More than thirty years after its publication, Margaret Atwood’s instant-classic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has bubbled back into pop-culture consciousness thanks to a new episodic adaptation on Hulu. Set in the near future, it follows the life of a woman who is forced to bear children for wealthy, infertile couples in the Christian-controlled Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the United States.
But twenty-eight years before the Hulu series launched a thousand think pieces about the story’s contemporary resonance, The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into a film that was primarily shot in Durham. Though it’s been mostly forgotten (you can’t even rent it on Amazon, though you can buy it for $9.99), it was quite memorable for people in the Bull City at the time, not least because it stirred up some unexpected controversy.
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 withand have a child forthe 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.
The American Tobacco Company (now the American Tobacco Campus) serves as the exterior of the Red Center, a training hub for handmaids-to-be. A climactic scene in which Offred makes her escape was shot at the intersection of Chapel Hill and Pettigrew streets, and though it takes place at night, the overpass is unmistakable. Other scenes were filmed in front of St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, The Ark dance studio and a gym on Duke’s campus, and a bathroom at Northern High School.
One other location is so sinister you couldn’t have made it up. According to an article by Linda Surralt in the March 9, 1990, Durham Morning Herald, more than 60 percent of the film was shot at 1810 Cedar Street in Durham’s tony Forest Hills neighborhood. The ten-thousand-square-foot house served as the Commander’s abode, the setting of most of Offred’s story. In the early 2000s, the not-so-humble home became infamous as the site of Kathleen Peterson’s alleged murder at the hands of her husband, the novelist Michael Peterson, who recently ended the fifteen-year murder case with a plea deal.
More than five thousand people showed up to open auditions organized by Wilmington’s Fincannon and Associates at Durham’s Northgate Mall and Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall. Three thousand made the cut. Brenda Pollard, who was cast as Handmaid No. 62, discussed her experience as an extra in a scene shot in front of Duke Chapel with the Durham Morning Herald‘s Susan Broili in an article published on March 9, 1990.
“It was so hot that day that we were just about to faint. We worked on it so hard, we worked right through lunch,” she said.
That scene caused an exceptional flap on Duke’s campus. A significant piece of the Handmaid’s Tale story is a “salvaging,” a public execution that reminds handmaids of what happens when they step out of line. One of them, played by Duke undergrad Allison Holmes, is hanged for “fornication with medical staff.” Her body swings back and forth in front of Duke Chapel’s iconic bell tower in one of the most stunning and stomach-turning shots of the film.
But no one at the university or with the film thought to notify anyone at Duke Chapel before shooting this highly charged scene. Even Reverend William Willimon, who was the chapel’s dean at the time, was kept in the dark.
Willimon had heard buzz that The Handmaid’s Tale, which he’d read and found intriguing, would be shooting around the chapel. But one Sunday morning, he arrived to find a tank, an armored vehicle, and a massive gallows in front of the church.
“The thing that peeved me was that somebody in the university administration said, ‘Well, we consulted the chaplain, and he said it was fine,’ and I said, ‘Gee, I might have said it was fine if asked, but nobody ever asked me,’” he recalls. “By Monday morning, it was a deluge of complaints: ‘This is a violation of the chapel and Duke, and this is a terrible image.’”
The shoot had been scheduled to coincide with Duke’s spring break, when there would be fewer students around, but it backfired: the gallows were in front of the church on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter. Willimon took it in stride, working the unsettling surprise into his homily.
“I did get some good sermon mileage out of it,” he says. “I said, ‘Here, we’ve got a gallows out in front of the church, but if we were really being true to the Christian story, the cross was the first-century Roman gallows.’”
In the ensuing uproar, some denounced the production’s use of chapel grounds as sacrilegious. Willimon says he thought that was a bit much, but that it still felt disrespectful. In a News & Observer article from March 17, 1989, he told reporter Mary Burch, “As a Methodist minister, I find all forms of capital punishment repugnant. Duke Chapel is a sacred place to many of us, and the scene going on seems to be kind of a violation of that sacredness.”
Who, then, was to blame for the dustup?
In a letter dated April 10, 1989, Leonard G. Pardue, the director of university relations and the university’s associate vice president, claimed responsibility. He was writing in response to a faculty member who was concerned about the production’s use of the campus and what it said about the university’s values. Pardue defended the decision, writing, “I concluded this was a serious and substantive work that raised significant social and political questions … I saw no basis to object to the film on the ground that it might be controversial, given the University’s necessary commitment to free speech and free inquiry.”
Others voiced concerns that were a little less severe: one letter of complaint was more fretful about film crews damaging the slate walkways around the chapel than with the university’s reputation. The misadventure ultimately helped Duke figure out better practices for future film productions.
The Handmaid’s Tale had a small release in the spring of 1990. Despite Durham’s starring role in the picture, Raleigh’s Rialto Theatre was the only local cinema to run itand just for two weeksother than two special screenings at Duke. It hasn’t held up well, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 33 percent.
Even so, it’s an indispensable slice of Durham history on the big screen. Watch it out of local curiosity or as a rough primer for the Hulu series. Whatever you do, just don’t let the bastards grind you down.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Maid in Durham.”