Reading the Pandemic Part Two: Horror, Dystopia, Film, Text

Over the past week, I’ve stumbled across several essays that use slightly different words to make the same point as this aptly named article–GRIM, GHASTLY & GRUESOME–from the NY Times Review of Books. 

“Horror,” columnist Danielle Trussoni writes, “is a perfect genre for our current moment, one that offers a narrative architecture strong enough to hold the weight of America’s traumatic past, stories entertaining enough to keep our attention, and conflicts that allow us to confront our demons and defeat them.”

While I’m not a huge horror aficionado in normal times, I definitely turn to the genre at key moments and find that it offers all of these elements quite well.

During a particularly gnarly phase of my usually boring life, I devoured Zombie fiction one book after another, finding special refuge in the Young Adult series THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH.  Nothing else seemed to make me feel better than reading about the Undead.  It was both cathartic and riveting, escapist and inspiring.

More recently, during the early days of the pandemic, I didn’t turn to horror per se, but I became fascinated by stories of escape from insular fundamentalist cults—I started with the HBO mini-series UNORTHODOX and went from there—watching or reading, but preferably both. ONE OF US, BOY ERASED, LEAVING THE FOLD … while they don’t fit the horror genre in terms of slashers jumping out from dark corners, they belong in the category of real-life horror in that people are actually trapped in these systems right now.  In tale after tale, the protagonists showed that freedom can be attained but only at a heavy price and usually only with outstanding help.

And now here we are, with the 2020 ball cage spinning rapidly out of control as we are just about to fill up our apocalyptic BINGO cards.

The final days of the election are upon us.  I am in need of another horror distraction–NOW!!!! 

And what better distraction could there possibly be than THE most fitting and appallingly prescient creative work for this moment, Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

Since the spring of 2017, gobs of writers have pointed out the scary similarities between Trump’s America and The Republic of Gilead.  I won’t echo these other than to say that what seemed eerily predictive four years ago is screamingly evident in 2020. 

Putting that aside, what interests me most about Atwood’s story is viewing its underlying premise as depicted in the 1985 book vs. the 1990 film vs. the current Hulu series. I also can’t help but view all of these stories against CHILDREN OF MEN, another author’s treatment of the same premise, in book and film version. 

If you too are looking for a distraction, please read on for my random observations about these thematic cousins….You may find something you’d like to binge on Election Night. 

The Handmaid’s Tale: Book Version

While I read The Handmaid’s Tale quite a few years ago, I have always treasured a vivid image from the book–the scene showing Offred gazing at a pillow embroidered with the word faith and reading the word over and over.  In Gilead, women are not allowed to read and text is kept away from them, so this pillow served as a talisman to conjure up an earlier time when a woman’s value was not based solely on her ability to bear children for an infertile—virtually childless–country. I think this scene has stuck with me because some of my earliest and most profound memories are of reading and the idea that this could be taken away was something that struck a chord.

I also appreciate Atwood’s precision in naming the book’s genre.  It is not, as she points out, science fiction.  There is nothing in the book that could not happen in our world.  It is speculative fiction, a much broader genre that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror, and dystopian books such as this one that “merely” predict possible realities that could happen given specific circumstances.  

Atwood studied American Puritans while at Harvard and as she was writing the book she was concerned about similar patriarchal religious tendencies occurring in modern times.  She has said that the book was a response to the argument that totalitarianism can’t happen in America and is an attempt to show that yes it absolutely CAN happen and moreover here’s how it could.   

An especially good quote from the book: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

The 1990 Film:

Five years after the book was published, a film version was released. While it’s relatively obscure today, it did feature several big names including Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Donaway and Elizabeth McGovern. An interesting side note is that the movie was filmed on the campus of North Carolina’s Duke University.

Most critics panned the movie, arguing that it focused too much on erotica and that the protagonist was too emotionally distant due to the lack of a voice over.  At the same time, the film does have a few true believers who find it offers an interesting angle.  The film stays fairly true to the novel and the lack of voice over gives the sense of something happening beyond an individual’s control.  It’s definitely worth watching if you’d like to compare artistic interpretations.  It’s also interesting from a historical point of view, to see what things were on people’s minds 30 years ago as opposed to 1985 or today.    

The Hulu Series:

The Hulu Series debuted just a few months after Trump’s inauguration, and the overwhelming consensus is that it delivers the best, most impactful version of the tale. 

My only personal complaint is that the horror aspect is a bit over the top for my taste.  The barebones of the story are brutal enough in their own right.

Much of the series’ power relies on Elizabeth Moss’s incredible performance as Offred as well as Ann Dowd’s as Aunt Lydia.  Indeed, the conflict between the two inspires much of the dramatic arc. 

