For Margaret Atwood superfans like me, everything’s coming up roses. Earlier this year, Hulu’s 10-episode adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale won over critics and viewers alike, bringing home eight Emmys including Best Drama. Of course, it’s been renewed for a second season.
But what I’m really looking forward to is Netflix’s six-part adaptation of Alias Grace, which drops Friday, November 3, and which has been percolating since Sarah Polley first wrote Atwood about buying the rights as a teenager more than 20 years ago. Instead of a parallel-world dystopia, Alias Grace is a historical novel about an Irish-Canadian maid, Grace Marks, who was controversially convicted in 1843 for murdering her employer.
My affection for Atwood is so deep that when Shelf Awareness asked me to name my five favorite authors, I named five Atwood books instead. And while The Handmaid’s Tale is a sobering explosion of gender politics, I think Alias Grace is better. Here’s what I’m hoping that the Alias Grace adaptation does as well as The Handmaid’s Tale — and what I hope it does better.
Elisabeth Moss was a revelation as Offred, playing an impossible range of emotions with powerful subtlety, but her performance wasn’t the only one worthy of note. Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen both won Emmys, Samira Wiley and Madeline Brewer were also superb, and in general the performances were stellar, even for a prestige drama. Not a false step in the bunch. Alias Grace will demand a similar impact from its leading lady. Grace Marks is nearly as central to her story as Offred is to hers (more on that shortly), and I very much hope newcomer Sarah Gadon is up to the task.
Visuals that amplify and deliver emotional payoffs.
Translating a book to the screen is always a fraught affair, but one thing the moving picture has in its favor is, well, the picture. It’s one thing to read and remember that the Handmaids are dressed in red and the Commander’s wives in blue; it’s another to see a series of composed images where the women are framed against each other, reinforcing their status even before anyone in the scene says a single word. So many images from The Handmaid’s Tale have lingered with me—stunning in their beauty, but not for beauty’s sake. Too much focus on visuals without considering what they mean to the story can be distracting for the viewer or detrimental to the show’s pacing. I hope Alias Grace, like The Handmaid’s Tale, delivers beauty in service of emotion.
But the music….
While the background score and long silences of The Handmaid’s Tale were beautifully done, some of the song choices were so on-point they felt, well, tone-deaf. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”? “You Don’t Own Me”? “American Girl”? I’ve seen incongruous music used to great effect on TV (the opening sequence of the “Underground” pilot, underscored with the percussive urgency of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” is flat-out fantastic) but please, please, let’s keep declarative pop far, far away from 19th-century Canada.
… and balancing perspectives.
The Handmaid’s Tale, as its title suggests, is Offred’s story. In the book, Atwood frames the first-person account as a found document, presented at a conference in a post-Gilead (thank goodness) world. Alias Grace is simply Atwood writing a wonderful novel, and the story alternates between a first-person past account, in which we see through Grace’s eyes, and third-person present, focusing on Simon Jordan, a young doctor hoping to suss out whether or not convicted murderess Grace is sane. Grace is the focus of the novel but her story isn’t the only one we’re being told. In The Handmaid’s Tale, episodes that followed the activities of men in Offred’s story — Luke, the Commander, Nick — felt like less interesting interruptions of the main event. I’m hoping that Alias Grace can make Simon a worthy foil for Grace and a fully developed character, as he is in the book, and not just a distraction.
As I mentioned above, Alias Grace is one of my favorite books of all time, and I know there’s really no such thing as a faithful translation to the screen. The very richness of the book — its enigmatic characters, the power of its language, its slow unfolding of uncertain truths — may mean I’m bound for disappointment. Only one way to find out.
FICTION – HISTORICAL
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published October 17, 1993
Bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN'S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. Feminist, mother, mystery. Now out: WOMAN 99, March 2019 in the US & Canada.