The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The enduring power of reading and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale lies in both her gifts for storytelling and her love for language revealed in her playing with words.

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Regardless of the genre or form, Atwood loves to make us flinch with the turn of a phrase:

When I was teaching Advanced Placement Literature for high school students in the rural South, I found one of the best lessons revolved around Atwood’s investigation of graphic language during The Ceremony in Chapter 16:

My students and I also found the wordplay throughout the novel as engaging as the characters and narratives, notably the scene when the Commander ushers Offred to his room for a rendezvous that turns out to be a surprising form of infidelity, Scrabble:

This language-rich element of Atwood’s fiction as well as her wordplay poses a challenge for adapting this novel to film and more recently a series. Adaptation, however, allows a seminal work to grow, expand, and even change, as the series now moves beyond the original narrative in ways similar to The Walking Dead.

Atwood’s interest in blending and breaking genre and her work in graphic media suggest that the latest adaptation fits perfectly into the expanding body of work drawn from The Handmaid’s Tale:

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The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

As part of the adaptation process from novel to graphic novel, Renée Nault notes that she did not watch the Hulu series, but the process entailed:

My love for Atwood’s work and comic books/graphic novels informed my reading of this adaptation. Yet, I was initially concerned about how I would feel since much of the adaptation involves the loss of Atwood’s rich language, although the artwork is stunning in its place:

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A spread from The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel (Doubleday Books)

Language does not suffer, however, since Nault’s use of language includes a judicious series of decisions about when to be sparse and when to swim in Atwood’s language. As well, the graphic adaptation allows a diversity of fonts and word placement, notably in the Scrabble scene, that amplifies the power of language.

This graphic adaptation adds diversity of narrative pace and framing through Nault’s choices about page layouts, even, at time, conforming to fairly standard comic book panels:

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The Mary Sue

Since Atwood uses iconography and color throughout the novel, the adaptation is rich with both:

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Deadline/Hollywood

One of the earliest versions of a first-year writing seminar I taught was grounded in works that are in multiple forms of adaptation, such as a novel to a film (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner, for example). Often we examined the fidelity of the adaptation — the novel and film of World War Z come to mind — but we also tried to work toward evaluating adaptations on their own merits, not just “Is this a good adaptation in terms of remaining true to the original?”

My strongest quibble of the graphic adaption is that the Historical Notes section feels far too clipped, but in many ways, in the novel, it serves to reinforce much of the language and academic elements of the story. Noting this small weakness also highlights that the graphic novel tends to lose the humor, albeit very dark, weaved throughout by Atwood.

Ultimately, as a reader and a teacher, I think this graphic adaptation soars as a work on its own and as an introduction or companion to Atwood’s original work. Reading or teaching these works separately or together still leads to the final and haunting line: “Are there any questions?”

Thirty-plus years since Atwood raised this ominous question, we are finding ever-new and disturbing ways to shake our heads and wrestle with hard questions and maybe some answers that help us overcome our current nightmares depicted off kilter by speculative fiction, text-only or graphic, and avoid some Other World that feels just over the horizon.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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