For Pity Sake Publishing

Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’

Be the first to comment on this post to win Jen’s battered-but-still-good copy of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.

20180122 - Alias GraceMaybe it’s because I’ve just returned from a sojourn to the land of moose, mounties and maple syrup but I find myself, once again, under the spell of one of Canada’s best-known and brilliant authors, Margaret Atwood.

Like so many others I jumped headfirst into Series one of the on-screen adaptation of Atwood’s award-winning novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017, noting with great pleasure at the time that the author had a steady hand on the tiller of her story as supervising producer.

While the narrative of any novel requires massaging and sometimes redirection in order to make a good screenplay, I was very heartened to see the central themes and tenor of Handmaids remained constant, thanks no doubt, to Atwood’s influence.

And now she’s done it again with Alias Grace, a work first published in 1996 to great acclaim, including winning the Canadian Giller Prize and being shortlisted for the Man Booker. Interestingly, Alias Grace is the fictionalisation of the real-life 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in rural Ontario. Grace Marks and James McDermott, two Kinnear household servants were tried and convicted of the killings – McDermott to hang and Grace Marks to life imprisonment.

20180122 - the-handmaid-s-taleAtwood’s novel follows the story of the murders and convictions of the accused to the letter of what was reported at the time and subsequently written about by Susanna Moodie in her 1853 book Life in the Clearings.  But Atwood adds the the fictional Simon Jordan, a doctor of the psychiatric persuasion, who’s commissioned to write a report by a group of ardent supporters lobbying for the convicted murderess’s pardon.

As Dr Jordan descends into Grace’s story he becomes increasingly bewitched and bemused by this woman, eventually rendering him incapable of determining her innocence, sanity or whether she’s merely a cunning killer.

The book makes no bones (pardon the pun) about the true origins of the story. In fact, Atwood goes to great lengths to authenticate her sources and to explain necessary hole-filling due to the drying up of official historical trails.

However, the fact that Alias Grace is based on a true story is all but absent from the Netflix adaptation, a point well made in Kathryn VanArendonk’s piece in Vulture. As an aside, if you’re looking for a detailed comparison between the book and the Netflix screenplay, I’d highly recommend reading this review.

20180122 - the-blind-assassin For my money, the really intriguing thing is the tone of the narrative and the visual renderings of Netflix’s Alias Grace and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale are so very similar.  This is despite the former being a period piece based on true events and the latter being a fictional, contemporary glimpse into a not-too-distant dystopian future.

I put this down to three things, the least of these being the Canadian-ness of both productions. I know I’m biased because I’ve just returned from a holiday in that great country and have long been an unabashed admirer of same. But I was pleased and gratified to see that both productions were shot exclusively in Ontario and, in the case of Alias Grace, the screenwriter is Canadian and the cast comprised predominantly of Canadian actors. That kind of orientation has Margaret Atwood’s fingerprints all over it, not that I’m complaining!

The second thing is the gritty feminist perspective that runs through all of Atwood’s written works, and how this is made grotesquely palpable in the diverse adaptations of Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale. Prior to darkening the doors of the Kingston Penitentiary, Grace Mark’s life is defined by being a young, pretty and lowly servant-girl constantly bombarded by the attentions and expectations of men – her masters, fellow-serving staff, the screws at the jail and even the doctors who attend the unfortunate inmates. Seeing vivid portrayals of all this on the screen compelled me, somewhat reluctantly, to ponder the hardships and outright horror of simply being a female at such a time.

Likewise, the institutionalised sexual servitude of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Offred, is a chilling treatise on a patriarchal, arch-religious, post-apocalyptic society run amok. Both books and screen productions drip with the stuff of feminine nightmares, the only difference being one happened a long time ago and the other could be our future if we don’t look out.

Last but by no means least, there’s the intimate involvement of Atwood herself in both screen manifestations of her written work, complete with pointed cameo appearances in The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace.

Here’s an author who seems to have successfully eschewed the overt Hollywood-isation of her already beloved written works and elevated the standing of her country of origin at the same time.

Margaret Atwood is clearly an author and now a screenplay collaborator and producer who sticks to her guns. One can only hope the Man Booker Prize-winning Blind Assassin is the next of her phenomenal works to hit the screen.  O Canada – I can hardly wait.

And remember, if you’re the first to leave a comment on this post on the For Pity Sake blog, you could win Jen’s own original copy of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace!

20180122 - Alias Grace - Jen's copy

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  1. Sally Smith Reply

    The Handmaid’s Tale shook my consciousness when it was first published – I haven’t yet watched the series, but I’ve bought at least three copies of the book over the years. I have not yet read Alias Grace.

    • Jennifer McDonald Reply

      Congratulations Sally! I hope you enjoy my ‘battered but-still-good’ copy of ‘Alias Grace’. I’d love to know what you think when you’ve read it and seen the Netflix six-part series. Many thanks for reading the blog. Cheers, Jen.

      • Sally Smith Reply

        Thank you Jennifer – it will be treasured as a book that comes with a story (apart from its own story, of course!) I’d love it if you would write a few words in the inside front cover for me.

        • Jennifer McDonald Reply

          Would love to, Sally. All the best!

  2. Jan van der Meer Reply

    I’ve never forgotten reading The Handmaids Tale all those years ago – made such an impression. Actually have read all her books. Such a fabulous writer

    • Jennifer McDonald Reply

      Indeed, Jan – one of my great favourites and not just because Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto!

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