Since the election of Donald Trump, sales have skyrocketed for The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 story of the subjugation of women in a totalitarian and theocratic society. At protests for reproductive rights, the novel has even inspired a kind of visual shorthand: dressing in the handmaids’ uniform of long red robes and white bonnets serves as a chilling reminder that we are not that far off from Atwood’s dystopian future.
The strong visual element of the book is also perhaps why it has been visualized so many times—in film, opera, a new Hulu TV series and now with the gorgeous drawings of Anna and Elena Balbusso that illustrate the book’s latest edition. Commissioned by the London-based publisher The Folio Society, the Milanese illustrators and twins drew inspiration from futurism, Russian Constructivism and Soviet propaganda to give the book an updated look to match its new relevance.
To interpret the text visually, the Balbussos chose a futurist tone with strong perspectives and light. They used red, black, and white colors and fascist period designs are their references. Instead of pinpointing key elements of the plot or attempting to illustrate the complexities of the futuristic world Atwood created, the pair decided to use a woman’s body as the central focal point. “The theme of a woman’s body appealed to our sensibility,” the sisters tell The Folio Society’s Melanie Gradtke in an interview. “The story gave us the opportunity to create strong graphic images.” After sketching the preliminary scenes by hand, the illustrators then transferred them to the computer and rendered the images digitally.
Seeing Atwood’s tale play out visually may not be new, but the illustrations do uniquely bring together the things that make The Handmaid’s Tale resonant for so many people right now. The new administration’s curtailing of reproductive rights, the Women’s March’s enormous expression of resistance, the same climate of fear and isolationism that has given rise to fascism in the past—the Balbussos have managed to distill all of the anxiety that has made the book a symbol to many into one series of strikingly simple illustrations.
In an interview with Tom Walker, Atwood’s editor at Folio, the author says that seeing her work visualized in so many different ways—both in art and on the streets—tells her that the tale still has meaning to people. “If the incarnations are good, they can open up parts of the text in ways you as the author may not have anticipated,” says Atwood, who has at times worked as an illustrator herself. Like literature, good illustrations can also reveal new ways of interpreting the world.