SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Voice Over & Subtext in The Handmaid’s Tale

Paul Peditto discusses voice over and subtext and how the Hulu show, The Handmaid’s Tale, deals with both.


Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago and has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.

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Paul Peditto discusses voice over and subtext and how the Hulu show, The Handmaid’s Tale, deals with both.

It’s been three years for me here at Script Mag—all thanks my fabulosa editor Jeanne Bowerman. The way I came into her sight, I believe, was an article I wrote about voice over. Specifically, how at the movie theater I walked out of Oscar-nominated Little Children—and into Paul Blart, Mall Cop—because of crappy voice over. Here’s a piece of that article…

  • WHY I WALKED OUT ON LITTLE CHILDREN

I made a vow: “If I hear that voice-over again, I’m walking.”  There’s Kate Winslet approaching a playground: “Many times Mary would take her child to the playground.” Kate swings her kid in the swing. “She loved to swing her kid on the swing.” Kate looks to a gaggle of women chatting at the merry-go-round. “There would often be other mothers there gossiping.” Voice over, if used at all, should not describe what we’re seeing directly. Good voice-over is indirect. It delves into the mind of a character for insight that is essential to the scene, insight we can’t see.

If you’re using voice over, examine the necessity of it. What’s your voice-over adding that we can’t discover visually? By just parroting what we already see you’re playing into the worst of what voice-over can be. Today I’m killing two birds with the proverbial stone. I want to write another post on voice over & subtext. I also want to talk about the Hulu show that freaking destroyed me—The Handmaid’s Tale.

Warning: S P O I L E R S!!!

I don’t do reviews. But I will show script pages and give away some of the story. If you haven’t seen it yet and want to be kept in the dark, hit the CLICK now.

How black is black? There’s almost no words for how hopeless, and yeah, how evil are those first three episodes. I barely stuck it out. Orwell on steroids. I mean, I’m going to drag my ass home on the Blue Line after a 10-hour workday and sit down to watch this? Whyyyyyyy?!  Because I’ve seen dystopian worlds before, but never like this. The Handmaid’s Tale makes 12 Years A Slave looks like a Charlie Chaplin single-reeler.

Fortunately, with episode 4 and onward, hope did emerge. If you watch the pilot and are thinking of bailing, I’d suggest you don’t. Stick it out. Speaking of the pilot, I found it online so I’ll break down three or four script passages for its brutal use of voice over.

Script EXTRA: Overheard Dialogue

It’s confusing for a new writer when talking voice over. So many “experts” say steer away. It distances the audience, slows down the action. Far better to stick with live action scenes. Why TELL me in dialogue when you can SHOW me in a scene that unfolds here and now. I get it. Movies are a visual medium, sure. But how do you account for Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Apocalypse Now, Forrest Gump, American Psycho, and Memento, all classic movies using the device?

I saw an interview with Jim Uhls, screenwriter from Fight Club, where he talked about feeding the audience incorrect information through voice over. Nice. It doesn’t have to be point and shoot—here’s what the camera is seeing, here’s the voice over describing that exact thing.

Remember how they used voice over in the first season of True Detective? Each detective sits in an interrogation room answering questions on “what happened then…”—We flashback to what actually did happen and we can see, what they’re telling the investigators is total bullshit. The voice over is used in direct opposition to what we’re seeing.

This also ties into subtext. The character tells another character something, but when we hit the voice over, we hear the truth—running directly counter to the supposed truth. This happens in The Handmaid’s Tale for the full length of its bleak pilot. Let’s check it out…

Paul Peditto discusses voice over and subtext and how the Hulu show,<em>The Handmaid’s Tale</em>, deals with both.

  • FIRST MEETING WITH RITA

 Rita goes back to kneading the bread, sinking her hands into the soft dough. Offred watches, hungrily.

 RITA: You gonna stand there all day? Be rude, leaving your friend out there waiting.

 OFFRED (V.O.): I want to tell her that Ofglen is not my friend, that I’ve exchanged  barely fifty words with her in the two months since I got here. I want to tell her that I sincerely believe that Ofglen is kind of a pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass.

 And then…

 OFFRED: Under his eye.

 Offred leaves. Off Rita—back to work.

Script EXTRA: Adaptation – Faithful or Original?

We hear Offred’s true voice only in the V.O. What she actually says to Rita is controlled BS. Why? Because one word out of place in this world can put you on the wrong end of a cattle prod. The contrast of said and unsaid is wonderful.

  •  WALKING WITH OFGLEN

EXT. GILEAD – UPSCALE NEIGHBORHOOD – DAY

Idyllic. Stately homes, with beautiful gardens, hiding so much darkness. MARTHAS walk on the streets, some GUARDIANS. No wives, no Commanders. A few Marthas push strollers or walk with boy children. THERE ARE NO GIRL CHILDREN OUTSIDE.

 The cars that pass are either commander-black or wife-blue, luxury gas guzzlers. A few MILITARY HUMVEES pass—black with the winged symbol on the doors.

