Is Alias Grace the Next Handmaid's Tale?

Stars Sarah Gadon and Anna Paquin and director Mary Harron discuss their adaptation of author Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel.

by | November 1, 2017 | Comments

(Photo by Netflix)

Margaret Atwood began writing novels nearly 50 years ago, but 2017 has been a banner year for the celebrated Canadian author. First came the Emmy-winning adaptation of her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.

And now Netflix is releasing a six-part miniseries based on Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace, adapted by Sarah Polley, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Away from Her. It’s early, but the new series is off to a great start with a 100% Tomatometer score on 21 reviews as of this publication. The Handmaid’s Tale, by comparison, is Certified Fresh with a 95% Tomatometer score on 95 reviews.

Director Mary Harron, who helmed all six episodes, thinks it’s the perfect time for Atwood’s stories to reemerge in the pop culture consciousness, especially given the current political climate.

Back in 1996 when she released her first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, Harron was almost afraid to call herself a feminist in interviews.

“I would have to grit my teeth, because I knew if you said you were feminist the people would think you were shrill and dogmatic and gonna lecture people,” Harron said recently during a Netflix press event with the cast. “But I thought, I’m not gonna deny feminism. I’m gonna embrace it. … I would never deny feminism, because without feminism, I would not be making films. Feminism made it possible for women to direct films.”

(Photo by Netflix)

But the climate changed after the 2016 election.

“I think big debate over the position of women and women’s rights have made [labeling yourself a feminist] something that would be more embraced,” Harron said. “People were angrier, I think, and ready to embrace these kinds of stories. That said, what makes Margaret Atwood great isn’t just that she’s a fantastic storyteller, she’s a great writer.”

While The Handmaid’s Tale is about a dystopian future in which women aren’t allowed to read, write, or hold any agency of their own, and fertile women are raped monthly and forced to bear the children of their masters, Alias Grace is a very different story about a real-life Irish servant charged with double murder in 1800s Canada.

“I think that Sarah Polley said, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is a look forward — this dystopian cautionary tale of where we could go as women,” said Sarah Gadon, who plays the accused murderer Grace Marks. “Alias Grace is very much so looking backwards at where we’ve come from as women and everything that we have been subjected to.’ Right now we are in between. We’re trying to place ourselves in these two horrible narratives and trying to grasp at how we can change that and where we can go in a way that is not so dark and not so terrible for women. So I think that the two projects really resonate in that way.”

(Photo by Netflix)

Anna Paquin portrays Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper having an affair with the landowner she works for — both of whom Grace is accused of murdering. Paquin said she’s drawn to playing interesting people and especially enjoys being able to research characters who lived in different times, like in Alias Grace or her role in the recent remake of Roots.

“There are many strong women in many settings, in many time periods and many genres,” she said. “Those are the roles I find to be professionally interesting, so I can’t see it any other way as far as what kinds of things I would choose to do. I think it’s also really exciting, especially, with things that are based on historical events or loosely based on historical events to explore what our pioneer sisters were doing hundreds of years ago to pave the way for us modern women to have the rights and be taken seriously in the way that we are now. I think that’s always very interesting to dive into.”

Gadon met with Atwood while prepping for her role — which also involved plenty of reading, research, and dialect coaching for the Canadian actress — and the author offered some advice.

“One of the things that she told me was how important it was for me to maintain the ambiguity of whether or not she was guilty or innocent. So of course I had my own thoughts about who Grace was, and what she did, but I’ve been given strict orders from Margaret not to speak about those,” she said.

But it was hard to maintain that sense of uncertainty of her character’s guilt.

“I will say that often I would become bogged down by the question of innocence, and this idea of playing this enigmatic character, and how do you really do that? One thing that really helped ground me was the notion that Grace Marks was a real person,” Gadon says. “She was a real girl that emigrated from Northern Ireland to Canada, and she was a house maid, and she was subjected to this British colonialist society that Canada was at that time, and how that must have actually felt. Grounding it in a real person really helped me navigate all of that ambiguity and all of that density of everything that it was to be her in that time.”

