Any grandparent will tell you that their grandchild can do no wrong. So Miles Hyman’s decision to turn his grandmother’s canonical short story, The Lottery, into a graphic novel would have had, if not for Shirley Jackson’s death in 1965, all the validation and approval it needed before he even set ink to paper or got an agent to sell the manuscript. However, since the original story is so short, so well-known, and relatively easy to read, I’m afraid that this book doesn’t have much of a market outside of English as a New Language students who benefit from visuals to accompany text and as holiday gifts for middle school English teachers who know this story nearly from memory and may quibble with minor details.
Hyman’s strength lies in his visual vocabulary for this story. He emphasizes the atmospheric, wisely cutting out much of the dialogue of the original short story about the town’s annual ritual to select one of its members by lottery to be stoned to death. He confidently devotes a spread to images of corn, placing us as unwitting observers to the events about to unfold. Another page shows Old Man Warner sipping his coffee inside a diner in an image which, at a quick glance, could be mistaken for a scene from an Edward Hopper painting. But the swirl of colors and distorted lines on the columns holding up the diner suggest that this universe is about to implode.
Hyman develops the character of Tessie Hutchinson a little more than his grandmother did. In this adaptation we see Tessie, who ranks up there with Johnny from The Outsiders as literature’s most unfortunate victim, spend an uneasy morning checking on her children playing outside, looking in at their bedrooms, and taking an intentionally slow bath. That way, when she arrives at the lottery a few minutes late and says she “Clean forgot what day it was,” we already know she has a lot on her mind.
Hyman also makes a decision to set this story in a world much like our own. He gives us a New England agrarian town with modest homes and a church set among mountains next to mid 20th century cars and electric lighting. When he tells the story of past lotteries, his flashback to homes with thatched roofs calls to mind early New England settlers.
These decisions eliminate two of the most important unresolved questions from the original story: where and when does it take place? I’d argue that where is a little less interesting than when as, if this is to be a story about a past that’s never happened, it’s easier for us to distance ourselves from it. But what if it is a story that takes place in the future, and in the future our descendants do not have an accurate understanding of the past? Jackson is intentionally vague on period-specific details in a way that her grandson is not.
Another unresolved question from the original story—whether or not you buy in to my future theory—is whether the constant claims about the past of this imagined world are even accurate. Old Man Warner claims that the box they have used for the lottery has been in use since before he was born (as if he’d know? As if his parents cared enough to tell him this?) and that there used to be a saying of “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The town shows itself to be profoundly incurious, as they dismiss hearsay that other towns have done away with their lotteries, and they have no evidence of a written record. By giving the reader a “real” past, Hyman reveals himself to be slightly sympathetic to these townspeople who are only continuing received wisdom.
However, in an age of “alternative facts,” and unaccountable fearmongering, I am less likely to let the participants in the lottery off the hook for not speaking up and speaking out. Even Tessie comes across as a villain—like somebody else I can think of, she is only willing to scream out that things aren’t fair when they don’t go her way. However, if anybody wants to buy another copy for this middle school English teacher, I’d be more than happy to receive it and quibble away at minor details.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: A Graphic Adaptation
by Miles Hyman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: (13+)