 Offred walks with Ofglen.

 OFFRED (V.O.) We go everywhere in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, but that’s bullshit. The truth is we’re watching each other for any whiff of heresy. (and then) She is my spy, as I am hers. (and then) She has never said anything that was not strictly orthodox. But then neither have I. She may be a true believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can’t take that risk. I can’t end up on the Wall and leave my daughter here. Alone. (and then, aloud) We’ve been sent good weather.

 OFGLEN: Which I receive with joy. (and then) The war is going well, I hear.

 Offred reacts, hungry to hear any news. But she quickly buries her desire, answers as evenly as possible.

 OFFRED (eager, playing cool) By His hand.

Offred’s inner voice gives us key information while continuing to inform on her rebellious spirit. The calm and casual street walking here is a complete mask for what’s going on in Offred’s mind—and later we’ll find, Ofglen’s too. What can you say about the dialogue? Orwellian God-speak full of fearing-for-your-life, Room 101 non-emotion. The banality of expression is remarkable. These handmaidens know “The Eye” is always watching. The bodies hung on the river walk inform on the consequences of individuality.

Lastly, a long scene I’ve trimmed a bit. Amazing example of the said and unsaid, voice over and subtext:

  •  FIRST MEETING WITH THE COMMANDER AND HIS WIFE

SERENA JOY opens the door, strides in. She’s a brittle 40, in the signature pale blue of a Commander’s wife. Offred starts to look towards Serena—it’s a reflex. But she stops herself, keeps her head down. Eyes to the floor.

 Serena sees Offred twitch and catch herself. Serena takes a beat to enjoy her power at work. And then –

 SERENA JOY: So. Here you are.

 Offred keeps her eyes lowered.

 OFFRED (V.O.): Here I am. (and then) Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak to the wives unless they asked you a direct question. Think of it from their point of view, Aunt Lydia said. It isn’t easy for them. (and then) Boo fucking hoo.

 From the doorway, someone CLEARS THEIR THROAT. Offred glances over and sees COMMANDER WATERFORD (50’). Tall, a little thick in places, not necessarily handsome, but… commanding.

 Offred IMMEDIATELY stands up, bows her head obediently.

 SERENA JOY: Well. Look what the cat dragged in. (re: Offred) This is the new one.

 COMMANDER (to Offred, too casual) Hello. (then, catching himself) Blessed be the fruit.

 OFFRED: May the Lord open.

 A beat. And then—

 COMMANDER: I’m Commander Waterford. Fred Waterford.

 OFFRED: I am Of-fred.

 COMMANDER: Right. (and then) Well. Good.

 The whole process is proscribed, unnatural. The Commander turns to leave, pauses —

 COMMANDER (brightly) Nice to meet you.

 Serena Joy REACTS with a glare — this isn’t part of the ritual greeting. It is far too intimate.

Offred turns the words, and the rules, over in her head. She doesn’t know how to play it, what to say. She chooses—

 OFFRED: Thank you.

 The Commander leaves.

Offred shifts in the uncomfortable silence. The rain hits the window. An uneven rhythm of taps. Offred sits down again.

 SERENA JOY (sharply) Get up.

 Offred gets up.

 SERENA JOY: I want to see as little of you as possible. Understand?

 OFFRED: Yes, Ma’am… (and then) Yes.

 SERENA JOY: Mrs. Waterford.  (and then) You’ll find that in this house, we believe in mercy. But if I get trouble, believe me, I’ll give trouble back.

 Offred stares down at the floor…

Hell yeah she stares at the floor—you would too! When the revolution comes it’s off with this witch’s head—meanwhile, Offred silences the voice we’re hearing in her head. Because the Commander and his wife with one misspoken word have the power to torture Offred (cattle prods) or kill her outright (send her to the Colonies to die a toxic waste death).

Script EXTRA: Creating a Series Concept that Works – ‘Atypical’

What would you do in the her place? Isn’t that the essence of writing? We put ourselves in the character’s shoes. We live it through them, suffer with them… this is the very reason that after a 10-hour workday I’m probably not anxious to binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale. More likely I’m reaching for Chronicles Of Riddick.

Let’s not forget, Offred replaced the last handmaid who killed herself rather than further submit. Nothing like sleeping under the roof beams where your predecessor hung herself!

Utter repression for all three characters. Imagine you’re The Commander, one of the Ruling Elite who helped create Gilead. He seems like a nice-enough dude (for a neo-Nazi). A little too familiar with Offred here, which is immediately picked up on by the wife. Can’t get too close to the slave help, except when you’re trying to impregnate her.

Now you’re Serena Joy… Sterile. Part of a ceremony is to watch your husband have sex each and every month with another woman while she is laid out like a starfish in your lap. Little wonder this woman develops into pure evil.

Now you’re Offred… Your family is torn from you. Because you are the rare fertile woman, you have the privilege of serving the Rule Elite males, being raped every month in hopes of bearing the Commander’s child.

Under His eye?

You’d speak in secret voice overs too!

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