How Renee Nault adapted The Handmaid's Tale into a graphic novel

The Victoria artist shares how she adapted Margaret Atwood's award-winning novel.
Renee Nault adapted Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale into a graphic novel. (Renee Nault, McClelland & Stewart)

Published in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale is a classic of modern literature — a story so rich that it's been adapted into every conceivable format: film, theatre, dance, television and now a graphic novel. Victoria artist Renee Nault was hired to take on this adaptation. Her vivid watercolour paintings, paired with text from the original novel, evokes Offred's eerie, haunted voice and adds a new dimension to the story.

CBC Books talked to Nault about adapting The Handmaid's Tale.

Do you remember when you first read The Handmaid's Tale?

"I think the first time I read The Handmaid's Tale was back in high school because it was in the curriculum. I loved it and was shaken by it. It was my first exposure to dystopian literature from a woman's point of view. Women are usually written out of those kind of speculative fictions. The Handmaid's Tale felt much more personal."

Concept art of The Handmaid's Tale adaptation by Renee Nault. (Renee Nault, McClelland & Stewart)

How did you get the job?

"I was contacted by McClelland & Stewart, Margaret's Canadian publishers. I think it had been Margaret's idea to do a graphic novel and I was on a list of artists that they were interested in. They had us each do a few sample pages and a pitch to get an idea of our vision. I was nervous because I, of course, really wanted the job."

Once you landed the job, how did you start the process?

"My first task was to adapt it into a script that would work as a graphic novel. A lot had to be cut out and shifted around. I made a movie-style script for the publishers and for Margaret. I went through the novel over and over again with a highlighter and tried to figure out what passages made the novel what it is, the essence of it."

Did you feel pressure taking on an adaptation of one of the most famous books in the world?

"When I started the adaptation, the TV show hadn't come out yet. When it came out and was such a huge phenomenon, I realized that the book was going to get a much wider audience than I had initially thought. I tried to ignore it because if you think about it too much, you freeze up creatively."

Concept art from The Handmaid's Tale graphic novel adaptation by Renee Nault. (Renee Nault, McClelland & Stewart)

What quality of the novel were you hoping to capture in this version?

"Margaret's prose is haunting and I felt like any adaptation that just focused on the plot would lose so much of that. It was important to me to preserve that narrative voice as much as I could. Offred's a very frustrating character. She's quite weak compared to a lot of the other characters in the book. It's frustrating to see her be cowardly, but she's also a survivor who can adapt where other people can't. She has that skill where she can ride out this horrific part of her life and emerge on the other side."

What are you hoping readers take away from the graphic novel that they might not have gotten from the original novel?

"In the novel, you experience it through Offred's narrative voice, which is very detached and sarcastic. I hope in the graphic novel that you will get the impression that she is using that voice as a coping mechanism. The horror around her is very real, but she's very detached from it out of necessity."

Concept art from The Handmaid's Tale graphic novel adaptation by Renee Nault. (Renee Nault, McClelland & Stewart)

Did Margaret Atwood give you much feedback?

"The initial script went to her and the editors and they all gave their feedback. Then, throughout the process, I would be sending designs or rough page layouts and they would go through the editors and through Margaret. It was very time consuming.

"But Margaret was hands off and let me do whatever I wanted. She would occasionally chime in with like, 'Oh no, actually I think this would be the other way.' She was very trusting.

"One of the only big edits Margaret gave me is the epilogue at the end. I had initially drawn a female professor to narrate the lecture and she said, 'No, it's a man in the book and I think it should stay a man.' I thought, 'Oh, that's very cynical and maybe works better,' but I had drawn a more optimistic ending."

What did you take away from this experience?

"It's the longest project I've ever done. I put so much time into each page. Being not a very happy book, it was hard to inhabit that world for so long. It added to this ever-present uneasiness — especially with the political situation unfolding in the States. It was really depressing.

"Although the subject matter is bleak, I wanted the art itself to be beautiful, and for each page to stand as its own work. Some scenes were particularly exciting to work on, like the crowd scenes at Jezebels with all the crazy costumes."

Check out some scenes from the opening pages of the book:

Renee Nault's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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