(Photo by Netflix)

Harron also worked hard to maintain a feeling of doubt about whether Grace was a killer or not.

“I do like characters who are complicated and not always necessarily good or bad. I think Sarah Polley and I and Margaret Atwood, we all like ambiguity and we all like contradiction,” she said. “And the thing about these characters is they’re very contradictory. What this story has done is take a legendary person, a real-life murderer — or accused murderer, let’s say that — [and] today, Ryan Murphy would be doing a series about her. It would be an American true crime or something, because it would be so complicated and interesting a story. And she’s one of these great, good/bad characters.”

In the opening episode, Grace looks in the mirror and says, “They say I’m a female demon. Some say I’m an innocent victim lead astray. They say all these things about me,” Harron noted.

“It’s all the different ways in which a woman can be mythologized in our society,” she said. “People always said to me when I did my first movie, ‘Why would you make a movie about such an awful woman who shot Andy Warhol? That’s just awful.’ And it’s like, no, but she’s brilliant and tormented and a complicated story, and I find that more interesting than someone who’s just an innocent victim or just Mother Theresa or whatever.

“To me, what makes a story dramatic are the contradictions in the main character — the good and the bad,” she continued. “One thing I love about the Margaret Atwood stories is women are never just innocent victims. They can be very complicated, they can do strange and violent things.”

Alias Grace begins streaming November 3 on Netflix.

