Renee Nault Brings ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Graphic Novel to Life

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I’m never entirely sure what to say about The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read the book when I was a preteen; I watched the movie adaptation with Natasha Richardson without my mother’s permission (sorry, Mom). I didn’t watch the Hulu adaptation. But when I got the chance to read the new graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood‘s seminal classic and adapted by Renée Nault (who also provided the art), I dove in immediately. And, once I was finished reading this new adaptation, I still didn’t know what to make of this story.

Some things are obvious. The world seems more and more likely to descend into violent war with countries that possess nuclear capabilities. In the United States, we see more and more bills that are more and more restrictive towards reproductive rights. The idea that a woman should be forced to carry any fetus to term regardless of her health or the baby’s is pervasive. The parallels between Gilead, the world Atwood imagined, and our own American reality are painfully obvious. But then, one could argue that any good speculative fiction story needs to have parallels for the reader, or it isn’t doing its job.

The graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted by and contains art by Renée Nault. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, done in sharp, bright colors, with artwork that conveys so much emotional intent that it aches a bit. For example, whenever the Handmaids are drawn from a distance, they have wee tiny heads and huge, Disney princess sized gowns (that start at their necks). Their purpose is more important than their personality, by far. The Commander and his Wife are both made clearly old, while the Handmaids are young and slim (and, by far, white, which annoyed me. Offred speaks to one Black woman at Ofwarren’s birthing ceremony, and it’s a two-line exchange). Nick is tall and handsome; Offred’s memories of her life before are alive with color, and also just a little bit blurry.

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I also love that the graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale restores the original ending of the book — especially important for me since I always misremember it. You see, in the 1990 movie, it’s clear that Natasha Richardson is escaping for good, and will be reunited with her daughter. In the Hulu adaptation (which, again, I haven’t seen; watching a dystopia while you’re living in it is about as much fun as playing The Sims when you actually have small children to care for) ends with the Handmaids refusing to participate in a ritual stoning.

Neither of these endings ever made me happy. The real tragedy of The Handmaid’s Tale, I think, is that Offred gives up everything — even her name, which is never revealed in the book. “Dear God,” Offred says, “I will do anything you like. I’ll obliterate myself, if that’s what you really want; I’ll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice…I want to keep on living, in any form.”

When Offred is taken by the Eyes or Nick or Mayday, she goes willingly, because there is nothing else to do. “Whether this is my end or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped. And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

In both the novel and the graphic adaptation, this is where Offred’s story ends. The Epilogue involves a professor, using the taped recordings Offred seems to have been able to make about her experiences in Gilead. No more were made after she was taken.

Any questions?

A man lectures about the period of Gilead; a small handmaid's figure is in the bottom left corner
Art from The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel

I enjoyed the graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, though I do find myself thinking of this more as an illustrated adaptation rather than a graphic novel per se. It’s tricky to say that, since I’m not entirely sure where I’d draw the line between the two concepts. I think that there were very few pages where the art specifically added to the mood of the overall story for me, but not the action or development.

It’s hard to talk about this story in general when it feels both too real and entirely surreal. Atwood has spoken about living in West Berlin while she wrote this novel, and how the empty apartments, the Cold War, and the Allied Occupation itself led to the atmosphere of the book, if not the actual plotline.

But while I do find myself looking around the modern world, wondering what rights I will be clawing back, tooth and nail, for my daughters — I keep thinking of one advantage that we continue to have over those in Gilead. We speak. We fight. We take to the streets (though not as often as some in the international community would prefer. It’s hard to explain how many streets there are in the U.S.) and we argue on social media and we haven’t stopped fighting yet.

The tragedy of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that Gilead has turned women into “two-legged wombs”; the tragedy of this book is that Offred accepts her fate. Yet, you wonder, what else can she truly do?

Any questions?

A copy of this graphic novel was provided to GeekMom for review purposes.

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