An artist and illustrator takes on the feminist classic.
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the most famous work by this celebrated author, and it is widely regarded as a 20th-century masterpiece. Best known for its chilling dystopian premise—much that was once the United States is a theocracy in which fertile women are enslaved for their uteruses—it’s also technically brilliant and gorgeously written. The TV series based on the novel has been praised both for its storytelling and its superb visuals. (There’s also a 1990 film version, of course, but that was neither a critical nor commercial success.) Nault is, then, working with material that is already familiar to and beloved by scores of readers and viewers. In adapting the text, Nault often chooses to present Atwood’s words as written, but what she leaves is what makes the original work sing. For example, on the first page, Nault offers, “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium…,” which is also the opening line of the novel. Atwood follows with “The floors were of varnished wood, with stripe and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls....” There is none of this nostalgia and longing in Nault’s version—not even the textual elements that could have been communicated in picture form. More troubling is her decision to make Gilead a place inhabited almost entirely by white people. Both Atwood’s novel and the Netflix show have been critiqued for how they handle race, but the choice to avoid race at all seems like a poor one in 2019.
For people who prefer graphic novels to all other forms, and probably not for anyone else.