I bought a new wallet and while cleaning out my old one discovered a bookstore gift card that hadn’t been used. I decided to splurge on the hardcover graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with art by Renee Nault.
I’ve read the original The Handmaid’s Tale four or five times, seen the movie, have attended a Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance of the story, and have watched the first season of the television series based on the book. That makes it hard to assess whether the graphic novel would have given me a good understanding of the plot if I was reading it for the first time. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the graphic novel version nearly as much if I hadn’t recently taken a workshop with David Robertson where I learned about the kinds of details to look for and appreciate in a graphic novel.
That being said, the graphic novel version of the book was for me a powerful retelling of a familiar story. The scenes in the present are illustrated primarily in stark black, white, red and grey colors contrasted by soft full-color illustrations of the past. The most violent scenes in the novel are portrayed in full-page spreads without text, the individual panels in slanted frames juxtapositioned erratically and drawn in an edgy way that clearly makes you understand the fast and furious nature of the action. I was pleased that the text consisted of words drawn directly from the novel. Many scenes from the novel are enhanced and have added meaning because of the illustrations. One example is when the commander and Offred are playing Scrabble and you can see every word on the board, each rife with meaning.
It was interesting to learn that the graphic novel was actually planned for release years ago, but an injury to artist Renee Nault’s hand slowed down the process. This probably worked in favor of the graphic novel’s success because The Handmaid’s Tale has exploded in popularity in the last while thanks to the scary rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. It is exactly such a scenario that Margaret Atwood describes in her novel and is why the red dress and white bonnet the women in The Handmaid’s Tale wear has become an international symbol for the oppression of women.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is coming this fall. It is entitled The Testaments. Reading the graphic novel version was a good way to review the first book’s content in a new, popular and unique format as I await the story’s next installment.