Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace 
by Margaret Atwood
TV Adaptation by Sarah Polley and Mary Harron
CBC/Netflix, 2017

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The year is 1859. A young American psychiatrist named Simon Jordan arrives in Toronto, where he meets with a lawyer by the name of Kenneth MacKenzie. Dr. Jordan has been spending many hours with Grace Marks, a convicted murderess in the Kingston Penitentiary, and MacKenzie was the lawyer who successfully saved Grace from the death penalty fifteen years ago. A haggard Dr. Jordan opens up to MacKenzie:

I must admit I’ve been baffled. What she says has the ring of truth. Her manner is sincere, yet I can’t shake the suspicion that in some way I cannot put my finger on, she is lying to me.

An amused MacKenzie responds:

Lying? A severe term, surely? Has she been lying to you, you ask…put it this way: Did Scheherazade lie? Not in her own eyes. Indeed, the stories that she told ought never to be subjected to the harsh categories of truth or falsehood.    

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The scene comes from the recent CBC/Netflix miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s award-winning 1996 novel Alias Grace. Based on true events, the story begins with Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft) offering to examine Grace (Sarah Gadon), a housemaid who has been in prison ever since she was convicted of killing her employer and his housekeeper. Grace claims she has no memory of several key hours on the day of the murders, and Dr. Jordan is determined to help recover those lost hours. To contextualize the murders, and to earn Grace’s trust, he sits with her every day and listens as she relates her life story – slowly, methodically, with a wealth of character and detail.

This TV adaptation, written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, is quite faithful to Atwood’s novel, paraphrasing or directly lifting the majority of Grace’s lines from the original text, and making only minor plot changes for the sake of condensation. Considering that Polley had been adapting the novel since 2012, 2017 turned out to be a fortuitous time to release the series, following a surge in sales of Atwood’s more famous book The Handmaid’s Tale and the success of that novel’s own TV adaptation. Given Alias Grace’s themes, it was also significant that it aired just after the emergence of #MeToo, a movement that has highlighted the widespread sexual abuse and harassment faced by women.      

But the series is strong enough to stand on its own merits, no matter its release date. Gadon gives a spellbinding performance as Grace, spinning her tale in a silvery, lilting voice that makes even the book’s clunkier lines seem poetic. Holcroft matches her talent, playing Dr. Jordan as an earnest, cerebral man whose baritone confidence is undermined by moments of slight awkwardness. The novel features lengthy monologues from Grace that often pass without descriptions of Dr. Jordan’s reactions. The show provides us with more of their interactions, frequently returning to the doctor’s face as he drinks in Grace’s narrative. In a particularly gorgeous scene, Grace describes her fancies during laundry days:

There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in a wash all clean and blowin’ in the wind. The sound is like the hands of the heavenly hosts applaudin’, though heard from far away. And they do say that cleanliness is next to godliness. And sometimes when I have seen the pure white clouds billowing in the sky after a rain, I used to think it was as if the angels themselves were hangin’ out their washin’. For I reasoned that someone must do it, as everything in heaven must be very clean and fresh.    

As Grace delivers these lines, we watch a flashback scene of her folding laundry outside on a cloudy day. Birds, crickets, and a gentle wind accompany her words, and then the camera returns to a close-up of Dr. Jordan, a deeply tender look on his face.

These real moments of intimacy are interspersed with Dr. Jordan’s fantasies of Grace, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine which is which. Questions about sleepwalking, insanity, amnesia, hauntings, and hypnotism arise over the course of the show, and through it all Grace muddies an already thematically muddy production by providing contradictory evidence of her nature. In some ways she’s an upright woman, but in her youth she was friends with a girl who spoke bluntly about all manner of improper topics. By repeating her friend’s words, Grace has the opportunity to appear both bawdy and prudish, depending on what suits her in the moment. At times she portrays herself as ruthless, but at other times her anecdotes cast her as fragile and sensitive. The maddening thing for Dr. Jordan is that it’s entirely possible for one woman to possess all these qualities, but the nuance he’s presented with makes it impossible for him to decide if Grace could have committed a cold-blooded murder.

Harron’s direction is especially effective at creating subtle associations. Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper Grace was accused of murdering, was strangled in the cellar of their employer’s home. When Grace talks about the cellar for the first time, we get a quick close-up of her hands as she sews, the needle flashing in and out of the fabric while she remarks that “the cellar stairs were too steep for comfort.” Through previous scenes, the audience knows that Nancy was thrown down those stairs just before she died. The image of the needle in Grace’s rough but delicate hands inspires an uneasy flicker of danger, a reminder that basic household items proved deadly on the day of the murders – and that Grace is crafting her story with the same precision as the garment in her hands. Dead chickens appear in several mundane scenes where people are preparing meals, and their sickly, bloody fleshiness is later echoed by shots of human bodies suffering similar treatment.  

These visual cues also resonate with the overall tone of Grace’s life, which has been littered with deceptively precarious moments. Such moments almost always arise from her interactions with men; every exchange with a man, no matter how innocuous, carries a foreboding undertone of sexual objectification. After learning about the abundance of abuse in Grace’s past, the audience understands the look of wonder on her face when she exclaims that no one has ever believed her, and Dr. Jordan firmly responds, “I will believe you.” He tells her that he’s not concerned with her guilt or innocence, only with her mental state.

Of course, this isn’t entirely true – he does care whether or not she committed the murders. And here is where both the novel and the TV adaptation of Alias Grace strand their audiences: We’re informed that Grace has lied about some aspects of her story, but we don’t have much to grasp onto when it comes to identifying possible lies. Alias Grace doesn’t function as a crime drama, where a clue or two help unravel the plot’s driving deceptions. This means that we can only theorize in generalities, never specifics, and such fruitless speculation quickly gets tiresome. On the one hand, this is entirely the point: Alias Grace is a story about the ambiguity of storytelling itself. It’s meant to demonstrate the seductive power of a first-person narrator, and the power of listening to the voices of those who have been previously silenced. But on the other hand, both the book and the TV show are more than just philosophical mind games asking readers old questions about truth and lies, fact and fiction. The two murdered people become vivid, complex characters over the course of the drama, and it does matter if Grace killed them. It would affect the way viewers interpreted her story. A Schrödinger’s cat situation only works hypothetically – after spending hours with the specific cat in question, it would in fact matter if it ended up alive or dead.       

Still, it's an entertaining yarn, even if it ends up feeling hopelessly snarled. And its purposeful ambiguity is only heightened through the medium of television. As the actors gesture and soliloquize, viewers become convinced by the performances they’re witnessing. Do you see those tears welling in her eyes? She can’t be lying in that moment – look how real that emotion is. Add to this the fact that the miniseries is decidedly more energetic than the novel, and you can understand why I’m going to commit the minor blasphemy of advising readers that if they intend to choose between the novel and the TV show, they should opt for the show.     

 Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer and EFL teacher working in New York.