true feelings towards Big Brother? ”(Orwell 227) The Party breaks the spirit of the hero in the most effective way. Like many other who had attempted rebellion, Smith is betrayed by the people he trusts and loves best. The final blow is given by the slow torture he is submitted to when the Ministry of Love imprisons him.
In room 101 he is made to face his greatest fear through a cage-like device, with a ferocious rat in it, which is attached to his face. At this moment, he is unable to fight anymore and betrays his lover: “’Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me! ‘” (Orwell 255) Orwell shows therefore that human nature can be ultimately defeated if faced with its darkest fears and deprived of contact with other sympathetic human beings.
Winston Smith’s last hope of seeing Oceania invaded by one of the other nation with which it is supposedly at war, Eurasia, fades in the last scene of the novel. With this last hope dies also his resistance and the now indoctrinated hero is moved by love for the Big Brother: “Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. ”(Orwell, 299) Orwell shows that his dystopia could have actual grounds for survival.
In it, human nature, with all its ability to reason and always seek the truth, can actually become as easily manipulated as a machine. The movie directed by Schlondorff and adapted from The Handmaid’s Tale represents the humans’ liability to manipulation in a similar way. The Republic of Gilead is situated in the near future, in a world so destroyed by pollution and ecological disaster that most women and men are infertile. The movie lays a particular stress on the condition of the women living in a misogynist society, where they are treated like objects.
In the dystopian vision of the movie the social hierarchies are marked by different colors. The handmaids are the only fertile women left in the state and they are exploited by authorities as part of the programmatic religious indoctrination. Following Rachel’s story in the Bible, the handmaids are entrusted to the rich families where they have to be impregnated by the men or the Commanders. The main difference from Orwell’s book is that Kate is dominated by fear but she seems to retain her sanity.
She too finds love with Nick and becomes pregnant with his child. The outcome of their relationship however remains unknown as the movie ends with her being taken away in a black van, supposedly to be executed or deported. However, Nick is among the men in the van and promises her they will escape together. What is significant here is that the film assumes that a world governed by religious extremists cannot last. It moreover emphasizes the sexual war between men and women, showing the women entrapped in their fixed gender role and totally deprived of freedom.
The movie focuses more on the independence of women as well as that of other races in general and insists on genetic perfection that reminder of Nazism. It is more concerned therefore with aspects of race, gender and religious extremism rather than with human nature in general. Orwell’s book on the other hand represents dystopia as a definite possibility in the future where the political dominance is absolute. While the women in the movie are not allowed to read at all, the Thought Police in Orwell’s book controls the minds of the people by feeding them with manufactured versions of the truth as well as the past.
In the movie, some intercourse and communication is still possible, while in Orwell’s book the danger of being discovered is so great that often young children report their own parents to the Thought Police. While in the movie the authorities claim God as their supreme ruler and use religion to control the masses, the Party in 1984 uses the figure of Big Brother as an icon. Big Brother and the Party are also sacred since and function as a god who has complete control and can oversee everything and pull the strings of reality whichever way he desires.
Ultimately both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale show dystopia to be a possibility because of some inherent aspects of human nature that make it liable either to complete indoctrination under a system of belief or at least to submission. The main thing that differentiates the two is that the Handmaid’s Tale chooses a more optimistic view in which the government is finally defeated, while Orwell imagines the dystopia as having the power to outlast human nature. ? Works Cited: Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Penguin, 2003. Schlondorff, Volker, dir. The Handmaid’s Tale. Perf. Natasha Richardson and Faye Daunway 1990. DVD. MGM, 2001.
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