The horror of the dystopian world of Gilead (once United States) in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has come alive many times. In 1990, the book was adapted into a feature film. In 2000 it developed into a BBC radio drama. There have been several stage adaptations, which include a Danish opera and a ballet.
Then the reach of this fast-becoming-classic exploded amongst a much wider (and woke) audience with the Emmy-winning, Elisabeth Moss-starring Hulu series which returned to the screens with the third season on June 5. And now, to add to this list, is the spectacular graphic novel, illustrated by Canadian artist Renée Nault (hand-picked by Margaret Atwood) and published by Doubleday Books.
The striking black hardback edition with minimal text resonates with the mood of the book. It is a testament to what lies inside – the dark, dystopian setting of Gilead, where fertile women are used for reproductive purposes. And so there is Offred in her handmaid’s red uniform and white bonnet, embossed in deep red just above the title, lending life to the otherwise matte, black surface of the cover.
Experiencing Atwood’s story in text and on screen wrung us out – we cringed, we wept, and we wondered if it would come true soon. It is an unreal yet believable world, eerily relevant today. The graphic novel, a faithful section-wise depiction of the novel, evokes similar feelings.
Nault’s work is equal parts horrifying and magnificent. Complex detailing juxtaposed with brushes of simplicity brings the original text alive into stark images, eerily reflecting the unwritten but palpable atmosphere of the novel. Unlike the show, which goes over and beyond the original storyline, Nault sticks strictly to the narrative of the book. She picks core passages, instead of events, and breathes life into them.
Offred’s loneliness and her monologues in particular have a personality of their own. Nault’s recreation of the plight of her world – as she is confined to her room, lying in her bed or on the floor, by day and by night, thinking, remembering and waiting – is hard-hitting and elaborate. The deliberate use of blank space to convey her immobiity is outstanding.
We are, of course, familiar with the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale. The story begins with Offred, who’s a Handmaid in the new Republic of Gilead, assigned to one of the ranking officers for the sole purpose of conceiving his child. There has been a substantial decline in birth rates owing to pollution and nuclear hazards, and therefore, fertile women like Offred have been forced to become the Biblically-inspired Handmaids.
Nault takes the liberty, and rightly so, to elaborately paint the toxic life in Gilead in bold, unabashed graphics. What seemed to be a gaping void trapped inside the text of the book, now has a face. Serena Joy’s hateful glare for Offred, dead bodies drooping along the Wall, the Commander’s pride of entitlement, Offred’s clever use of butter, her encounters with Nick and Moira – all of this and more gets an assured thumbs up in Nault’s graphic adaptation.
Colour plays an important part in Nault’s art. While Offred’s present-day oppressive life in Gilead is dominated by sombre greys, her former life (as June) with her daughter, Luke and Moira is presented in with happier, brighter hues.
There is a perfect balance where small panels are used to convey special moments and magnified expressions and wider, full-page spreads to fashion central scenes: The Wall and the bodies hanging off it, the gymnasium which is now the Red Center, Jezebels (the secret brother under the Republic of Gilead), etc.
For those who’ve followed the television adaptation, it might take a while to become familiar with the portrayals of the other characters (Nault’s Moira and Luke are white; in the show they’re African Americans which is, frankly, a pleasant change from an all-white majority). But it would be wrong to judge Nault’s choice, for oppression of women in the novel occurs irrespective of race and skin colour.
The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel is not congruent with the model of the show or the movie, which is also what makes the book special. Nault’s articulated decision to avoid watching the show or the movie is noble, for it doesn’t cloud her imagination. She leaves the book open-ended, with Offred stepping into the Eyes’ van followed by the “Historical Notes” epilogue, as in the original book.
Hulu’s adaptation of the show has taken giant steps in just two seasons, and the third season is underway, but Atwood’s decision to write a sequel to the novel (The Testaments, September 2019) after 34 years of its publication asserts the need of the hour, and Renee Nault’s graphic novel is certainly a welcome cultural addition.
The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, Margaret Atwood, Art & Adaption by Renée Nault, Jonathan Cape.