Especially well done in the Hulu version are the flashbacks to life before theocracy overtook America and the seeming cluelessness and apathy of people as it was happening.  The environmental degradation, the health concerns, the trampling of rights, the civil unrest—the world was much as we know it, establishing a platform for takeover, and yet everyone seemed to be taken by surprise. 

Just for fun, here’s a mash-up of scenes from the film version next to scenes from the Hulu series. 

See what you think.

Children of Men:

An analogous story occurs on the other side of the Atlantic, in Great Britain.  The underlying theme of CHILDREN OF MEN is vitually identical to THE HANDMAID”S TALE, simply more severe: environmental degradation, disease and civil unrest have led to worldwide infertility to the point that a baby has not been born in more than 18 years.  In both stories, infertility is at once a metaphor, a distinct possibility and most of all, a catalyst for birthing heroes and villains.

With a male protagonist, CHILDREN OF MEN has a more masculine flavor than THE HANDMAID’S TALE, but the 1992 book is indeed written by a woman, English crime writer PD James.  People often say it is a one-off because it is her only science fiction novel, but again, there is little in the book that could not actually occur and I would say it fits the speculative dystopian label better than science fiction.

I watched the movie version of CHILDREN OF MEN soon after it came out in 2006 but I didn’t read the source novel until last week.  The reviews I had seen said that the movie had virtually no similarity to the novel, so I was surprised to find that they are more alike than I was expecting.  They both deal with devotion, betrayal and sacrifice as the world order completely falls apart. (In other words, they both grapple with the same meaty questions as The Handmaid’s Tale.)

The book’s villain is more of a caricature than the movie’s, and the very flawed protagonist is thrust into a completely different position at the end.  I won’t spoil it by saying how, but it didn’t work terribly well for me.  At the same time, the novel is a compelling read with a captivating protagonist, a strong plot and complex supporting characters.  It also raises legitimate issues about faith and the meaning of life in a surprisingly non-judgmental way. 

The Movie:

The CHILDREN OF MEN movie was beset with problems during filming as well as a marketing disaster at its debut.  As a result, it was a commercial flop when it was released in 2006, despite a smattering of critical acclaim. 

Its stature changed in 2016 when its relevance became undeniable.  It has experienced a strong resurgence as both a critical favortie and a cult classic of sorts. It now appears on multiple lists of Most Important Movies. 

Several of the film’s scenes have become spookily on point during the past few years—refugees in cages, civil and racial unrest, authoritarian governments, religious fanaticism on the streets.  I also find it interesting that in the film, the protagonist’s child is dead not due to an accident, as in the book, but due to a pandemic.

Both the book and the film are rich with spiritual symbolism and I would argue that both are well done, although in different ways.  Because the movie was released on Christmas Day, it is sometimes viewed as an allegory for the Nativity Story.  The director denies this vehemently, but I would argue that there is no denying what is there, intentional or not.  The most powerful scene for me was near the end when the armed soldiers spontaneously lower their weapons and kneel in awe.  The moment was perfectly captured and it’s fascinating to read the details about the filming of the scene.  You may come to believe that maybe there are a few miracles left in this world.   

Also, the ending is simply perfect.

I stumbled across many reviews of the movie as I was writing this blog.  Of special note is an article by Abraham Riesman that appeared in New York Magazine (2016) and Vulture. 

Abraham’s quote refers to the film version, but it works equally well for the book:

Children of Men imagines a fallen world, yes, but it also imagines a once-cynical person being reborn with purpose and clarity. It’s a story about how people like me, those who have the luxury of tuning out, need to awaken.”

So this brings us back to Trussoni’s quote.  Horror is indeed the perfect genre for the moment, but only horror that empowers us to rise above it.  “Defeating monsters is what horror fiction does best,” she wrote. “By creating stories about the beasts that terrify us — demons and tyrants, killers and bullies and ghosts — horror writers lead us into imaginary battles with evil so intimate and powerful that we emerge better prepared to fight real ones.”

By expanding the label of horror beyond the tropes, this commentary fits dystopian pieces just as perfectly, perhaps even better because the imagined world could easily be our own.   

I hope that we are indeed up to the task. 


Note: The one good thing about 2020 is that book nerds get to reference all sorts of apropos concepts. So many allusions! I’ve attempted to hyperlink to works quoted and discussed. Additional links of interest include:

The concept of faith in Children of Men:

How science fiction has a knack for predicting reality:

Best Dystopian books:

The resonance of that Gatsby quote:

Please share your thoughts with me!


About Elizabeth Jennings

I am an author living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My first book, The Button Collector, was released May 6, 2013, by PageSpring Publishing.
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