The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel
By Margaret Atwood
Art & Adaptation by Renee Nault
I don’t know what I think about this trend of books being reproduced, or I should say, “reinterpreted” in graphic form. In a way, it seems like “cheating” to me, but really, is there any such thing as cheating when it comes to reading? Sure, if you are reading a book for a class, it is kind of cheating to skip reading the book entirely, but usually that tactic becomes evident during assessment. But if the point is to understand the ideas in a work, does it really matter how we learn about them?
By nature of the beast, I think there is always going to be a gap between written literature and film. They are simply too different, and the best films that come from literature frequently reinterpret the material quite a bit. I very much enjoy PBS/BBC Masterpiece Theatre style adaptations of novels, but while they literally reproduce the author’s vision, I don’t consider them great moments in film especially.
So the more I think about it, the more I realize I need to get over “attitude” about comic/ graphic literature and accept a graphic interpretation in the same way that I would a film: as a reinterpretation of the text that may or may not be literal.
Graphic literature, like film, provides us with a different point of entry into the material. Some of us may choose multiple points, and others might choose one. Graphic interpretations to me are a great point of intersection between film, which is a more visual medium, and text, which is completely verbal. Some people prefer to learn more visually and some do better with the visual either because they have difficulty visualizing when they read, they may struggle with reading, or they may have limited skills in the language.
What I appreciated about the graphic version of The Handmaid’s Tale in particular is the depiction of scenes that my brain rejects in the text version. One of those are the scenes where Offred and her companions walk by the walls where the bodies are hung. I know those passages are in the book, but my mind just blocks them out. It’s hard enough to read about that sort of thing being done during Medieval times, but it’s easy enough to let your mind go there, mentally safely pigeon-hole it “in the past”, and go on with life. But this sort of scene is hard to imagine in a setting that is supposed to look much like contemporary North America. So with the text novel, my brain moves on quickly. The graphic novel doesn’t permit it.
There are other scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale where my brain prefers not to have to process scenes verbally, and since Nault (the artist and adaptor) goes the same way and depicts the scenes visually, without language, I don’t have to. I won’t say it’s better, because the scenes are pretty horrific, but at least I don’t have to put them into words.
If I were teaching this book, I would definitely show these pages to the class to help those who were having trouble understanding the scenes in the novel.
And perhaps help their brains accept what their language won’t.
Seeing these scenes from The Hanmdaid’s Tale reminds me of when I first heard about the attack on the World Trade Center on the radio: my brain simply could not interpret the language without the schema. I didn’t get it until I saw it.
When the subject matter of a book is difficult, I pay close attention to my mood before I start reading at any particular moment. When I was teaching, I noticed that it started to affect me when I had to teach difficult texts to multiple classes. I knew to plan something nice for myself after work on the day that I was going to teach the final scene of Anne Frank, for example, especially when we were doing the play version, which we read out loud. So another reason I found I like the graphic version is that I know I don’t have to spend too long with the text. It also helps me to get through to the ending (not that it helps much in because I know that ending is coming in a couple of hours when I sit down to read a graphic text.
My final argument for graphic versions of written texts is that graphic novels can be read quickly, but they also beg to be reread, dipped into, and pondered in a way that is more difficult with a traditional novel.
If I am already a bit down or have had a hard dayI am far more likely to browse a shelf of graphic novels than I am traditional books, and I am definitely more likely to read and reread these books. So the trait that makes them easy to read in the first place makes them easier to reread over time.
Whether you have read the novel or haven’t, The Handmaid’s Tale: Graphic Novel is worth your time. It’s a story worth retelling and rereading, as tough as it is.
It seems more real to me now than when I first read it in the ‘80’s.
Margaret Atwood has had a long career and has published extensive collections of poetry and short stories in addition to her novels. Find some good free examples here.
“The Spider Woman” short story by Margaret Atwood from The New Yorker
“My Brother” short story by Margaret Atwood in Harper’s (and links to many more stories available on PDF).
A.M. Homes reads and discusses “The Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood
Scroll down for some awesome Free Reads, including a poetry collection!
Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel is a dystopian tale definitely set in the United States, but actually she’s Canadian.
Selection of Margaret Atwood books set in Canada.
Note: Many of her books are fantasy and dystopian, so they can be hard to pin down.
Recently publishes sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, in case you haven’t heard:
Here is a link to more books set in Canada; surprise yourself by seeing how many you’ve read…perhaps without realizing that they are Canadian!
Also drawn by Renee Nault, written by Margaret Atwood and others:
When I think of The Handmaid’s Tale I also think of George Orwell’s 1984. I first read both in the 80’s, and both have become more real each time I read them. If you haven’t read 1984, which was first written as a vision of the direction the United Kingdom seemed be heading in the aftermath of World War 2, it’s time.
On Dystopian Fiction from The New Yorker
An interview with Margaret Atwood at age 80 on her career produced for the CBC (rough Canadian equivalent of UK’s BBC or US’s PBS).
Margaret Atwood’s Thriller Suite
Original poetry based on gothic tales, ghost stories, and crime fiction.
Enjoy this article from the New Yorker: Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia by Rebecca Mead. It includes images of notes and artifacts from the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale.
More from The Lois Level
Alice Munro: The Best Short Story Writer in English (and Canadian)
Why You Should Read Short Stories
Cover photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Intervencion_The_Handmaid%27s_Tale_mala_junta_santa_fe_por_el_aborto_seguro_legal_y_gratuito_en_Argentina_12.jpg