Writer: Margaret Atwood
Adapatation & Art: Renée Nault
Mike S: Firstly, a disclaimer: The Handmaid’s Tale has long been my favourite modern novel and so I approached this adaptation with huge excitement and a smidge of trepidation about the potential for it to ruin it for me. I needn’t have worried: it is a work that is simultaneously gorgeous and horrifying. Nault faithfully follows the plot and style of Atwood’s dystopian novel in which the land of the free has become a theocracy where fertile women are enslaved for their uteruses. The book is composed of over 300 pages of hand painted watercolours. The story's narrator, Offred, says, “Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.” Nault’s reds are rich and layered watercolours, veering from rust to flame. In depicting life in Gilead’s toxic, war-torn Colonies, Nault takes advantage of the form: the graphic image of the cancer-eaten jaw of an 'unwoman' worker is on full display, adding to depth to an area of the novel which is largely unexplored. In the Gilead scenes Nault only uses Red, Green or Blue respectively, while flashback scenes are pained with a full spectrum of colour that evokes a 'normal' period, signifying the seismic global shift. Her illustrations have a boldness, depth and power not typical of this medium.
So influential is the source material that it fuelled the unmistakable iconography of the red bonnet as a universal symbol of female oppression, akin to the white worn in the Suffrage Movement, something carried over into this adaptation. Students of the original novel will be aware that Atwood’s poetic writing style is very precise and observational. As a result of remaining faithful to this, the graphic novel isn’t driven by fast-paced action, but vivid details of the world of Gilead, juxtaposing the mundane and brutal in everyday life. Offred’s internal monologue is rich with gallows humour and nuanced with the absurdity of her situation, full of dry wit and thoroughly engaging. Offred is victimised, as all females in Gilead are, but she’s no victim. Offred is a survivor.
It is interesting that some critics have drawn attention to the lack of representation within the adaptation regarding ethnicity. While there’s certainly a valid argument to be made here, especially considering the more inclusive recent television adaptation, I would refer those people back to the source material: Atwood clearly outlines how the authorities of Gilead further their white supremacist agenda by removing the various ethnic groups when establishing the regime. To me, the lack of diversity of race only adds another layer of horror to the manifold strata of horrors already present. The original novel was published 34 years ago in 1985: the fact that the world has made little progress in the 34 years since then might perhaps be the most terrifying thing of all! Not for the faint-hearted, this adaptation remains as telling and essential as ever: a compulsive and essential read. 10/10