Tag Cloud

basketball Sony Pictures Best Actor HFPA Ellie Kemper TIFF biography finale Netflix Christmas movies GIFs BET Awards Amazon Studios award winner Creative Arts Emmys TCA Awards Fargo blockbusters comedies Disney Video Games kong Hulu Fall TV new star wars movies TruTV NYCC lord of the rings black documentary rotten movies we love docudrama YouTube Cartoon Network Fantasy Crackle batman casting DGA technology gangster comic book movie scary movies 20th Century Fox jurassic park Rom-Com Starz romance Spring TV scene in color news Endgame Marvel comic book movies comiccon 4/20 cops versus TCA streaming Mary Poppins Returns movies Film Festival vampires 2019 debate Pop PaleyFest Awards Tour christmas movies australia Turner science fiction miniseries spider-verse chucky Tomatazos Logo WGN Marathons boxing criterion Action A&E Funimation binge Character Guide adventure Fox News sag awards 90s Wes Anderson ghosts reviews MTV Trophy Talk Country Awards Sci-Fi genre Acorn TV Legendary Vudu Heroines Spectrum Originals Trailer Rock posters Comics on TV summer preview canceled cancelled SXSW 2022 Family Paramount Rocketman Disney+ Disney Plus DC Comics A24 die hard psychological thriller Nat Geo rt labs critics edition Pet Sematary parents 007 suspense asian-american Pacific Islander Oscar revenge Focus Features Television Academy james bond Reality Competition films crossover teaser young adult San Diego Comic-Con social media game show E! sports streamig 1990s rt archives AMC Broadway hollywood Interview adaptation travel Holiday Sundance Now Oscars Emmys italian Shudder screenings streaming movies 2015 Lifetime FXX joker cinemax VICE Tumblr Exclusive Video telelvision archives ABC Kids & Family Tubi The Walking Dead classics Travel Channel Stephen King USA Network TV One CNN Extras crime drama best Polls and Games new zealand deadpool Peacock anthology Disney Plus 24 frames cats tv talk Martial Arts Emmy Nominations DC Universe Instagram Live obituary Columbia Pictures Black Mirror Apple TCM diversity comic books VH1 scary rt labs TLC Countdown 94th Oscars breaking bad Crunchyroll Musicals thriller space live action History PlayStation YouTube Red mutant Photos leaderboard remakes latino YouTube Premium green book GLAAD broadcast marvel cinematic universe festival CMT razzies police drama game of thrones Shondaland Lionsgate Freeform slasher President ratings boxoffice spain Women's History Month 2020 Holidays 2018 BBC One Chernobyl south america Superheroe universal monsters children's TV Rocky BAFTA Neflix Pixar Amazon Prime Calendar political drama Amazon Comedy Amazon Prime Video Marvel Studios Super Bowl Sneak Peek IFC Films OneApp MGM mission: impossible American Society of Cinematographers IFC Pop TV rotten Black History Month Best and Worst Britbox strong female leads Teen slashers know your critic Christmas football kaiju Schedule Classic Film mockumentary Horror 73rd Emmy Awards 79th Golden Globes Awards ViacomCBS Anna Paquin El Rey First Look book unscripted Grammys adenture APB sopranos Watching Series new york emmy awards Universal Pictures BET nature Disney streaming service scorecard NBA Mindy Kaling 21st Century Fox mob sitcom saw Opinion Academy Awards worst Binge Guide blaxploitation Tags: Comedy zombies screen actors guild Sundance 71st Emmy Awards ABC Signature child's play a nightmare on elm street spanish cancelled TV series Mystery women true crime DC streaming service directors Television Critics Association Superheroes Paramount Plus sequel Star Wars 93rd Oscars Winners cults Syfy book adaptation NBC indiana jones RT History dexter Hear Us Out Best Picture Disney Channel aapi Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Elton John FX Dark Horse Comics television CW Seed japan art house war kids Paramount Pictures AMC Plus period drama CBS All Access name the review fast and furious Cannes summer TV PBS TV movies golden globe awards Paramount Network Adult Swim stand-up comedy SDCC VOD 72 Emmy Awards OWN live event spy thriller Film Reality RT21 animated what to watch spinoff toy story dramedy comics golden globes TV Land The CW superman marvel comics indie Captain marvel USA trailers Western singing competition BBC America documentaries trophy Cosplay french Esquire ID dragons doctor who based on movie Tokyo Olympics twilight First Reviews Set visit 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards heist movie Box Office Lifetime Christmas movies monster movies Song of Ice and Fire cancelled television stop motion Pride Month franchise GoT Arrowverse Musical Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt IMDb TV The Purge 45 Comedy Central Brie Larson pirates of the caribbean robots ABC Family Warner Bros. Netflix justice league cars romantic comedy transformers SXSW E3 king arthur popular stoner facebook FOX mcc hispanic Avengers TV renewals all-time olympics elevated horror Mary Tyler Moore medical drama dceu politics comic Bravo renewed TV shows quibi nfl The Arrangement fresh blockbuster Winter TV HBO Go black comedy discovery Biopics TCA Winter 2020 japanese WarnerMedia feel good rom-coms critics The Witch Alien foreign HBO Max Certified Fresh Premiere Dates video on demand Universal HBO zero dark thirty serial killer Ovation halloween tv ESPN action-comedy Valentine's Day Ghostbusters spider-man biopic Writers Guild of America New York Comic Con Toys laika MSNBC Pirates dc 2016 Trivia 2021 reboot dreamworks canceled TV shows psycho godzilla historical drama target Baby Yoda Apple TV Plus natural history prank halloween FX on Hulu Music vs. Hallmark Christmas movies sequels Quiz series superhero 2017 witnail hispanic heritage month BBC spanish language king kong Sundance TV summer TV preview Food Network South by Southwest Film Festival wonder woman Podcast nbcuniversal Year in Review TNT richard e. Grant Lucasfilm cooking critic resources MCU satire theme song CBS concert Apple TV+ Marvel Television Showtime Hallmark Tarantino Walt Disney Pictures video movie National Geographic disaster TBS legend Prime Video worst movies interviews Comic Book Mudbound TCA 2017 Infographic TV international cartoon docuseries Epix Red Carpet crime supernatural dogs Star Trek talk show Best Actress dark Summer composers Nominations Turner Classic Movies LGBT Nickelodeon Thanksgiving anime Fox Searchlight Masterpiece hidden camera harry potter The Walt Disney Company Animation hist The Academy Spike ITV festivals LGBTQ obi wan See It Skip It YA SundanceTV Hollywood Foreign Press Association Election 99% independent werewolf Discovery Channel Drama aliens venice crime thriller cancelled TV shows Comic-Con@Home 2021 X-Men zombie Image Comics high school jamie lee curtis Best Director Mary poppins royal family toronto DirecTV free movies