Atwood’s 1985 canonical novel continues to represent a feminist warning bell that draws attention to repressive, patriarchal systems of power.
It’s one hell of a time to be writing about The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 canonical novel continues to represent a feminist warning bell that draws attention to repressive, patriarchal systems of power. In the wake of the 2016 election and recent restrictive abortion legislation, many have referenced Atwood’s novel to point out that the United States is becoming more and more like Gilead, the narrative’s dystopian setting where women are no longer allowed to exercise any control over their own bodies.
The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel is the most recent adaptation of Atwood’s text, following a 1990 film, a 2000 opera and a television series whose third season drops this June. It also represents an astonishing individual effort on the part of Renée Nault, who both adapted and illustrated Atwood’s text. Its release keeps Atwood’s novel in the public consciousness and provides a new way for readers to witness a society’s transformation from something that resembles democracy to a terrifying totalitarian state.
Nault portrays this transformation through vivid watercolor images that emphasize the isolation of the titular handmaid, Offred, who narrates the story. In the world of the graphic novel, handmaids are forcibly assigned to powerful men and understood purely as vessels for bearing their children. Since Offred is not allowed to question or challenge the rules of this world or experience any sort of emotional intimacy with others, she has no choice but to reflect back on what has happened to her and to the life she once led. Many frames show her costumed in red, as required for a woman of her position, against a blank white background: these poetically emphasize her aloneness in a world that offers her no solace. Nault contrasts such frames with those that show Offred in the past as she spends time with her partner, Luke, or her best friend, Moira. These highlight her flowing hair, her multi-colored clothing and her body language—arms held out in argument, eyes closed in embrace, elbows propped on a tabletop in relaxation—that all indicate the possibility of joy and freedom.
Over time, Nault also reveals the misogyny and mistreatment ubiquitous in Offred’s previous reality. Her father jokes about women’s limited mental capacities in one brief flashback, and another shows Luke rapidly transition from caring partner to patronizing possessor. Nault urges us to re-read male characters’ facial expressions, to find the violence latent there. The concerned look on Luke’s face, for example, soon reveals itself as nothing more than a belittling gaze. This is the graphic novel’s most heartbreaking revelation, that a pre-Gilead world was—is—still one that hates and confines women. Through Nault’s images, it becomes even more obvious to readers that a simple step moves things from seemingly small instances of sexism, perhaps spouted in jest or mentioned in passing, to puritanical regulation.
On the other hand, Nault’s adaptation, which abbreviates Atwood’s novel considerably, sometimes gives in to certain simplifying tendencies for the sake of moralistic efficiency. Many have already criticized the whitewashed version of feminism presented by The Handmaid’s Tale, and Nault’s graphic novel doesn’t exactly present a convincing argument to the contrary. Almost every character is portrayed as white, and Nault pays no attention to how racism might play into Gilead’s hierarchies and punishments. While the book’s artwork is extremely detailed, the nuances of the tale itself end up getting overlooked.
The contemporary political moment doesn’t necessarily lend itself to nuance, however, and fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will likely be happy to see a version of the text that includes such compelling, effectively distressing images. The narrative is not only a warning bell but also a rallying cry, especially on social media, and Nault’s adaptation will likely strengthen that cry.
But whose voices are included? The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel misses an opportunity to take up legitimate critical concerns, to interrogate or further deepen Atwood’s novel rather than merely condense and illustrate it.