Margaret Atwood's 'Alias Grace' Is Completely Different From 'Handmaid's Tale' In A Great Way
After decades of publishing iconic novels, Margaret Atwood is certainly having a moment in 2017. After the critical and award-winning success of The Handmaid's Tale, another adaptation of the Canadian writer's work is set to shake up the world once more: Netflix's new series Alias Grace, following the historical fiction novel first published in 1996 about the notorious and controversial 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) that Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) was convicted of, despite her claims of innocence.
But fans of Hulu's adaptation of Handmaid's Tale may find themselves thrown for a loop when beginning a binge of Alias Grace, because the two TV series couldn't be more different from each other.
"Alias Grace is about where we've come from, and now we are in the present and our future could go different ways," director Mary Harron tells Bustle on a late summer afternoon sitting on a couch in a Four Seasons room in Beverly Hills. "One of the ways it could go, the most darkest, is Handmaid's Tale. They relate in a sense of past, present, future."
But unlike Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace is based on a true story and "Margaret Atwood's vast research."
"We want to emphasize the reality of it. This is a story that happened," Harron says. "These people are real and we're taking you back into the past, so it's not as stylized as Handmaid's Tale, which was more dystopian about the future."
Paquin, sitting next to Harron on the couch, quickly jumps in to add that the two series are "such completely different stories and completely different worlds that we're inhabiting."
"What's amazing is they both came from the same mind but other than that, they really don't have anything particularly in common," Paquin says. "Women's issues and themes, yes, but it's two different creatures entirely."
Series star Gadon, a self-described Atwood fan, believes that that's because the author's can be clearly defined as two separate genres. "There's the more sci-fi dystopian worlds she creates but then there's also the more historical fiction novels she writes that is really an exploration of female subjectivity," she says. "It's really a different style. If Handmaid's Tale is a look forward at where we could possibly go in terms of gender politics, then Alias Grace is definitely a look back at where we've come from in terms of gender politics. Right now we exist in this space between the two."
Because Alias Grace shot before Handmaid's Tale ever debuted online, Harron explains that their production was not influenced by the other series at all, which she believes is a good thing. "We were operating completely on our own," she says.
And the success of Handmaid's Tale didn't make Gadon nervous as she helped bring to life another piece of Atwood's work. In fact, quite the opposite happened.
"It was exciting to see it be received so well and for this resurgence of Margaret's literature in pop culture," Gadon says. "I'm Canadian and I grew up reading Margaret Atwood so to see it recognized and acknowledged in this global way is amazing."
However, when it came time to begin doing press for Alias Grace, Gadon did become nervous. "I thought I would sit down with journalists and they would say, 'We've had our female driven story of the year,'" she says. "But it actually has been the antithesis of that. People are excited and hungry for more and that fills me with so much hope and optimism about the industry and audiences and what they want to see. Now it's like, what's next? That's encouraging."
Despite Atwood creating these worlds and stories decades ago, there's a surprising feeling of relevance in her work now. "Margaret's writing strikes a chord with people because she has this amazing ability to get inside someone's head," Gadon says. "And you feel that her stories are uniquely personal in that way."
Paquin agrees, adding, "It's amazing that Margaret Atwood is having such a moment in not just being intellectually and literarily spectacularly gifted but having it enter pop culture in this way. The stories she tells are important." Harron firmly believes that Atwood has broken through to a bigger audience now for "good reason."
"She's hit the zeitgeist," she says. That's why Atwood's involvement with Netflix's Alias Grace was so welcome, and why fans of her book will be satisfied with this adaptation. Gadon reveals that the author was so closely involved with the series and "having her stamp of approval was so important to everyone involved in the project," and Harron promises that the miniseries is extremely faithful to the original book.
"In fact, it's one of the most faithful adaptations that I have ever encountered," she says. "[Writer and producer] Sarah Polley worked very closely with Margaret Atwood and it mattered very much to her that it would be true to the novel. We were very reliant on a lot of her research to capture that repressive 19th century society."
And in the current #believewomen trend, Gadon loves how Alias Grace puts women's issues and themes front and center.
"Sometimes when you're listening to the cycle of news that is going on right now, you can get overwhelmed with this sense of hopelessness about where we're at as women, especially women in this industry," Gadon says. "Grace had endless hardships that she was subjected to as a woman, but then this notion that none of it ever really broke her and she survived it all is something that I think about a lot, all the time."
When Gadon reads the news or hears another story that fills her with a sense of hopelessness, "that idea of never giving up and charging forward and surviving it" like Grace is what gets her through. "I hope that people take that away from watching the show," she says.
Whether you believe Grace's story of innocence or not, at least her unwavering spirit can be an inspiration.