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'Alias Grace' is the second Margaret Atwood TV series, with more on the way

By: Stephanie Merry The Washington Post
November 13, 2017 Updated: November 13, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Sarah Gadon stars as Grace Marks in Netflix's "Alias Grace," which is based on a true story. MUST CREDIT: Sabrina Lantos, Netflix

It's not obvious that the Hulu hit "The Handmaid's Tale" and Netflix's new miniseries "Alias Grace" both are based on books by Margaret Atwood.

Rather than a stylized dystopian horror, the gothic plot of "Alias" is rooted in history - the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant in Canada who was convicted in 1843 of murder and sentenced to hang. She and alleged accomplice James McDermott were found guilty of killing their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper (and mistress), Nancy Montgomery, but only McDermott ended up at the gallows. Grace, perhaps because she was young and beautiful, ultimately was given a lighter sentence; after 30 years behind bars, she was released.

In both Atwood's meticulously researched but fictionalized retelling and the new miniseries, Grace (Sarah Gadon), who's already incarcerated, ends up describing her life story to young psychiatrist Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). The doctor becomes taken with this enigmatic yet proper woman, who claims she remembers nothing of the murders and pleaded guilty only at her lawyers' insistence.

"Alias Grace" has the same timeliness that helped win "The Handmaid's Tale" the Emmy for best drama. And it likely won't be the last Atwood adaptation we get. Darren Aronofsky plans to make a series from the MaddAddam trilogy. And last year, MGM Television bought the rights to Atwood's novel "The Heart Goes Last," says Deadline.

That 2015 book is about desperation during an economic depression. But "The Handmaid's Tale" came out in 1985, and "Alias Grace" a decade later. "Oryx and Crake," the first of the MaddAddam books, is 14.

So why a resurgence of interest in Atwood's work?

"She has such insight and such a detailed curiosity about the past and where we've come from," said Sarah Polley, the actor, director and Oscar-nominated writer who adapted "Alias Grace" for TV. "And I think because this is such an unstable time in the world politically - and for women - it's a moment where having context is helpful in terms of analyzing and figuring out our situation right now."

"Alias Grace" resonates with the resurgence of the #MeToo campaign on social media, in which women have gone public with stories of sexual harassment.

The book ishows how a woman with little power seizes some by telling her own tale. No one else there the day of the murders is alive, so Grace is Jordan's only chance at the truth. Aware of her influence, Grace stretches out her yarn.

In "Alias" as in "Handmaid's Tale," Atwood also shows how a patriarchal society turns women against one another. "Aunts" physically and emotionally abuse the fertile women being groomed for ritual rape; in "Alias," it's most obvious in the relationship between Grace and Nancy, the victim.

Much has changed. But, as we've seen so many influential men being called out for their bad, sometimes criminal, behavior, a lot also has remained the same.

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