Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is one of American literature’s most famous and crystalline examples of using the “banality of evil” — a theory put forth by Hannah Arendt to describe Nazi Adolf Eichman’s role in the Holocaust — to shock, enrage, and, hopefully, instruct. First published in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948, the 3,430-word short story describes the quaint hustle and bustle of a small town’s annual tradition: a systematic game of chance that ends in the stoning to death of one of the villagers.
As the United States and the world struggle for purchase in the fog of Donald Trump’s election and reckon with the fascist trajectory of recent history, “The Lottery” has been reincarnated as a graphic novel by Jackson’s grandson, Myles Hyman. Hill and Wang released the Paris-based artist and illustrator’s visual adaptation in late October of 2016, amid a revival — and ad nauseam claims of a revival — of interest in Jackson’s work and persona.
In his book’s preface, Hyman writes that his grandmother’s story is a “no-nonsense, largely hermetic structure, words joined with a jeweler’s precision.” Jackson wrote “The Lottery” in the same style as the action that unfolds: perfunctorily, with minimal fuss and negligible room for interpretation or change. (There has been much speculation about the degree to which the story expresses the way Jackson perceived life in the small New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. These discussions often include unconfirmed rumors that her family’s home was once vandalized with a swastika drawn in soap.)
Despite such narrative impermeability, Hyman deftly shapes his rendition by introducing some key visual elements: extreme shadow and contrast, attention to timepieces, and the repeated use of circles, which gesture toward both the shape of a clock and the heavy graphite dot that marks the lottery’s “winner.”
Hyman also elongates and embellishes the original timeline, so that the story opens not on the morning of June 27 as Jackson had it, but on the night before. A full moon rises above the empty, shadow-mottled streets of a rural Small Town, U.S.A., as a lone car passes through the eerie town center, high beams aglow. Two men meet in a storefront, preparing folded slips of paper, which they then deposit into a black box through a single hand-sized hole in the top. Here, Hyman introduces the first of multiple views from within the box, an “impossible” perspective that suggests the involvement in the rite of a nonhuman force.
For maximum effect, Jackson avoided foreshadowing anything sinister; Hyman’s distinctly noir opening sequence is a departure that — smartly — does not attempt to recreate the blasé horror of her original. It does, however, echo the story’s emphasis on both ritual and ordinariness; of course, someone would have to prepare the paper slips in advance.
The drama of Hyman’s shadowing carries forward from that evening into the next morning — “The morning of June 27 was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day,” Jackson began. Hyman’s muted colors and heavy shadows negate summer airiness, just as the mundane scenes — chopping wood, looking out the window, a hand on a doorknob or fingers unbuttoning a shirt — are made meaningful through careful framing.
Hyman also takes an early liberty with the story’s ultimate victim, Tessie Hutchinson, through his invention of a bath scene. Here, Tessie is young, slender, and mildly sexualized — a far cry from Olive Dunbar’s portrayal in the 1969 Encyclopedia Brittanica film adaptation, an educational 16mm that clocks in at just 19 minutes.
Hyman’s return to timepieces throughout— the day-by-day wall calendar, a windowsill alarm clock, a pocket watch, clocks in the bank and the diner — match well with the time-centric lines he chose to extract from the text. Far more so than the grave, unsmiling faces of the villagers, Hyman’s focus on units of time captures Jackson’s insinuation of the dangers of tradition fiercely salvaged from the endless passing of days and generations.
Another way Hyman’s contemporary visual interpretation of “The Lottery” is significant is that it presents the community as an entirely white one. Readers of the original story could have easily inferred this, but Hyman’s retelling confirms it. So while Jackson’s allegory offers layered warnings about the dangers of historically justified closed-mindedness and mob behavior — which, throughout time, has fueled violence against specific groups based on identity— at surface level, it uses a homogenous community to play out its point to its absurd, barbaric conclusion. Hyman’s adaptation is a strong effort to retain the original tale’s sparse horror while making the most of its compelling visual possibilities.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” by Myles Hyman is now available from Hill and Wang.